Design for extremely affordable solutions can be a major driver of social innovation where designers are agents of change and users become co-designers.

The problem is that 90 percent of the world’s designers spend all their time working on solutions to the problems of the richest 10 percent of the world’s customers. A revolution in design is needed to reverse this silly ratio and reach the other 90 percent.”  – Paul Polak, Out of Poverty

The DIY Wheelchair

A few days ago, I discovered a low-cost wheelchair called DIY Wheelchair, designed by two students of Industrial Design Engineering of the UPC (Spain), Bernat Vila and Adrià Sallés. They built it with PVC pipes and other plumbing materials, fabric and bicycle and shopping cart wheels. The total cost was 70 euros.

The project is supported by the Isidre Esteve Foundation and aims to promote inclusion and improve the mobility of disabled people with limited resources from developing countries, where only a minority of those in need of wheelchairs has access to them.

In many respects, the DIY Wheelchair is a clear example of affordable solution developed by designers who devote their time to work for that 90 percent of users who haven’t access to products that seem fundamental for many of us.

However, the DIY Wheelchair is different in an essential aspect: It’s based on open source design. The DIY Wheelchair isn’t a product, but a toolkit with assembly instructions that can be downloaded and a video demonstration. This way, the user or persons close to them can assemble the wheelchair themselves very easily.

Traditional affordable design

A similar example of traditional affordable design is the Mekong Wheelchair, designed in 1993 by David Constantine and Simon Gue, students of Industrial Design at the Royal College of Art London, who created a wooden-frame chair with three wheels to be made and used in Cambodia. Its design was adapted to be more stable in uneven and rough surfaces.

A more recent example is the award-winning Embrace Warmer, a low cost infant warmer, started as a class project at Stanford University and launched in 2011, designed for being distributed to clinics in resource constrained areas with limited or no electricity, where incubators are extremely rare because clinics cannot afford them and they are too difficult to maintain and repair.

Users become co-designers

Unlike traditional design, the DIY Wheelchair is a design mode where professional designers use their knowledge and tools to develop products that empower the user, taking advantage of the natural ability to design that we all have.

Both the Mekong Wheelchair and the Embrace Warmer aim to develop affordable products to improve the lives of people, but they are based on a unidirectional model, where a clear division between designer and user is established.

Obviously, professional designers are the most appropriate people for designing products and services, as they are the experts. However, when products that have an important impact on society, with the potential to be a driver of social innovation, users should be participants in the design process. In these cases, the user is an entire community who shouldn’t be limited to being a mere receiver of design.

In cases of co-design processes such as the DIY Wheelchair, the designer also assumes the facilitator role, enabling users and incorporating their creativityto  trigger deeper social changes.

Open-source design also offers easily replicable solutions that can be adapted to the specific characteristics of each context. Thus, the DIY Wheelchair can be built with the most affordable materials in each country: PVC pipes, bamboo…

The challenges of affordable design

However, this type of open design has some drawbacks, since it lets users alone. Without a support network including designers and local actors, users could use badly the instructions or not use them at all.

There is, finally, a last drawback shared by those solutions designed to be extremely affordable: everything is done on behalf of functionalism. Any aesthetic or consideration based on user experience is ruled out because products are designed mainly to be functional machines.

In the best of cases, the products should also be delightful and enjoyable, which means that not only must the requirements of engineering, manufacturing, and ergonomics be satisfied, but attention must be paid to the entire experience.” – Don Norman, The Design of Everyday Things

From this perspective, the designer steps back towards a design mode where the only aspect that deserves consideration is to ensure that products meet their function from a technical point of view.

This is a pity because, often, material constraints to which is subjected the designer who aims to create an extremely affordable solutions become a source of innovation and improvement. This is the case the DIY Wheelchair, whose lightness and ease of repair are clear advantages compared with conventional wheelchairs.