In a Stanford classroom crowded with Post-it notes and duct tape, Dr. Shankar Rai, a plastic surgeon from Nepal, is wearing a hand splint made out of Popsicle sticks and pipe cleaners. He’s giving feedback on a prototype made by graduate students in a class called "Design for Extreme Affordability". Currently, the only splints available in Nepal cost upwards of $50. The students are aiming to do better.
Here in the U.S., we’ve got asthma inhalers at every doctor’s office, baby incubators at every hospital, and irrigation systems at most every farm that needs one. But in some places in the developing world, many of these technologies are just too expensive to use. American design schools are trying to change that by teaming up with NGOs around the world to get truly affordable products to market.
Rai works with the non-profit Resurge International to improve care for burn victims in Nepal. One of his main problems is the cost of supplies for the operating room: If a patient shows up at a government hospital, the surgery may be free, but “dressing materials, sutures, all those things will be bought by the family.”
When families can’t afford those supplies, Rai says burns turn into lifelong disabilities. So Resurge submitted a “wish list” to Stanford’s design school. Included on that list is a splint that could be made for less than $10.
“Small non-profits don’t have the luxury of having their own designers and their own R+D teams,” says Jim Patell, who teaches the design class.
According to Patell, both NGOs and students are trying out ideas others might see as too risky. When publicly-traded companies come up with new products, they have to decide who their next customers will be: affluent consumers in the West, or people living on a few dollars a day in places like rural Nepal.
“They can think about it very deeply,” says Patell, “and find out that, yeah, developing the next product for the Western world is the responsible thing to do for their investors.”
Universities don’t have to answer to investors, and initiatives like Patell’s class have sprouted at schools all over the country.
Amy Smith, who founded the D-Lab at MIT, says student designers sometimes benefit from their lack of expertise: “They may come in with a very new way of doing things, because they’re not concerned that it can’t be done that way, and therefore they find a way to do it.”
Failure is part of the process too. And even though his students “get it right” less than half the time, Patell says, Design for Extreme Affordability counts 32 student projects that have found new life as NGOs or even for-profit companies.