PopTech Editions II: Paul Polak on the past, present and future of miniaturization
drip irrigation system
Recently, PopTech launched its second Edition, Small is beautiful: The micro-everything revolution. Our Editions explore an emerging theme at the edge of change from the perspective of some of the remarkable innovators shaping it. In the coming weeks, we’ll highlight pieces from contributors who are exploring the dynamics of the micro-everything revolution, from design and engineering for radical affordability to overcoming hurdles to distribution. Today, we’re excerpting part of an interview we conducted with Paul Polak, founder and president of International Development Enterprises (iDE).
Paul Polak is a champion of equipping the poor, or those living on less than $2/day, with tools to establish their own livelihoods.Founder of International Development Enterprises (iDE) and D-Rev and author of Out of Poverty, Polak has spent many of his 79 years working on the ground to develop approaches to alleviate poverty — intelligently. He has found that by following some straightforward tenets, including making products and services that can scale up to serve millions while also scaling downto work in smaller sizes, the 1.2 billion people around the globe living in poverty will have an opportunity to change their futures. We spoke with Polak about the need for a business revolution across industries around design, affordability, simplicity, and miniaturization.
PopTech: One way to think about the micro-everything revolution is by framing it around the ‘divisibility of technology,’ as you refer to it in your book, and the need to pay attention to how goods and services are broken down so that people can take advantage of them at different scales. For example, you mention that you can't cut a full-sized tractor into small pieces to farm on a small plot of land.
Paul Polak: The problem with the green revolution, particularly with agriculture, was that you could design and create miracle seeds that would increase yields, but in order to make those actually contribute to improved crop production, you also needed fertilizer and water and agricultural implements. You could divide the seeds into tiny packets and make them available to farmers but many of the seeds required irrigation and irrigation couldn't be divided into affordable pieces so the farmers couldn't use the miracle seeds.
That problem has been repeated in application after application and only in the past few years have people focused on making tools divisible and smaller and cheaper. The transformative revolutions in business have been based on two things - a revolution in miniaturization and affordability.
Are there examples in other industries where you’ve seen products successfully integrated into the market as a result of an emphasis on miniaturization and affordability?
If you look beyond what's been happening quite recently, the revolution in transport was created by Ford when the company designed a car that a working man could afford. Ford's car was $500 compared with $2,200 in those days. They were smaller and lighter, which is one of the main reasons they were cheaper.
The same is true for computers. Apple created a revolution by taking a computer that filled a whole room, putting it on a student's desk and making it available at a fraction of the million dollar starting price of the existing mainframe computers. That principle has transformed big business and it's increasingly transforming business at the grassroots.
D-Rev, for instance, has created a $400 phototherapy device for neonatal jaundice. The existing Western technology that does the same thing starts at $3,000 and the $400 device outperforms the more expensive device. D-Rev has also put together an artificial knee that sells for $80.
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