courage can't see around corners but goes around them anyway. ~Mignon McLaughlin

Reflections on BoPNet

A few weeks ago, I attended a think-tank workshop hosted by the Aalto Design Factory at Aalto University in Finland. Scott Smith from Changeist and Niti Bhan,  strategist and owner of the Emerging Futures Lab, facilitated a day that brought together a small cross-disciplinary group of leading creative and strategic minds from around the world to explore a pivotal question: who are the so-called bottom of the pyramid (BoP) and what is the future of technology for these next 5 billion consumers? No understanding of emerging markets is complete without recognising the power of those living at the base of the pyramid. The rapid adoption and adaptation of technology in developing countries is hard to miss. Both multinational corporations and non-profits are seizing opportunities to use technology to reach this audience. But technology is a tool, not a solution on its own. These are large conversations that have earned credibility and gained traction in recent years. I entered the conversation several years ago through professional opportunities in product design and marketing, personal curiosity, and a healthy shot of adventurism.

The most exciting part of the day was the series of charrettes to apply strategic thinking to live issues in key countries. For example, if you’re a group of rural farmers in India facing a dearth of clean water, could a media company or a technology company meet needs? We examined problems and solutions, like a three-dimensional construction, from many angles. This shone light on the needs of all parties involved in the both problem and the solution, and ensured we addressed the gaps we found. But, this is really just best practice for creative problem solving of any kind.

What I found exceptional was how much the groups’ collective contextual knowledge and sensitivity to the BoP allowed practical and appropriate solutions to emerge. Solutions that work at the BoP leverage what already works in communities and integrates a touch of technology where and when appropriate. This was a room full of technical experts, designers, engineers, marketing communications strategists, and user experience designers, all well-versed in a variety of delivery platforms and able to create front-end and back-end solutions to problems big and small. It would have been so easy for technological ability to overshadow the needs that we faced.

Forcing available technology to meet the perceived needs of the BoP doesn’t work. Dominant logic doesn’t apply to the BoP. A top-down approach to product development, product marketing and service delivery, doesn’t work, either. After all, what good is it to spend time, energy and money constructing ways to use technology to reach BoP consumers when meaningful knowledge of this audience is so thin? One thing we do know is that BoP consumers are the most ruthlessly demanding consumer audience in the world and they expect brands to perform and deliver.

Before creating new products or selling existing ones to the BoP test the relevance of such ideas with the audience themselves. There are currently no tools to quantify this audience, to help producers, developers, marketers understand them, partner with them and appropriately serve them. Without this knowledge, even the most convincing plan stands on fragile ground. This is why the depth of contextual knowledge of the BoP at the Design Factory was so powerful. It enabled bottom up solutions to emerge that really made sense. Yes, of course, the ideas and opportunities created have to be tested and what will actually get funded and run I don’t know. What I do know is that a bottom up approach firmly rooted in contextual observation and co-creation is the best way to spark creative thinking and appropriate solutions. In the long run, it provides a reasoned framework for strategic thinking and saves producer, designer, marketer, and engineer  a lot of time wandering in the land of conjecture.

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