Mass amateurization and the bottom of the pyramid

Hanoi pedicab driver
I love this short article “Vietnamese pedicab driver designs a better vehicle on Core77, especially the quote from the pedicab designer

“Although I am only a driver without diplomas or certifications, I am lucky to have experience on the roads for more than 20 years, which has given me some knowledge about mechanics,” said Tam, who filled info gaps by doing internet research to complete the vehicle. His goal, he said, was to make it “green and clean.”

I’m half way through Clay Shirkey’s “Here Comes Everybody”, an excellent book about how masses are self organizing and engaging in activities that previously were only in the realm of professionals using tools that encourage such activities. He calls it, “mass amateurization”. The example of the Hanoi pedicab driver seemed relevant, as he engaged in the activity of designing a greener bike, made possible through the medium of internet and his considerable experience on the streets. The mass amateurization of product design.

The article also reminded me of a pet peeve I have about the phrase “designing for the bottom of the pyramid”. This phrase gets mentioned seems to be all the rage but has a very annoyingly paternalistic feel to it. As someone originally from a third world country, I can’t help but feel that it’s a new effort to tap previously virgin markets and sell them new products (which they helped design in the first place). After all, isn’t that what the term “emerging markets” describes? A new place to sell more stuff ?

Instead, how about “design by the bottom of the pyramid”. I’m far more interested in seeing designers engaging with all manners of people over the world, not just to design for them, but to help them get better at designing for themselves. Bringing this back to Clay Shirkey’s concepts, developing the means of self organization to encourage the rise of design from the masses, as opposed to designing for the masses.
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5 responses to “Mass amateurization and the bottom of the pyramid

  1. Good point about design BY the bottom of the pyramid vs. design FOR. I have been working in the social sector for a while, studying bottom of the pyramid approaches and there can be a very paternalistic feel to them. Fortunately, those companies who look at the BoP space as a “we’re going to help the poor people” tend not to be very successful. Those that build real relationships with low-income consumers and producers tend to ‘win’. Hopefully that’s some solace.

    Also, from a design perspective, you might really enjoy reading these IDEO/Rockefeller Foundation reports about Design for Social Impact: https://client.ideo.com/socialimpact/ They are not very paternalistic and tend to be pretty helpful/prescriptive when tackling the ‘design and bottom of the pyramid’ question.

    Final thought: what about design WITH the bottom of the pyramid? Wouldn’t that be a good compromise?

    (PS – I am reading “Here Comes Everybody” as well, glad to see the mass amateurization concept in here)

  2. Great point Rob. Design With The BOP sounds much better and thanks for the link.

    In my experience, as limited as it is, the traditional idea of a designer doesn’t seem to prioritize the concept of sharing and teaching those design values and methods to those we work with.

    I’m curious if you’ve found this to be different in your experience.

  3. It may be as simple as which preposition you choose, but it’s important: for, by, with.

    I have not seen as much design WITH the BoP as I have design FOR the BoP. There is some design BY the BoP (for example, Bunker Roy’s barefoot college and the Appropriate Infrastructure Development Group.)

    Notable on the design WITH the BoP is the Base of the Pyramid Protocol people based out of Cornell University. Whether it’s a practical way of doing business is still up for debate, but it certainly occupies a piece of the moral/ethical high ground. (at least relative to other BoP activity).

    My personal experience is with a venture fund that works with entrepreneurs serving low-income customers. Dignity and respect are at the core of our work…so hopefully that’s close to the ideal situation.

  4. That’s interesting. Another example of Design With the BOP was a Paul Polak’s speech at Institute of Design’s Strategy Conference. He had a very compelling argument that today’s designers don’t focus enough on the needs of the poor but what was more interesting was that in his design work, he was helping the poor build the products they needed, and his company International Development Enterprises provides the expertise and contacts that they need.

    Here’s a quick bio from the StratCon website.

    Paul Polak
    Founder, International Development Enterprises

    Colorado-based non-profit International Development enterprises (IDE) is dedicated to developing practical solutions that attack poverty at its roots. For the past 25 years, Paul has worked with thousands of farmers in countries around the world—including Bangladesh, India, Cambodia, Ethiopia, Myanmar, Nepal, Vietnam, Zambia and Zimbabwe -–to help design and produce low–cost, income–generating products that have already moved 17 million people out of poverty. Before establishing IDE, as a practicing psychiatrist, Paul would visit paitents’ homes and workplaces to better understand the environments influencing them. After a trip he made to Bangladesh, he was inspired to use the skills he had honed while working with homeless veterans and mentally ill patients in Denver to serve the 800 million people living on a dollar a day around the world. Paul’s ability to respond with innovative solutions — such as the $25 treadle pump and small farm drip–irrigation systems starting at $3 — helped IDE increase poor farmers’ net income by $288 million annually. IDE received a $14 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates foundation in 2006, and in 2004, Ernst & Young’s “Entrepreneur of the Year” award in the social responsibility category.

  5. This discussion has been really interesting to follow. I completely agree that we should be careful about using the term Design for the BoP and about thinking about our work in that way. I love Cornell’s concept of co-creation and IDEO’s approach of building empathy is quite similar.

    As both of you mentioned, there are many great examples of organizations that have done a phenomenal job designing with the BoP or facilitating design by the BoP. IDE is a great example, as are Kickstart and PATH. We have alot to learn from a variety of partners – local NGOs, universities, customers, and local designers, among others.

    What our research has taught us is the need for strong partners to do this work with us. And we must go in with open minds, looking for what we can learn.

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