A Response to Cumberbatch by Chun Yi (Judy) Wu

Reverse Innovation—Designing For Less Industrialized Countries

“Why do we need to care about the less industrialized world?” Professor Toby Cumberbatch asked our class. On November 19th, Professor Cumberbatch led a discussion with our class concerning the various challenges we would have to overcome in the future as aspiring engineers, architects, and artists. When I heard his question, my immediate reaction was “why not?” If I have the capabilities and technological knowledge for people to have a better life, why shouldn’t I? It was not a difficult question for me at all. However, as the presentation continued, I realized that my initial reaction was slightly impulsive and arrogant. While I had good intent, I was trapped by the case of “designing for developing countries,” and not “designing in developing countries.” [1]

As Krista Donaldson explains in her article, “Why to be Wary of ‘Design for Developing Countries,” many designs today are designed “for development”—designs that incorporate cutting-edge technology and intended to operate at the best efficiency. However, more often than not, these designs are often not widely accepted by the local people. This is because most of these designs are not, in fact, locally sustainable. For example, if the problem is the shortage of water, it would be erroneous to import overseas workers to install PVC pipes and water pumps with heating and filtration systems. Imagine this situation: what if corrosion occurs in the pipes? What if there is a leak in the system? How will the local people find the technical skills, materials, and money to maintain the pipes? Eventually this water system will be abandoned. A good “design in developing countries design” would be the PITCH_Africa’s water storage projects. For these projects, classrooms are built with rainwater collection and storage spaces. Instead of installing filtration systems into these spaces which would be too complicated and expensive, portable filtration pots are sold to the local people so they can filter the water they need on their own. A good design for a less industrialized country should not revolve around just the product; it should also promote local skills, knowledge, and expertise that enable the local people to meet their own needs in the future.

Another factor that is often neglected is the mentality of giving aid and receiving aid. For example, while we Americans believe that we are giving aid, the local people may see as we are “imposing aid” on them. While we may see the existing systems as sub-par, the local may see the unfamiliar technology as a showcase of superiority and not genuine aid. In fact, the unpleasantness in receiving aid is almost an innate nature of most people. According to interviews [2], after Hurricane Sandy, victims see some volunteer efforts to distribute supplies as condescending and humiliating.

So why should we care about the less industrialized countries? We should care because we are all interrelated in that we are sharing the resources of this world. More importantly, we should care because we can learn much from them. For example, when I first looked at Professor Cumberbatch’s SociaLite lighting kits, I saw a bucket, a milk container, a circuit with a few wires, a battery, and a little board. Yet the combination of these unthinkably common items can create lanterns that can run for as much as 200 hours at low power. [3] A local charging station connected to a car will charge up batteries as needed and during the day, the PV solar board can absorb energy as well. The SociaLite lantern is not the LED fluorescent light sealed in plastic housing that I am accustomed to, but it teaches me that the best design must adhere to the people and their culture.


[1] Donaldson, Krista. “Why to Be Wary of “Design for Developing Countries”” Ambidextrous (2008): 35-37. Print

[2] “Helping Hands Also Expose a New York Divide.” New York Times. N.p., 16 Nov. 2012. Web. 17 Nov. 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/17/nyregion/after-hurricane-sandy-helping-hands-also-expose-a-new-york-divide.html?pagewanted=all

[3] Cumberbatch, Toby. “Lessons from Africa-Sustainable Design and Engineering.” UB-NE ASEE (2009): 4-5. Print

[4]Cumberbatch, Toby. The Cooper Union, 41 Cooper Square, New York, NY. 19 November 2012. Guest Presentation for the course S318: The Cooper Union World Forum.