As we continue to break down barriers to sharing products and ideas on a global scale, a challenge presents itself that demands simultaneous local and global thinking.

It is portable and economical, but does that matter if people won’t know they need it? I am referring to the 2013 IDSA IDEA Winner Low-Cost Endoscope by Evotech and The device is a marvel of design and engineering. Doing the same job of a $70,000 device, this endoscope uses off the shelf parts costing around $2,500. Pilot tests in Uganda and India indicate that it works. Without meaning to diminish the awe that this accomplishment inspires, I am left wondering how well such a device would be accepted by its target audience — people with limited access to medical equipment — on a broader scale.

Even the most genius creation is useless if it does not have a receptive audience. In the United States where access to colorectal screenings is commonplace and encouragement from doctors to do so abounds, screening rates remain low, especially among traditionally underserved populations. Now consider locales where preventative screenings are rare and where comprehension among the general population about complex medical issues and procedures is low. Despite this near-perfect device, will the people for whom it is designed know that they need to access its potentially lifesaving benefits?

Similar questions arise regarding the venerable mission of sending refurbished computers to developing countries. Startup Neverware has plans to do just that with Juicebox. Not everyone is optimistic, however:

It is simply a hardware solution. “What Jonathan is doing with Neverware is necessary, but not necessarily sufficient,” worries Steven Hodas. “Every school will be where it was 5 years ago when it got that brand new shipment of computers. Basically, it’s a great point of departure,” he explains. “But now that you’ve got the tool, what are you going to do with it?” Just because computers are working better and kids can browse, research, and use programs faster, doesn’t necessarily mean they will learn better.

You might imagine the previous quote is in reference to sending these computers to remote island communities, but in fact, these computers are bound for New York City. Challenges only increase in a global context:

“The biggest challenge is electricity,” says Tooley. In off-grid areas with low power, or even urban areas with unreliable power sources, the Juicebox — which as the name might suggest, requires a lot of energy — would have a hard time.

Despite these and other challenges, global design efforts continue to gain traction. “IDEO is the standard-bearer of a broader revolution. Designers are becoming much more ambitious — perhaps imperialistic — about design thinking.” But please understand, I am not calling for less global action, rather, I am calling for global action that draws on the uniqueness of the local environment, understanding and fitting into the specific context.

Has the abundance of technology — the access to ideas and inspiration through Google searches and TED talks and on Instagram — become too pluralistic, too easy, too intellectual? Are we too global? Should design be more constrained, more local? Have we forgotten to intuit, scavenge, embody, and feel our way through the world? Have we stopped reacting to our surroundings in favor of alluding to them? Or is this kind of indigeny only relegated to art or craft?

Perhaps we need to think globally and act globally. What do you think?



Photo credit: IDEO


(This article first appeared in 2013; updated in 2018.)