NSF symposium invites experts to explore 'extremely affordable' design

Topic: College of Architecture and Planning

February 24, 2011

Building a mansion is easy. The necessary financial resources are taken for granted. But try to create viable, sustainable and extremely affordable human shelter in places where the majority of inhabitants earns less than $4 a day.

An international group of architects, designers, engineers, entrepreneurs, management scholars, manufacturers, scientists and technology experts convening at Ball State University March 18-19 will focus on precisely that. With support from the National Science Foundation (NSF), they will attempt to fill a serious gap in research into housing and other social need solutions where extreme affordability is the primary consideration and constraint. Their immediate target is a fundamental retooling of ideas about materials and manufacturing and how the "usability" of various products is determined, especially in resource/infrastructure-poor environments.

In the past year alone, an earthquake in Haiti and flooding in Pakistan have displaced millions in some of the most impoverished regions on earth. A portion of the workshop — a partnership between Ball State, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) — will identify key questions about research in materials and manufacturing for extreme affordability (RIMMEA), with an eye toward large 'Base of the Pyramid' (BoP) markets ripe for all manner of innovative social entrepreneurship.

Currently, the majority of the world's people (at last count more than 4 billion) live below that $4 a day threshold. So, unlike the "just build it bigger" recourse available to architects, designers, planners and engineers engaged in major development projects in the developed world, meeting BoP housing, infrastructure and social service needs is not a simple issue of transferring existing knowledge in a different context, says Mahesh Senagala, chairperson and Irving distinguished professor of architecture at Ball State.

"Designing for the base-of-the-pyramid is harder," he insists. "One can't simply make assumptions about the availability of 'common' building materials or knowledge about 'general' building practices, for example. Things that we know will work in the first world don't always in the third or fourth world and we need to understand that better."

Closing the gap

The workshop also will examine research opportunities for advanced manufacturing and logistics technologies to deliver extremely affordable temporary and long-term solutions for other lingering problems in developing areas including lack of electricity, scarcity of clean water and limited access to education and health care, among others.

"Today, roughly 90 percent of the world's products and services are designed for just 10 percent of the world's population," adds Senagala, who believes one of the biggest challenges the workshop group faces is overcoming many popular misconceptions.

"Low-income does not mean no income, and affordable does not mean cheap," he says. "We need to reframe the problem from one of 'charitable work' to social entrepreneurship."

Together, in fact, the world's poor actually have substantial purchasing power, representing a roughly $5 trillion global consumer market and suggesting a broad range of opportunities for market-based approaches to better meet their needs. And, according to Senagala, only market-oriented approaches promoting sustainable solutions can scale to meet the needs of 4 billion people.

"Little or no concerted and interdisciplinary effort exists that addresses the context that the majority population of the world lives on less per day than what others may spend on a large specialty coffee," Senagala says. "This workshop now provides an opportunity to close that research gap."

In addition to prominent participants from the co-sponsors, the workshop expects representatives of the Indian Institute of Management as well as educational institutions including Ball State, Brown University, Columbia University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Penn State, Purdue University, University of Michigan and University of Colorado.

"There are two ways to fix a problem: with an existing technology or by inventing something new," says Senagala. "Traditional approaches tend to address unmet needs by setting targets for meeting those needs through direct public investments, subsidies, or other handouts. The goals may be worthy, but the results so far have not been strikingly successful. Our group seeks really innovative solutions through radical collaboration between diverse individuals from a variety of backgrounds, disciplines, and cultures."

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