Bruce Nussbaum: The New Imperialism

During the period of rapid American mechanization and industrialization – from roughly the late 18th century through the 19th century – the United States benefitted significantly from the contributions of foreign inventors and entrepreneurs. One might go so far as to say, the founding of American industrial strength out of this period was formed out of strong continental ties and a lively exchange of ideas and designs.

Explicit knowledge transfer programs like worker training and study tours thrived as societies sought to keep abreast of the latest technological advances – as did less formal modes of learning, including philosophical societies and outright espionage.

Against this backdrop of the lively exchange of knowledge and commerce, it comes as a bit of a shock to read the latest musing of Bruce Nussbaum, a professor of Innovation and Design at the Parsons School of Design, who mused in a recent Fast Company Design article whether “Humanitarian design is the new imperialism?” Granted, this is a line of enquiry he’s used in the past, for example in a 2009 Businessweek article when he asked whether “Green” was the new imperialism.

“Is humanitarian design the new imperialism” also asks the question, “Does our desire to help do more harm than good?” This seems to be a growing theme in many fields that intersect with international development, not least some of the pointed criticisms made against American volunteers by a clutch of vocal aid bloggers. I take it that there is a lot of angst around America’s role in the world, and some serious concerns about what we as a country have to contribute to the world’s contemporary challenges.

That aside, I want to share a few questions and observations that were raised as I read along Mr Nussbaum’s article.

The 6Dot Braille Labeler, an 2009 IDEAS Competition winner, makes it easier for the blind to know their world.

The 6Dot Braille Labeler, an 2009 IDEAS Competition winner, makes it easier for the blind to know their world.

First, the question after a long description of Project H Design, an effort to celebrate the power of good design to meet everyday needs: “Whose design? Which solutions? What problems?”

Much of this “design for development” work has gained momentum as a result of a rekindling of the spirit that drove the appropriate technology movement. With lessons around community engagement, user-centered design, and capacity building in hand, a new generation of designers and doers has become inspired by what Paul Polak, author of “Out of Poverty” and founder of International Development Enterprises (better known as IDE), calls “D-Rev: Design for the other 90 percent.

This simple device, designed by MIT's D-Lab in partnership with communities, improves corn grain yielding.

This simple device, designed by MIT's D-Lab in partnership with communities, improves corn grain yielding.

The central thrust of this work, which Mr. Nussbaum conveniently skips over, is that the first order of business is to get to know the needs of the poor, by living, working, and conversing alongside. This is the community engagement piece, and it goes a lot farther than simply getting feedback on designed product.

Amy Smith, instructor at MIT and founder of the D-Lab series of courses, offers seven rules of design (worth a read!) for base of the pyramid markets, and first among them:

Try living for a week on $2 a day. That’s what my students and I do when I teach my class about international development. It helps them begin to understand the trade-offs that must be made when you have only very limited resources. More broadly, it was in the Peace Corps in Botswana that I learned to carry water on my head, and noticed how heavy the bucket was; and I learned to pound sorghum in to flour and felt the ache in my back. As a designer, I came to understand the importance of technologies that can transport water or grind grain.

How I interpret what Amy is saying is that it is the customers who hold the expert knowledge around the design goals. To successfully carry out one’s work, you must learn with and from one’s end-users or customers. The design community has learned that “parachuted” solutions don’t work. Not a terribly colonial posture, I might offer.

Second, Mr. Nussbaum points to a couple of instances where he encountered a, “Western designer not welcome here” tenor of conversation. In fact, it seems to be from these encounters – and evidence of OLPC‘s chilly reception in India and China – that his argument springs. But somehow it lacks punch, and here’s why: very few of the designers I know work in isolation, these well-defined vacuum’s of ideation in which they are imposing solutions on unwitting and cornered markets.

The reality is that many of the best products out there – drip irrigation systems for example – are developed in close partnership with the communities that need them. Along the way, the capacity of these communities is built up as well, as merchants expand their stock, farmers are trained in maintenance and installation, and produce yields are increased.

We should also acknowledge the territory of “humanitarian design” for what it is, a marketplace. A place where the best ideas succeed and fail based on their reception by end users. If some of these markets should take precautionary, even protective measures against outside meddling, that’s their call – but call it what it is – protection.  Don’t equate the designers with colonialists. At the same time, we should call out bad design for what it is – bad design (think LifeStraw), even when the intent and results of right use are commendable.

Finally, we should look to one source of much of this eagerness to design for the base of the pyramid – the economist C.K. Pralahad. It was Mr Pralahad’s book, The Fortune at the Base of the Pyramid, that popularized the term and suggested that there was tremendous opportunity to develop products and services for the world’s lowest income earners that would fill un-met needs. There are two threads that I think are important here.

The first is that BoP consumers are also producers. This is the profound insight of Paul Polak when he talks about innovating for the world’s small-acreage farmers. Therefore, some of the most beneficial humanitarian designs will focus on improving costomer productivity. This requires a much deeper understanding of, and commitment to, their livelihoods than Mr Nussbaum has allowed. Again, not something torn out of the colonialists playbook.

Second, there is the notion of co-creation, which is embedded in much of the work of Amy Smith. This takes the thinking of designing for producers a step further, suggesting that the consumer/producer/end-user is also an innovator, and to tap that ability, they must be involved in the design process from the start. Also not a page from the colonialists playbook.

(Full disclosure: where I do agree very much with Mr Nussbaum is that there are very great opportunities to bring good humanitarian design to places of acute need here in the U.S. – we shouldn’t indulge in the luxury of believing the world’s humanitarian challenges lie outside our borders).

At the end of the day, designers and innovators are vectors of knowledge transfer. And just like the early learning efforts that helped America to thrive as a growing, innovating economy, we should view the opportunity of humanitarian design as one where productivity and economic well-being are the result of a dynamic process of selection, where the people who need new products and services are able to arbitrate whether an imported design served their need better than a locally designed product. Everyone benefits from the scaling of designs that work, and the withering of those that don’t.

The worst thing to do patronize low-income earners by succumbing to nationalistic and inward-looking design. Lets keep sharing, exchanging, and working together and enable the best designs to play out, regardless of origin.

8 Responses to “Bruce Nussbaum: The New Imperialism”

  • I can’t help but wonder: aren’t there local designers? Why should university students from the US or the “developed world” try to recreate living @ the BoP so they can develop “appropriate” solutions when there might be local designers who have grown up in or in close proximity to these environments? And if these local designers aren’t there, isn’t that the real issue – shouldn’t Ms. Smith & others be focusing on developing the local resources to carry out the design process? Just a thought…

    • Hi James – its a great question, and I believe the short answer is yes, absolutely. The longer answer might include important variables such as their existing involvement, the benefits of complementary or divergent outside skills and perspectives, and local incentive structures to pursue the design challenge. One of the excellent features of Dr Smith’s approach is that building local capacity is a core value, and this includes design capacity. The benefit to students is so that they learn this approach hands on (they’ve been studying it; time for praxis) so that if they pursue this path, they draw that line through their own work. And of course, this idea of “get to know the context” is one of seven important design rules; it shouldn’t be evaluated in the context of , “do this, and you’ll be fine.”

  • My comment is a reaction to James Bontempo’s on asking where are the local designers, and isn’t that the problem. As LHTorres has said, the short answer is yes, this is a problem. My addition to the long answer, is that often, when resources are limited (I am thinking specifically of money and time) it is hard to find the time to experiment. This speaks to Paul Polak’s point, that one of the best ways to help people out of poverty is to give them access to income generation.

    Case example, I worked on a rice thresher in Ghana last year, as part of the International Development Design Summit ( The device itself is still in a prototype phase. To just get the first prototype made, took the investment of over 1000 working hours (on the ground research, material acquisition, construction time, etc) and at least 2000USD (materials, transportation, this doesn’t include cost of labor of the people working on the project). Another example is William ‘Windmill Bill’ Kamkwamba of Malawi. One of the key elements for him to succeed in his endeavors was having time to research and experiment.

    The short of what I’m saying is, design takes time, and some free space to experiment with. Building the capacity of local people to come up with solutions is a good idea, and something people are working on.

  • Nathan, great points and good to get a sense of the investment that goes into developing a solution on the ground. I wonder what that would translate into for a local designer?

  • Some other responses worth reading can be found here:


  • And thanks to our new IDEAS Competition and Global Challenge Coordinator Kate Mytty for pointing to this great roundup of responses from influential designers in the field:

  • another question would be: who exactly benefits from the designed solution/machine/gadget. and, what is the benefit? time liberated for other pursuits? physical relief (Amy’s point)? financial rewards (can do more, ie. pound more millet)? looking at these issues, we begin to see that different societies and cultures put different values on time, physical effort, financial rewards, depending on who exactly in the community benefits. for generations, designs for improving agricultural yields focussed on the male aspects of farming with a total blind spot for the fact that women in many countries do half or more of the farming tasks. the innovations were rarely related to their work.
    and in many cultures men see no reason to design ways to liberate women from time consuming repetitive tasks. so it should be the women who are actually doing the designing – but in how many traditional societies do you see women designers? why not?
    just a small example: in setting up literacy programmes in villages in West Africa, the men in the village always set the hours for the classes for the periods that are convenient to them, regardless of whether those hours are convenient for the women. and then everyone says “women aren’t interested in literacy”.

  • hi wyva (aka mom!), good questions. One framework that I hold dear is the idea of unpacking one’s benefit/impact inventory up front, and testing those assumptions in conversation with target beneficiaries (like any product developer would in focus groups within mature markets). In this way, one can get a little closer to clear understanding of needs
    In a way, Paul Polak advocates this approach when he says a) go to the poor, and b) spend a lot of time talking with them to understand their needs. Esther Duflo, in her randomized control trials, takes this a step further and asks whether intended outcomes (read benefits) square with actual outcomes.

    I think Amy takes your line of thinking and extends it as well. For example, another design principle has been articulated as:

    Provide skills, not just finished technologies. The current revolution in design for developing countries is the notion of co-creation, of teaching the skills necessary to create the solution, rather than simply providing the solution. By involving the community throughout the design process, you can help equip people to innovate and contribute to the evolution of the product. Furthermore, they acquire the skills needed to create solutions to a much wider variety of problems. They are empowered.

    As a result, the design process and outcome is about more than the gadget itself.

    As you suggest, this is a deeply complex process, and too often skated over by what Duflo calls the “moronic”revealed-preference (New Yorker, May 2010) argument ie if people say they want it, it must be good that I’m providing it.

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