Field Notes
A Work in Progress

Design for Extreme Affordability


One bright day in August 2016, three teammates who had just completed an intense two-quarter course at the, “Design for Extreme Affordability,” boarded a flight back to Capetown, South Africa. 

They were en route to reunite with their project partner, a social enterprise called Shonaquip, which makes high-quality products for children with severely restricted mobility. Long known in the region for their excellent wheelchairs, Shonaquip had partnered with the class in the hopes of making headway on a product that could support their small clients’ big physical needs at night, or while lying down during the day at care homes or school facilities. This is a major deal: without the right recumbent support, the positive health effects of sitting up in a supportive wheelchair are undermined.

It had proved an elusive task. Existing products were bulky, expensive, and worst of all, hard for caregivers to use. They had to be set up by a trained therapist, and every time a caregiver positioned a child to sleep or be turned over during the night, ample room for error meant the child wasn’t really receiving the quality of care that she or he needed and deserved.

The students were traveling with what they thought was a working prototype. But when they landed and started testing the model, they quickly discovered that their design wasn’t that effective. Given their own space in Shonaquip’s local manufacturing facility, the team began iterating rapidly. They built, tested, rebuilt. Again and again.

Finally — a breakthrough. Abandoning velcro as a method for fixing the padded blocks on the product in place, the team started experimenting with telescoping rods, straps and a novel slot and clamping rig that seemed to be nearly error-proof. 

Their agility and persistence paid off. Their partner agreed; unbeknownst to the team they entered the students’ work in a South African design competition. In October 2016 they won first place and will use the funding to help launch the product.

A provisional patent is currently being filed. 

An early prototype test.

An early prototype test.

A caregiver tests a later prototype in Capetown.

A caregiver tests a later prototype in Capetown.