September 24, 2012 |

Designing for impact

Two men, one holding blue electrochlorinator device, one pouring water into device.
Engineers from PATH partner Mercy Corps prepare to test the SE200 electrochlorinator in Zimbabwe. Photo: PATH/Jesse Schubert.

It’s exciting to be in New York this week for the annual meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative, President Bill Clinton’s effort to bring global leaders together to find solutions to the world’s most pressing challenges. Not only will it be a crazy week of meetings, receptions, and the proverbial “networking,” but I hope to learn and share a lot about creating social impact and how to truly achieve it in a complex world that’s riddled with so much inequity and so many challenges.

As president and CEO of PATH and in many other roles, I have been obsessed with ideas surrounding the theme of this year’s meeting, “designing for impact.” The theme speaks directly to the goals and values upon which PATH was founded. Nothing is more critical to PATH’s mission than designing for demonstrable and sustainable impact.

Design for the world’s poorest people

I moderated a session focused on designing products for the “base of the pyramid”—business jargon for the roughly 4 billion people who live on less than US$5 a day. For years, business has been trying to figure out how to reach this market. While PATH isn’t a profit-making venture, we work daily with a variety of partners to find solutions that are effective, affordable, sustainable, and acceptable to the people who will use them. Solutions like the Woman’s Condom, the Smart Electrochlorinator 200 (SE200), and the MenAfriVac™ meningitis vaccine.

Each of these projects illustrates the kind of innovation we need to reach the world’s poorest people in a sustainable manner with products that they want to use, can afford, and will have access to. To be successful, we need:

New types of collaboration between all sectors—public, private, and nonprofit. Such a partnership was critical in the ongoing development of the SE200 electrochlorinator, which we collaborated on with our private industry partner, Cascade Designs, Inc. (CDI). The SE200 is a promising core technology for community water treatment. It requires only a battery, salt, and water to create a concentrated chlorine solution, which when added to water inactivates bacteria, viruses, and some protozoa, making it safer to drink. We’ve field-tested the SE200, and now we’re working with CDI toward bringing it to people with no regular access to safe water, a market that numbers in the hundreds of millions.

New ways to engage consumers at the “base of the pyramid” in design. The difference between the success or failure of a product is often rooted in the developer’s ability to understand the perspectives of potential users. The Woman’s Condom was developed with input from women and their partners on four continents. Couples in Thailand, Mexico, South Africa, and the United States tested and evaluated prototype condoms—more than 50 in all, each redesigned to address user comments. The process led to the development of a final product that’s easy to use, performs well, and has good acceptability. We’re now working with a Chinese company to commercialize the product—to let the market support its distribution—in critical low-resource settings.

New ways to ensure affordability and design solutions that are sustained by market forces. Over a decade ago, PATH and the World Health Organization joined forces at the request of African health ministers who would no longer stand by and watch thousands of their neighbors die in regular epidemic waves of meningitis A. In less than ten years, the Meningitis Vaccine Project brought together partners to develop and deliver a vaccine, MenAfriVac™, that’s the first ever designed specifically for Africa. And it comes at a price many African countries can afford: less than US$0.50 a dose.

I’ve been looking forward to sharing these lessons at the Clinton Global Initiative meeting and learning from many others how we can change the world through design innovation at every level.

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