Developing World Design Solutions That Address Economic Challenges

By: Rebecca Saltman Issue: Innovation, Growth, Job Creation Section: Community

Innovations That Transform Lives


Of the world’s nearly seven billion people, 90 percent have little or no access to most of the products and services many of us take for granted. In fact, nearly half do not have regular access to food, clean water, shelter and other basic needs. Yet, the vast majority of designers have traditionally developed products aimed at the wealthiest 10 percent of the planet’s population. Recently, a growing movement has sought to correct this imbalance and demonstrate that low cost design solutions cannot only provide basic needs for the world’s poor, but can empower them to develop their lands, create new businesses, and cultivate long term livelihoods.

So What is Design for the Other 90%?

Designers, engineers, architects, and social entrepreneurs are creating low-cost solutions to everyday problems, ranging from load-carrying bicycles to solar-powered hearing aids. Many of these projects employ open market principles for income generation as a way out of poverty for the populations employing the solutions. The Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum’s exhibit Design for the Other 90% features more than 30 of these projects and will be coming to Denver in July, 2011.

Through partnerships both local and global, individuals and organizations are finding unique ways to address the basic challenges of survival and progress faced by the world’s poor and marginalized, and the Design for the Other 90% exhibit explores a growing movement among designers to create low-cost solutions for this “other 90%.”

This summer-long exhibition will feature events focused on how smart, thoughtful design can meet global challenges. The curators hope to underscore how many of the solutions not only address important issues across disparate locales and societies, but can also be applied right here in our own backyard — providing both economic development and jobs.

RedLine, iDE, Green Spaces and the Do Tank are the stewards of this vital discussion in Colorado — a discussion that recognizes that although many of the challenges facing the developing world may seem remote, success or failure in overcoming these challenges will have an important local and global impact.

The Partners

RedLine is a diverse urban laboratory where art, education, and community converge. Its vision is to foster forms of social practice in the arts that inspire inquiry and catalyze change. With its dynamic physical space, talented resident artists, and proximity to some of Denver’s most culturally diverse neighborhoods, RedLine continues to evolve into a center for contemporary art where creative expression is celebrated and integrated into the fabric of the community.

A center for contemporary art, RedLine is dedicated to serving the community through art, education and the facilitation of critical discussion of local and global issues. Redline believes that art and design foster forms of social practice that bridge challenges in the developing world with solutions from the community.

RedLine pushes the boundaries of art to create new ways of living in and viewing the world. For example, RedLine resident artist Viviane Le Courtois is building a shelter made from repurposed junk mail that will be on display during the exhibition. Her Junk Mail Shelter embodies all that we have at our disposal to create or destroy the world. iDE is a nonprofit social enterprise unleashing the power of innovation and market forces for poor farm families in the developing world, helping them access the tools and knowledge they need to increase their income. For over 28 years, iDE has developed its market-based approach by designing affordable tools, improving market access, increasing agricultural production, and creating sustainable local businesses. To date, iDE staff throughout the world has helped more than 19 million people lift themselves out of poverty.

With projects that include creating local manufacturing for simple foot-powered pumps in Zambia, promoting affordable drip irrigation systems in Honduras, and marketing a simple ceramic filter that dramatically reduces illness in Cambodia, iDE works on the principle that lasting change is not created through traditional aid giveaways, but instead by listening and encouraging participation in order to develop new market-based economies.

Green Spaces is a hub for social entrepreneurs with locations in Denver and New York City.  Green Spaces provides work space for entrepreneurs to launch their businesses together and hosts events to raise awareness about social issues.

Concurrent with the Design for the Other 90% exhibit, on August 27, Green Spaces will present the Green Route Festival. Located in the RiNo/Ballpark district, the festival will feature an outdoor street fair with local food, a farmer’s market, live music, artwork, and a sustainability park.

An example of a local company utilizing innovation design is Circle Fresh Farms. “Growing produce in the community, for the community,” Circle Fresh uses drip irrigation technology to grow four times the produce on 1/10 the water consumption of conventional farming. Circle Fresh grows produce in the Growhaus in the Elyria-Swansea neighborhood — a so-called “food desert” and one of the poorest areas of Denver. As such, Circle Fresh is creating new jobs in Colorado while empowering local farmers.

While iDE’s projects are based in developing countries, its guiding principles of customer-centered design and market creation can be used to address domestic challenges. The urban farming company, Produce Denver, is now using iDE drip systems in various restaurant rooftop gardens, greenhouses, and front yards given over to vegetable crops. As part of the exhibit, Produce Denver will maintain a fully functional demonstration garden using iDE drip irrigation systems.

The Green Route will feature Denver businesses that are dedicated to sustainability in their products and practices.  Through an online database, community members are connected to these businesses, and with The Green Route Pass, they are rewarded with discounts and incentives.  The Pass is completely free.  For more information on Green Spaces or the Green Route Festival visit:

The DO Tank


The DO Tank, a three-day forum in September, 2011, will bring together leaders from across the region to create a solutions-based plan on seven critical topic areas including: Economic Development, Infrastructure, Healthcare, Education, Energy, Trade, and Security. The event follows the inaugural Biennial of the Americas 2010 and will occur during the Biennial’s off years.

The purpose of The DO Tank is to provide a neutral venue where motivated and collaborative leaders can meet to not only exchange ideas, but work on action plans and assignments that will literally make the world a better place. The format of the event will include an opening reception for all participants, followed by seven concurrent two-day roundtables on each focus area. At the end of the two days, all participants will reconvene to share their collaborative solutions. Each roundtable will include approximately 30 key leaders from business, government, nonprofits, and academia who will focus alignment of vision, strategy and resources in a collaborative manner to make long-term sustainable differences.

The belief of the DO Tank organizers is that many solutions to the world’s critical issues already exist, so this effort will provide a forum where economies of scale can be discussed, providing the missing link of actually implementing solution strategies in a more universal way. The end result of The DO Tank will take the best solutions to key issues and standardize, replicate, and scale them so that they apply uniformly to multiple sectors and geographies.

“The Do Tank is proud to partner with RedLine, iDE, Green Spaces, as well as its other partners this summer,” says Gayle Dendinger. “This is a great opportunity for the community to come together to address pressing social needs from a business point of view.”

Community Engagement

Design for the Other 90% will demonstrate how smart, thoughtful design can change lives, both here and abroad. This global-to-local focus is why RedLine, Denver’s own urban laboratory, iDE, the Denver-based international social enterprise, and the DO Tank chose to collaborate on this exhibition.

“Art changes the way we see the world, how we interact with the world and each other.” says Laura Merage founder of RedLine. “Every day the distinctions between the fine arts and the applied arts are increasingly blurred. Design for the Other 90% creates a new arrangement of ideas and conditions where anything is possible — even the end of poverty.”

“Design for the Other 90% will be a powerful demonstration that simple machines and simple ideas can translate into powerful global impact,” said Al Doerksen CEO of iDE. “iDE is proud to be based in Colorado because we have come to recognize that this state is full of people who have the energy, the passion, the commitment, and the insight required for this exciting mission.”

This exhibition will challenge visitors to view the innovative design solutions showcased in Design for the Other 90% through an artistic lens.  Special events, lectures, performances, youth-guided gallery tours, art-making activities, demonstrations and community collaborations will underscore the interconnectedness between people, places and cultures of the world and will explore the creative potential and resilience of the human spirit. For more information, visit the exhibit’s website at

Rebecca Saltman is a social entrepreneur and the President and Founder of an independent collaboration-building firm designed to bridge business, governments, nonprofits and academia. Contact Rebecca at



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