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Monday, 13 July 2009

Designing for People: Social Inventions


Designing a product is of necessity, a process which requires that a need be met. Naturally, a product must be viable -- economically, socially -- before it makes any sense to spend money on researching it and designing a solution which embodies the invention. But when such products do see the light of day, society is benefitted, mankind is benefitted, the businessman is benefitted, the manufacturer is benefitted, and -- sometimes -- the inventor is benefitted.

Designing for People

Inventions for people, inventions which solve problems faced by society, are inventions which will potentially be celebrated over time. We are surrounded by examples of such great inventions, even to this very day:
  • The lightbulb by Thomas Edison
  • The telephone by Alexander Graham Bell
  • The paper clip by Johan Vaaler (although there is some dispute)

Postpartum Anti-Shock Device

More recently I came across an article, where it was reported that Pathfinder International, a charitable organisation, has invented a suit to treat postpartum shock. From the article at Women's eNews:

In eight states in Nigeria and eight states in India, Pathfinder researchers are not only employing these technologies, but lobbying for their widespread use. They are training medical providers to supervise a woman while she is in the garment and to remove it slowly to prevent excess blood loss.

It can be seen that socially inventors, like Pathfinder International, care less about the commercial aspect of getting renumerated and more of spreading the goodness of what they have invented. On the other hand, if licence to manufacture is not granted to manufacturers, whether non-profit or for-profit, it means that the inventor still holds the patent ransom and stands to make money out of it.

Filtered Straw For Drinking River Water

In 2006, I read an article about a new straw -- fitted with filters and a chamber for iodine -- which would revolutionize drinking water for communities in Africa. Dubbed the LifeStraw, and created by a Danish inventor, Torben Vestergaard Frandsen, it was supposed to prevent thousands of people from dying in developing countries, due to infections by water borne diseases. It was supposed to be marketed at USD3.50, but critics called it expensive (bearing in mind the target crowd was the developing countries of the world). Obviously, in order for such an invention to be successful (and meet its goals), the whole concept of financing its continued manufacture and distribution should first be answered.

An Open Source Approach to Designing for People

In speaking of inventing for people, I came across a toolkit for Human Centered Design, generously made available by IDEO, a design consultancy based in America, with offices in Europe and Asia. The toolkit is divided into four booklets:

  1. Intro Guide
  2. Hear Guide
  3. Create Guide
  4. Deliver Guide

Under the Hear Guide, there are also supplementary booklets, namely:

  1. Field Guide
  2. Aspiration Cards

IDEO must have something good going on. On its catalogue of "featured" work, it boasts over 1,000 patents since 1978, and over 350 awards since 1991. It has worked with the Mayo Clinic, Nokia, Samsung, Shimano (bicycle parts), the American Red Cross, BASF, and countless others. It has a robust database of articles, which are constantly updated.

I came across IDEO's Human Centred Design open sourced toolkit at FastCompany.com's blog on sustainable design. From the article, it is clear that this toolkit emerged as a collaboration between several organisations, and these are also worth checking out:

A Last Word

As many people know, Nikola Tesla did not see the fruition of his dreams of wireless transmission of electricity. His invention of wireless transmission of electricity would have revolutionized the conveyance of electricity to the ordinary man, and had he succeeded, there would have been no need to rely on electric cables and copper wires. Electricity could be produced from a central source, and the world's communities share the electricity by using the Earth's atmosphere as a giant conductor. According to this article, Tesla did not see his dream come true because:

According to his biography "Tesla: Man Out of Time" by Margaret Cheney, he conducted several successful tests at the turn of the last century in his Colorado Springs laboratory. There, he used Earth's upper atmosphere as a giant conductor. In theory, a person anywhere on Earth could access the electricity with the proper equipment. Imagine one generating station or a few dozen for the entire planet! Apparently, he did.

Unfortunately, Tesla kept some key figures out of his notes due to the fact that several of his patents at the time were already being infringed upon. On top of that, he ran out of money and investors before his experimental Wardenclyffe Tower, which was to be the first commercial wireless tower, could be completed.

Indeed, this invention could have shaped our world into one where power lines and burning fuels would be as old a concept as catapults and steam engines. Even cars, trains, and planes could have run from this wireless electricity. But, once infrastructure stabilizes and people get comfortable, it becomes difficult to change, and this would have been the second time in his life that Tesla would have completely revolutionized the world.

Clearly, Nikola Tesla faced numerous problems, which would be inventors must take cognizance of. These are:

  • Infringement of patents, and
  • Lack of funding, whether in the pre-commercialization stage or halfway through it

These can be solved, by:

  • Filing for a patent at the earliest possible stage, and
  • Securing funding, whether through venture capitalists or strategic business partners

Another option is establishing a company for the purpose of commercializing the said invention. In time, this may split into two companies: one for manufacture, and one for distribution/marketing.

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