May 13, 2014

The Big Design Questions | Should technology for global development always be the cheapest solution?

Welcome to The Big Design Questions, a weekly series that tests and challenges the design principles for creating appropriate technology outlined in our Introduction to Engineering for Global Development.

Khanjan Mehta, a contributing editor at E4C and head of the Humanitarian Engineering and Social Entrepreneurship (HESE) program at Penn State, and his students first posed this week’s question in a paper published in the IEEE Technology and Society Magazine. Khanjan offers his thoughts below and we’d like to put the question to the entire community if you would please share your comments at the end.

Technologies mentioned here and many more besides are available for review and comparison in our Solutions Library.

Should technology for global development always be the cheapest solution?

Appropriate technologies often cost as little as possible, but the least expensive solution is not always the most desirable in resource-constrained communities. Technology design must take certain expenses into account. Those can include costs to help the technology meet emotional and societal needs of the people who use it.

For example, basic designs for greenhouses in developing countries are often based on efficient function alone, above all other factors. But consumers do not always rate the function as the highest priority.

We have started greenhouse ventures in Kenya and Cameroon that manufacture and install affordable greenhouses for local small-plot farmers and agricultural businesses. While developing low-cost substitutes for greenhouse glazing (the plastic covering over the frame), we discovered that several farmers preferred taking larger loans to buy glazing that looked “pretty” rather than a glazing made from used rice bags that was equally functional, but not as good looking. This superficial distinction is important to some customers even though it has nothing to do with how the technology functions. That kind of thing, however superficial it might seem from an outsider’s point of view, must be respected by the people who develop the technology.

Along the same lines, some customers prefer brand names to generics, even though there may be no difference in quality. Poor people expect good-quality products and are often willing to pay more for aspirational devices that boost their social status. One way to think about it is that people don’t want to buy products made for poor people. That’s a lesson that the marketers of appropriate technologies at Essmart have learned.

So, cheapest is not always best. Or is it? Your comments are welcome.

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