Why thinking in products invites failure

One problem is that having a cheap, clean technology is no guarantee that it will be properly adopted. In a new NBER paper, economists Rema Hanna, Esther Duflo and Michael Greenstone note that there’s been very little evidence on whether these stoves work in the real world. They looked at a randomized control trial that handed out cleaner stoves to 15,000 people in Orissa, one of India’s poorest rural areas, and tracked the results over five years. The stoves were a bargain, costing about $12.50 a pop, and they used a chimney to keep smoke away from the users.

What Hanna and her colleagues found is that in the first year of using the stoves, households saw a serious drop in smoke inhalation. The cleaner cookstoves were working exactly as they did in the laboratory. But in the years after that, the stoves stopped working effectively. “We find no evidence of improvements in lung functioning or health and there is no change in fuel consumption (and presumably greenhouse gas emissions),” the authors write.

So what went wrong? Basically, none of the earlier evaluations of the clean cookstoves had taken into account how households in places like India would actually use the things. In early tests, there were trained technicians on hand at all times to inspect and repair the stoves. Not surprisingly, households used the stoves frequently. But when the technicians departed and the owners had to clean the chimneys themselves, they lost interest over time. People were spending too many hours conducting repairs and eventually just preferred to switch back to indoor cooking fires.

Without considering the larger system, especially when dealing with communities that are vulnerable (socially, environmentally, economically) you invite failure. Upper middle class designers create beautiful, smart, lab-tested products, successfully implement them during one year and then leave. What happens? Reality strikes.

Just as thinking in products is creating the basis for an environmental (and often economical) overconsumption hangover to come for the rich communities across the world (and that goes for the rich in Delhi as well as in New York), applying this thinking to poor communities is resulting in equally disappointing outcomes.

Maybe it’s time to stop thinking about selling this or that product to the poor and rich alike and instead think long and deep about what it is that we really need and how we design systems that provide for those needs. Sure it’s neither as easy to touch and feel, nor as sexy or cool as a fancy new gadget, and yes it might cause us to ask some uncomfortable questions about ourselves, our lives and how we might need to redistribute wealth in the world (hint: not by selling the poor gadgets so that they can become as awesomely wasteful as the rich).

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