NEW YORK — Some of the unsung heroes in Third World development go by odd names such as MoneyMaker Hip Pump and PermaNet. They're low-cost tools and devices — the first for crop irrigation, the second for fighting malaria — that are intended to improve the lives of millions of people for whom a $25 investment is a big deal.
Nearly 40 of these innovative designs are on display at the Smithsonian Institution's Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, on New York's Fifth Avenue. It's called "Design for the Other 90%," and it's viewable via the Web links at the bottom of this story.
Typically, these development-promoting tools are sold directly to farmers, weavers, woodworkers and other local entrepreneurs, an approach that's gaining favor in development and design communities.
"The future lies in delivering these products at a fair-market price through the marketplace without subsidy," said Paul Polak, the founder of International Development Enterprises, a Denver-based nonprofit that has three irrigation devices in the exhibit.
"When you give things away, you lack discipline in how you design them because you don't have to get feedback from the customer," he said.
People are also more likely to use a product they've invested in themselves, said Julia Novy-Hildesley, the executive director of the Lemelson Foundation. The Portland, Ore.-based nonprofit, a leading promoter of inventiveness, is the exhibit's main sponsor. Novy-Hildesley described the capitalist model as "very empowering" compared with traditional giveaways by governments and nonprofit organizations.
"It sees poor people as innovators themselves and . . . as investors in products," she said.
While people generally associate design with art deco chandeliers and sleek, overpriced chairs, the exhibit features objects made of durable but inexpensive materials and favors function over form.
The exhibit is "really about improving people's lives and saving people's lives," curator Cynthia Smith said. "I don't think aesthetics is the main point."
Many of the objects are striking in their simplicity, such as a treadle foot pump made of bamboo for pumping water. The biggest challenge can be reducing a known technology to its most basic elements to keep costs down, according to Polak.
"A lot of these solutions are very obvious and very simple, but often it's doing and seeing the obvious that's most useful in design," he said.
Smith organized the exhibit's inventions based on their function: water, shelter, transport, education, energy and health.
Among the objects are:
Edward Tenner, the author of "Our Own Devices: How Technology Remakes Humanity,'' praised the exhibit, especially for featuring objects that were designed or co-designed in the countries where they'll be used. But he questioned whether good design alone can alleviate poverty.
"The question remains how much can design in itself do in the absence of other conditions, for example, honest government?" Tenner said.
ON THE WEB
Curator's tour: http://www.realcities.com/multimedia/nationalchannel/archive/mcw/slideshow/design(underline)ch/index.html
The Cooper-Hewitt exhibit: http://other.cooperhewitt.org