Frugal Digital: Digitally Inclusive Design

Q: What do you get when you cross a mobile phone, a lunchbox, and a flashlight?

A: A digital projector.

No, this isn’t a confusing popsicle stick riddle, it’s one of Vinay Venkatraman’s technology crafts.

Venkatraman is a founding partner at the Copenhagen Institute of Interaction Design. His design philosophy seeks to equip people at the bottom of the economic pyramid with useful technology through the work of his “Frugal Digital” research group.

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Production takes place at a local level.

The group’s work in reverse engineering was inspired by a visit to a street market in Mumbai where this kind of tinkering is taking place. Venkatraman met an electronics shop owner in Mumbai who, in addition to selling prepaid phone cards, fixes gadgets for people. Frugal Digital wanted to tap into this local fix-it culture and channel its energy toward social innovation.

Though the parts may be cheap and the devices simple, the implications for developing countries are significant. An alarm clock and parts of a television remote and computer mouse become a basic health screening tool, envisioned to help local ASHA health workers direct people to more specific care rather than overloading the clinic system. The lunchbox multimedia platform empowers teachers as digital gateways to information.

Frugal Digital team members test a lunchbox projector in a school in rural India.

Frugal Digital team members test a lunchbox projector in a school in rural India.

Technological capacity is a critical factor in determining the efficacy of projects for ICT implementation in developing countries that is often overlooked. Indeed, certain ICT4D initiatives in developing countries have been criticized for taking a flashy approach to development that is unlikely to have a real impact on people’s lives. Simply put, giving impoverished communities the newest iPhone or MacBook is not sufficient to close the digital divide, in part because these areas typically lack the necessary infrastructure to support the technologies.

For this reason, the frugal digital concept is a key step forward for ICT4D initiatives and a plausible alternative to a Western idea of technology and gadgetry. It recognizes the implicit value in the use of local economies and expertise to generate useful products and works on a reasonable scale that encourages community feedback and dialogue about what is needed, and, just as importantly, what isn’t. It shows that the most useful technologies don’t always come out of silicon valley and aren’t necessarily manufactured according to economies of scale. It makes technology that works for people, not corporations.

By salvaging parts and reconfiguring them into new technological gadgets, Venkatraman hopes to empower community members to help create a digitally inclusive society. He’s on the right track.

Watch the TED talk here.



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