Human Centered Design Toward Social Inequality

10 weeks have passed by in Louisiana. The people here, the work environment, and the memories made will never be forgotten. I should write a reflection on my experience! But I’m here to discuss an issue more pressing on my mind.

Social Inequality.

This past year, everything that I do from academics to research, I have had this one issue on my mind and that is social inequality. It is mighty cool and all that I attend college, have a supporting family, and have all my needs met. If I want a new phone case, I go on Amazon. If I need a new mug, I can go to Walmart. If I need to get somewhere, I can drive a car. All my needs are easily satisfied. And that is exactly what makes me uneasy.

In most of the world, people don’t have their needs met. In fact, out of 7.1 billion people on this world, almost half the world live on less than $2.50 a day. And 80% live on less than $10 a day. I mean, yes, these are crazy statistics. But how can I sit so idly here while most of the world is suffering from diseases, sanitation, health, poverty, and poor living conditions. I simply can’t. After all, why are we here on this Earth anyways? Aren’t we all humans? What is our purpose of our short time on this Earth?

And through this past year, I browsed through a curated feed on Twitter and been reading many articles and I’ve uncovered human centered design. Products that are designed from the particular end consumer’s perspective. A product that will actually be used. I talked about this briefly a couple posts ago with the whole IDEO organization. But that was a rather large organization. Recently, I discovered small design firms solely focused on this issue of human centered design. Firms like Catapult Design and Proximity Designs.

But what do I mean by products that will actually be used? There are many examples that I will describe from Catapult Design’s cofounder Tyler Valiquette talk at the Ecology Center. Imagine we start donating bikes to people in need of transportation in lets say Africa. Great. Kids and adults alike start using these bikes to get around. But three months later, these bikes start having problems and some inevitably break down. How will these natives fix these bikes? They don’t have the parts, nor the specialized tools that people in the States easily have access to. These bikes thereby becomes useless and thrown to the side. Another example I want describe is a cultural issue. Often times, we design this product for the poor; such as this great cooking pot that is both cheap and good at what it does. But if you were to bring this to Guatemala, nobody would use it! Why?! Well, in Guatemala, the natives love to make tortillas which are made on this flat stoves instead of in a pot. If they can’t make what they love to eat, nobody would use the pot. Same thing in other parts of the world. Another country loves to make cassava porridge, which is a staple. And they have these large pots usually to stir this porridge in. However the pots designed and distributed tip over when being stirred!

And lastly, irrigation pumps. This organization called Kickstart developed this amazing irrigation pump called the MoneyMaker Pump. How it works is that you connect this pump via a tube to a local water source, allowing you irrigate your field. This increases crop yields year round thus the MoneyMaker name. And so they started distributing this pump to this one area in I believe Africa. It worked like a dream, except for one problem. After a while, women didn’t want to use them. In turns out that when you step on these foot operated pumps, one had to raise their leg far up, making the women feel uncomfortable whenever they had to operate the pump. And showing that much skin borders on immoral in these communities. And so Kickstart had to redesign the pump and came out with a second model that quickly rose to success.

But I really want to go back to the crazy statistic we talked about earlier. The one where almost half the world live on less than $2.50 a day. This is hardly enough money to survive. Can YOU imagine living on less than $2 a day? The thing is that in the United States, we have many of our needs met by these companies such as Apple, Google, or Toyota. These companies make sure they satisfy our needs, whatever need or desire it is, by creating products which we purchase. But who is designing products for the rest of the world? The majority of the world? For those living on less than $2 a day?

It almost seems absurd. In third world countries, people use kerosene to light their houses at night. And these kerosene lamps which are made with soda cans and a wick last for a few days. But the kerosene is expensive and the fumes, if inhaled, cause respiratory problems. What can they do? These people need it to live. They need light. And so people spend a quarter of their income simply paying for these kerosene lamps. A quarter of their income.. Can you imagine spending a quarter of your income just to charge your smartphone? It is absolutely ridiculous.

Perhaps, one part of the issue is that poor people don’t have money. But that is simply not the case nor should it be the prohibiting factor. If you go to places like India, a surprising amount of people have mobile phones. The thing is, people in these places do have money, just very little money. There is a market and it is possible.

Back to square one, I feel uneasy living in the Silicon Valley, attending a private college in Oregon, and living a life where my needs can be easily met. I can’t quite describe my uneasiness as anger, frustration, or confusion.

These next few months, I have lined up a few social inequality books to immerse myself in this world. I have so much to learn and only just been introduced in all of this. The books I bought are called: Small is Beautiful by E. F. Schumacher and Mastering the Machine Revisited: Poverty, Aid and Technology by Ian Smillie.