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Do Designers Actually Exploit The Poor While Trying To Do Good? Jan Chipchase Responds

Chipchase answers tough questions posed by critics—and tough questions he poses to himself.

Recently, at the PopTech Conference in Camden, Maine, Jan Chipchase, Frog’s all-star field researcher, was giving a presentation on his travels in search of novel design solutions when a person in the audience lobbed a pointed question: "What is your motivation? Why do you do this?" When Chipchase began to respond, the audience member interrupted and asked again, "No, what is your motivation?" The follow-up hanging in the air was, "How do you sleep at night?"

As the back and forth continued, the hostility became more palpable. The audience grew quiet and unsettled. Were Chipchase and those doing similar work really helping those in developing countries by creating better products for them? What if, instead, they were simply scraping local communities for big ideas and then riding them to big profits?

Whether you’re a fan of design research in the field—or more sympathetic to that audience member—you can’t gloss over the issue. Who is the best poised to bring innovation to the developing world? Big corporations that are already rich? Or people living in the countries themselves? Do big corporations bring better standards of living, or simply sugared water and useless doodads?

[A product in the making? One of Chipchase’s field shots of mobile money in use in India at a chai cart.]
Chipchase didn’t respond directly to the question at the time, but later he sat down with Co.Design and addressed the topic more specifically: "It doesn’t take much effort to find something about globalization to be incensed about: Starbucks squeezing out your neighborhood coffee shop from the prime location; riots in Indonesia triggered by a stock market crash in Wall Street impacting oil subsidies. Coke logos being painted onto remote pristine mountain ranges. Make no mistake: Big companies, governments, organizations, agencies need watching, need to be held to account, and in many markets hold a disproportionate amount of power." But Chipchase has thought long and hard about these issues, and has a sophisticated view informed by millions of miles traveled. He believes that if those in the West aren’t working with the emerging markets they’re developing for, the products suffer and people lose out. If we don’t design for these markets, then the alternative for them is usually no design at all—and that means no designs solving their specific problems, and no economic might to prove their standing in the wider economy.

Bruce Nussbaum sparked a similar conversation on Co.Design a year ago, with his provocative essay, "Is Humanitarian Design the New Imperialism?" arguing that the still relatively young field of humanitarian design lacks in rigor and established methodology, making our efforts look a lot like the imperialism it purports to fight against. But that debate has only grown more relevant: New graduate programs are popping up, aiming to marry design and social good; the line between consumers and constituents is growing more blurry.

Design for social-good usually falls squarely in the purview of nonprofits. But many have become disillusioned with that model, after countless feel-good startups have petered out. Instead, some of the best are seeking to integrate as much market thinking into their process as possible.

In 2001, Tim Prestero quit his PhD program at MIT, and founded Design That Matters, a nonprofit that started as a class project. The ultimate objective of this almost all-volunteer organization is to aid the poor through product development. As an institution, it is specifically founded on nonprofit ideals, or as Prestero puts it, "I like the [nonprofit status] because it’s a kind of discipline. I like the fact that, like Odysseus, we can chain ourselves to the mast. Google’s commitment to don’t be evil isn’t enforced by any outside body. Our commitment to don’t be evil is actually written in law."

But, he continues, "If we look at China, their industrialization has brought nearly 700 million people from abject poverty to something resembling a global middle class, which required the consumption of dirty coal, damaging the environment, and all that kinds of stuff. And yet, these are people who, 20 years ago, were succumbing to treatable illness, dirty water, all those kinds of things. So is that a net positive? In some ways, Chinese industrialization has helped more people than any human rights, liberal, handwringing attempt. To say somehow that it is bad to have capitalism as an intent is wrong. But I’m also a little put off by the reactionary. Now the enthusiasm is that capitalism is the cure for all evil, or all that ails us, like if you’re a social entrepreneur, to run a nonprofit is foolishness; it’s inefficient and it’s not sustainable, and unless people are paying for your stuff, you know, you’re never going to know if it really has value."
[Chipchase observes a toothbrush in India and grain processing in Nigeria.]

Clearly, design for social good should almost always have a quantifiable impact. But bringing a product to market is often simply beyond nonprofits. So is Chipchase simply pillaging intellectual property from around the world for corporate gain, as the question from the audience suggested, or is he helping to serve populations that otherwise wouldn’t be reached?

"The assumption is that targeting those [emerging] markets is inherently bad. But the poor can least afford poor products," says Chipchase. "Yes, we have to meet our corporate clients’ needs, but also, ultimately the products developed have to meet the needs of who we’re serving. The goal of design research is to spend time with people. The alternative is not spending time with them." Chipchase argues that critics of this process are themselves making a terrible assumption about the poor: That they’re simply victims, or, worse yet, that they’re dumb and can’t think for themselves—that they can’t decide what’s valuable to them, and vote with their dollars. Moreover, as the many failures of aid in Africa and elsewhere have shown, humanitarian charity isn’t a sustainable model—the effects can be few, and the money pit bottomless. By contrast, it’s possible that products made via for-profit enterprises are more equitable than simply charitable.

Consider what’s happening at Design That Matters. The organization is putting its latest product, the Firefly, a device to cure jaundice in newborn babies, into clinical trial. Barring any catastrophes, it will then go to a pilot program in Vietnam this coming April. After the pilot program, there are two possible pathways this product will take to reach its market. The first, and more traditional, is that the Firefly will be made by a local Vietnamese manufacturer, Medical Technology Transfer and Services, and then distributed by the East Meets West Foundation, a nonprofit.

You might call the second possible pathway a quasi-capitalist model. And it might offer vastly larger scale: the East Meets West Foundation could instead sign a partnership with a major multi-national that currently cranks out an incubator every 30 minutes. That company would then produce and distribute the Firefly through their for-profit emerging markets medical arm. Why would they care? After all, as Prestero says, "their next 400 million customers aren’t coming from the United States, they’re coming from emerging markets."

The development of the Firefly, which looks like a simple incubator, actually took 10 years to perfect. It’s no surprise that the model for getting it out into the world will require just as much care and boldness.

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  • Antara

    Great article. These are questions we also grappled with at ColaLife during the development of our Kit Yamoyo anti-diarrhoea kit ( For us, one of the key take-aways with reference to who is best poised to bring innovation to the developing world has been the need for multi-sectoral partnerships, including the poor themselves.

    We worked closely with mothers in rural areas to understand their challenges with regard to effective treatment of diarrhoea in children. We ensured we had the right expertise at the table - mothers and children themselves, rural private retailers, the Ministry of Health, pharmaceutical regulatory authority, public health and evaluation, design, project management, local NGOs, wholesalers, social media, etc. etc. - the vast majority being local partners.  We then worked through existing local systems and networks to bring the Kit to market in our attempt to improve access to the essential medicines needed to treat diarrhoea for the rural poor. Measuring the impact of our model has been central from day one, and so evaluation of the process and the impact has been built into the fabric of our program and product design. We believe these are some of the essential steps that have recently led to us being recognized with the Product Design of the Year Award (by the London Design Museum) and just yesterday, the premier Diamond and the Special 25th Anniversary Food Security award at the DuPont Packaging Innovation Awards ( If interested, you can find out more at

    C.K. Prahalad perhaps put it best when he said: "If we stop thinking of the poor as victims or as a burden and start recognizing them as resilient entrepreneurs and value-conscious consumers, a whole new world of opportunity will open up. Four billion poor can be the engine of the next round of global trade and prosperity."

    What's needed is a better approach to help "the poor", an approach that involves partnering with them to innovate and achieve sustainable win-win solutions where they themselves are actively engaged. This "co-creation" to the solution of poverty and other social challenges can only be unlocked if we work together across disciplines and ensure we have the right expertise at the table at the right time.

  • Eric

    I don't understand what the problem is here. This is like saying that engineers who make the brain scanners profit off of people who have brain damage. Well...yeah...the biomedical company is making money. The engineer assess the scope of what the scanner has to do, and builds it within cost and schedule. The same thing applies here...some engineers are building devices for under privileged communities. They assess the needs, they build a product that people can afford, and if people want it, they buy it. And some other people make money....but it takes money to build and manufacturer complicated systems. And the more you make, the less the cost. What is the problem here?

  • Charles J Gervasi

    I'm still unclear what humanitarian design is.  It sounds like it any disruptive product development.  You're looking for a way to provide a product / service to an under-served market that previously couldn't get it because the existing approach is too expensive, requires technical knowledge, is inconvenient, etc.  Based on this article, I don't see what's amazingly good or evil about doing this just because the under-served market in question in the developing world. 

    IMHO all businesses that "disrupt" the market and find ways to provide to previously under-served markets are doing a good thing.

  • Tamrikehr197

    This article is wonderfully insightful, but the comments are
    horribly disappointing. I admire Jan Chipchase for clearly stating the
    rationale behind his work. This article delves into one of the most deeply
    held, yet grossly erroneous, assumptions that we have about “the poor” and
    “people in third world countries”…that they helpless victims who would be
    doomed to an eternity of subsistence, and we should all feel guilty about not
    giving them free handouts. This ignorant meme is repeated over and over again by
    charities and church organizations, all the while ignoring some of the most
    basic principles of human nature: namely, people who are given things for free
    often never learn to appreciate those things. People who buy things,
    on the other hand, are empowered because they themselves can decide. They understand the fundamental bargain between
    money and goods. The world doesn’t survive off of charity; and constant charity
    locks people into a cycle of poverty. Is this “nice”? No. But this is how human
    beings fundamentally behave.

    It is the fundamental difference between charity and equality. Charity is deeply
    paternalistic and ultimately devoid of purpose, other than making the donor
    feel all warm and fuzzy inside. The pursuit of equity is a much better goal, and of the two models it is
    the only one that works.


    The comments on this article are pathetic, these people
    aren’t even reading the article, they’re
    just jumping onto the “capitalism is wrong” bandwagon. Did you not read the
    part about humanitarian charity not being a sustainable model? This isn’t
    rocket science; companies that give everything away for free eventually go
    broke. Duh! 

  • Cliff

    Here I thought this article was going to be about exploiting "designs for the poor" for one's own warm fuzzy PR, while never taking steps to actually bring the new device to responsible production. This is a complete waste of the well-intentioned money of donors (even if it's to a "definitely not evil" 501(c)3).
    That's by far the most common "exploitation" situation I've seen in this arena... 

  • Michael Dennery

    I wouldn't say that the poor are "dumb", but rather uneducated. Chipchase is just looking out for number 1 and I don't blame him. He knows inside that hes really only helping the rich get richer and he is merely hoodwinking the poor.

    "Wow, this smartphone really distracts me from the depressing reality."

  • Ana Marie Radosta

    Industrial Design is bad because it is Industrial...however design can be so helpful for everyone if it's done in a regional matter, developing local markets and responding to specific problems in a society. Corporations and big firms should be accountable for all the cheap bad products they put on the market and go to the dumps within two years. We should all work for earths benefit.

  • Hoby Van Hoose

    This article is surprisingly shallow. The rich have always emerged and sustained their status by creating and leveraging poverty.

    Rationalizing that some good comes from exploitation is the same flawed thinking that leads people to look on the bright side of any situation: famine reduces consumption, genocide lessens over-population, etc. This is not what designers in any region should be believing.

  • Arushi Aggarwal

    I really like the aspects regarding social design that you've touched upon here.

    I am personally of the opinion that the emerging markets don't really need all that many things to be designed for them by the west.

    Just as  said: So what? Do emerging markets really need what designers THINK they need?
    I see it has become a matter of creating a need for something rather than addressing an already present need of the people.

  • Guest

    What absolutely drives me up the wall is how some people over-think EVERYTHING.  This is one of the biggest problems today.  And it has led to massive bureaucratization of just about every nation bigger than a postage stamp, and even some of them.  There is something wrong with people who are like that, no matter how brilliant they may be in any other regard.  KEEP IT SIMPLE, STUPID.  Words to live by.

  • Howard Freeman

    I work in the field of philanthropy and generosity, so I respect and am sensitive to exploitation and sharing.  That said, George
    Bernard Shaw once noted, "If you have an apple and
    I have an apple and we exchange apples then you and I will still each have one
    apple. But if you have an idea and I have an idea and we exchange these ideas,
    then each of us will have two ideas."  There's a difference between having an idea (which no one really "has" anyway) and having the vision and wherewithal to execute on it.

  • Naeema

      Your article has thinking about the current placemaking and urban development initiatives that are taking place in my local community of Orange, NJ. Ravaged by the race riots and white flight  the city is slowly rebuilding itself. Unfortunately, it has become an experimental lab for education non-profits trying to "help poor kids get a better education", affordable housing projects and gentrification. I do not have any design expertise but I think there is a misguided desire to help the poor.  I maybe be over analyzing but at the last city council meeting I went a transportation hub plan was presented and no community discussion with the developer was allowed. 
    So how would a concerned resident start a conversation about this underlying issue in a political environment that is not welcome to unsolicited feedback?

  • Studio

    I think the notion of us and them has peaked long time ago, the same for the idea of designing "for" instead of "with". To me this is the root of the problem as it continues to perpetuate the gap between the "developed" and the "undeveloped" world. Having worked in projects of design for social impact, there is so much complexity when it comes to creating long term sustainable solutions that benefit every part of the supply chain. This involves years of piloting, testing and iterating. 

  • Lars Hasselblad Torr

    The question of, "what is your motivation" is essential and too often skated over. Principled action demands that we - engineers, designers, entrepreneurs - be up front about this. I'm glad that someone at Pop!Tech had the courage to ask the question, and that influencers like Chipchase and Prestero have the courage to talk about it.

    What seems to be missing however is an answer to the age-old "so what" question. Here in the west we talk about better product design with a certain declasse scorn - do we really need a better melon baller, a cuddlier child's plush toy - or a tablet that delivers games in high resolution holography? Probably not at the consumer level.

    But corporations require this kind of innovation to survive. And only a marketplace driven by the survival mandate of innovation will produce the kinds of life-improving technologies that deliver insulin more effectively, deliver empowering tools for the visually impaired - or turn a cell phone into a sophisticated diagnostic tool.

    Innovation is a conversation. To get the good bits, we need a lot of it.

  • Shoham Arad


    your point speaks to exactly what I'm arguing we need to talk about: I agree
    with and understand the outrage that the term “poor” creates, as I do with any
    categories of classification – women, western, developing, third world- all
    steeped in the vernacular of colonialism and with the instant ability to
    classify and at once marginalize and hence dismiss. What's the right
    vocabulary? Should we not talk about these issues because we don’t know how, or
    because they make us a little bit uncomfortable?

    Personally, I have a hard time aligning my sustainable aspirations with myself
    as a consumer (Is it somehow okay to shop at Target, but not Walmart, buy a
    laptop and new phone, but only buy organic at the farmers market, etc), so
    I'm not surprised that the line between for- and non- profit organizations,
    between mission based and market bound, is equally as blurry.

    After all, aren't we past the debate of whether or not we should be making,
    designing and manufacturing products for “emerging markets”? I would argue that
    we are not in a position to draw a line and say, our consumption has gone too
    far, we are sophisticated consumers and can continue to gobble, but you can’t,
    you have rich and fulfilling lives without all this “stuff.”  We have
    already created the demands and the wants and the markets; the needs and the
    problems are there as well.

    Many designers, as smart, educated, creative people, are interested in
    designing “for good.” But I think the issue that we as a design community have
    to address, is what is good, how is good, and what can we learn from what we’ve
    done so far? What is the best way to serve communities in need, and WHO should
    do the serving? (All in the context of designing with not for).

    I ask, not because I believe that all poor people are a monochromatic market,
    ripe for pillaging, but because I see colleagues and students going in this
    direction, and I believe that a critical discourse is essential, and often
    times lacking. No one is arguing that there is not great innovation in the
    “developing world,” (least of all Jan Chipchase) but as we, westerners continue to work in this world, and
    if efficacy is the bottom line for non-profit organizations whose entire
    mission statement is to “serve the poor” (quotes), then shouldn’t we look at
    and examine their ability to do so, as well as the abilities (responsibilities?) and the ethical implications of large
    multi-nationals to do the same?

  • Ken

    a device to cure jaundice " that also requires electricity... I suspect up to now they've been using sunlight. Why is this device needed?

  • Stefano

    the fundamental flaw that i see is that WE, as a society (the western world), tend to assume that WE are somehow better, smarter, more intelligent than 'the rest' ("third world"???), and therefore we take it for granted that OUR systems are better, and that WE can go teach, educate, save those poor barbarians.

    if we only were a little more open minded, we would quickly recognize that OUR society is so deeply screwed up that we cannot even take care of our own poor and derelict, that we obsess with growth and consumerism, that we prefer to spend billions in useless, criminal, imperialistic wars, than make a genuine effort into "fixing things".
    OUR capitalistic system is NOT the solution, it is not working for us, it will not work for anyone. there must be better ways, and we should be open to them.
    in our society, design is too often just a tool used to make more stuff that nobody really needs, in order to keep people spending.

    when somebody asked Mr. Gandhi what he thought about western civilization, his answer was "i think it would be a good idea".

    enough said.

  • John Thackara

    I'm sorry, but whenever I see the words "the poor" in an article, I get angry. It's like saying "the elderly" or "the blind": an infinitely varied group of people  is turned, by that one word, into a dehumanised marketing category. 

    The whole article is based on a screamingly insensitive question: "who is best poised to bring innovation to the developing world?". By what right do we even *think* of imposing change on people, in other cultures than our own, of whose lives we know next to nothing?  

    I too have been an admirer of Jan Chipchase's work as a design ethnographer - so I have to assume that he not well-represented in this article. He is quoted as saying that "the poor can least afford poor products". He, of all people, surely understands that there is more innovation in the 'developing' world than in our own wrongly-developed one.

    People in many other cultures often don't need "products" to meet daily life needs at all.They lead rich and meaningful lives without the distraction of costly and resource-gobbling artefacts.