Rogério De Paula
In the past 10 years or so, emerging markets have become the growth engine of major North American and European multinational organizations. Going after the untapped consumer market created by the “base of the pyramid” (referring to low-income populations), these organizations established local research labs, product teams, and design groups; shifted management oversees; and reallocated resources to best address the needs and desires of these populations.
While we can list a number of successful products that cropped up from these efforts (in particular, those that were able to “trickle up” to the mature markets), I believe we have yet to fully realize the potential for innovation and novelty that these regions offer. This is because we have yet to fully grasp how to appreciate the ways in which these populations are emerging. In this column, I offer a few personal takes on how companies have misread these groups and the opportunities they present. I will draw upon my own experiences as a design ethnographer who worked for a large corporation in Brazil to discuss what I consider to be a few major misinterpretations. These center on the following themes:
- Emerging markets as a development problem.
- Local solutions in global-scale businesses.
- “They are just like us.”
Let me start by tracing the arc of my research career. After an extended stay in the U.S., I returned to Brazil seven years ago as an “embedded researcher” (an allusion to embedded journalism), an ethnographic researcher working within a product group with the mission of unveiling new business opportunities and the wonders of the “emerging markets.” Together with colleagues stationed across the hitherto invisible markets of China, India, Latin America, and the Middle East, we set out to explore, investigate, design, and document the latent growth opportunities in these regions. For the most part, that meant designing new products to address such emerging-market opportunities.
When I arrived in Brazil, at first I could not fully make sense of its realities. Although I grew up there as traditional middle class (I will return to this later), my time in the U.S. shifted my frame of reference as I became embedded in everyday North American life. Also, while I was away, Brazil went through a major socioeconomic transformation (particularly of economic stabilization and economic growth). I returned as a strange hybrid. On the one hand, I had never become entirely American. On the other hand, I was disconnected from the changes that Brazilian society had undergone during the years I was away. As my friends and I often joke, “I never fully learned English, and I forgot my Portuguese.” But, in the end, this served me well, as this lack of grounding enabled me to approach my own country from a certain distance, while maintaining enough insider knowledge to make appropriate cultural translations. Positioned as such, I was interested in finding better ways to account for the dynamics, idiosyncrasies, contradictions, and interdependencies of the emerging markets.
Equipped with the theoretical and empirical tools I’d acquired in the U.S., my Brazilian background, and a “safe” distance from Brazil’s current reality, I set out to investigate various segments of Brazilian society, from poor communities in Bahia, to natives in the middle of the country, to vertical shantytowns in downtown São Paulo. My mission was to get a better grasp of what the emerging middle class, which at that point was moving out of poverty, was really about. In so doing, my aim was to recast how the company I was working for was approaching these populations and then design products accordingly.
For better or worse, at that point C. K. Prahalad’s book, The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid: Eradicating Poverty Through Profits , was atop the desks of most managers of large multinational corporations. These companies were rushing to figure out how to tap these untapped markets. On the one hand, it had a rather positive effect in that investments were flowing to a selected group of these countries. They became visible to the market and to businesses. Even I, hired in the U.S. to work as a researcher in Brazil, was evidence of this. Our first challenge, though, was not a design question but a business one. We had to demonstrate that we were addressing a market rather than doing a corporate social responsibility (CSR) job. At that time, the business was trying to get a handle on the emerging markets and was still conflating questions of development and market opportunity.
Don’t get me wrong. CSR is critical and plays an important role helping low-income communities overcome major inequality. Also, development is still an issue in various countries (e.g., in Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and part of South America); consequently, there remains the need for new understandings and (design) approaches to address various local development issues, such as those being proposed by the ICT4D and HCI4D communities. However, the emerging markets were clearly about creating new business opportunities by means of a better understanding of their needs and wantsat least, that was the idea.
As we explored market opportunities, we ran into another interesting business contradiction. Our design solutions had to be translated into sheer numbers of unitsafter all, we were going after a rather large number of people, weren’t we? Our dilemma then was how to come up with a product that was locally meaningful and could at the same time scale globally. Unsurprisingly, the business won this arm-wrestling match, and scale became the most pressing design requirement. This was of course followed by questions relative to addressing “the real problems” .
How could I design for local needs as well as meet the global-scale business requirement? Somehow this dilemma was resolved in part by gaining a true understanding of the emerging markets. Let me try to illustrate that with a few concrete examples.
Soon after my return, I visited a native tribe in the middle of Brazil, nowhere near any major urban center. Interestingly, I ran into the most proficient and expert users of the Internet at that time. When a large Brazilian bank foundation brought the Internet to its rural school on the other side of the river, little did they suspect that their neighbors would eventually turn the Internet into an instrument for connecting, sharing, and profiting. The natives quickly realized they could use the Internet to connect with other tribes, request funds, and advocate for their rights. In contrast to local farmers (large and small), they understood that the Internet was clearly a means with which they could perform dialectically their “nativeness” and modernity (see Figure 1).
A few months later, during a school visit in the periphery of São Paulo (here, periphery refers to low-income neighborhoods on the edges of a city), I stopped a group of students and asked if I could photograph them. Back in the office, while going through the photos, one in particular caught my attention. There was something particularly out of place in how this boy portrayed himself (see Figure 2). On the one hand, he represented a typical kid from a low-income neighborhood in Brazil. On the other, by simply crossing his arms in the way he did, he revealed influences from elsewhere that increasingly surface in various groups across socioeconomic classes worldwide. Crossing his arms like a New York rapper (or a Brazilian rapper, for that matter), whose music he very likely listens to, he unwittingly bridges the local and the global, traveling from the south to the north, placing himself in this “imaged” group (or tribe). The gesture embodies this strange confluence of local realities (their affirmation and denial) and global structures (e.g., the global media industry, the global market, and the like). Oddly, this arm crossing represents both a political statement (“I am of this kind…” i.e., black, from a poor neighborhood) and a consumer statement (“I like this kind…” i.e., U.S. hip-hop music).
These two simple examples, while showing this interesting interplay between local and global, bring us to my final point, namely, that as these groups emerge, they will not necessarily be like us. I was raised in a typical middle-class bourgeois family whose values and practices greatly resembled those of European and North American middle-class families. For the most part, they emerged in the aftermath of World War II as professional workers during the industrial boom. We can witness the same thing happening in China and India today. In contrast, the emerging middle class in Brazila second wave, I would arguehas little in common with the first wave. Of course, this is a complex argument to make and I cannot fully defend it here. But it suffices for the moment to say that while they are unquestionably consumers, their references to quality, values, needs, and the like are different from “ours.” As a simple example, Brazilians (like people everywhere) are consuming tablets. The traditional middle class is buying the iPad by and large for the status conferred by its brand. The emerging middle class is also consuming tablets, but for somewhat different reasons. It is true that they want to be “included” (i.e., be part of popular global trends) but they are not necessarily doing so for class distinction. They see a very practical value in these tablets: They come with DTV access so workers can watch TV during their long commutes.
Take another example: the Latino populations in the U.S. Although they live in what is considered a mature market or developed country, they represent the largest emerging population in North America. Like the Brazilian middle class (who not long ago were emerging themselves), they are not, and will not be, like “us,” the traditional white Americans. These forgotten emerging Latinos are quietly becoming a formidable market force but bear little resemblance to traditional America. I prefer not to discuss heated debates during the recent U.S. presidential election relating to what the U.S. is “becoming,” though they clearly demonstrate ideological conflicts in the changing national identity.
In a nutshell, my thesis is that the notion of emerging markets as a definite geopolitical boundary that separates emerging from developed from whatever is no longer a useful and valuable lens to capture the complex ways people shape and are shaped by consumption, needs, global cultural practices, and technologies. Back to my original point, what is critical is not just an understanding of local settings and practices to inform the design of particular technologies, but rather a broader analysis of the contexts in which modernity unfolds. That is, for me, everyday life becomes a site of local and global negotiations, struggles, and cultural productions.
I believe this lies at the heart of any design efforta dialectic relationship between “traditions and transcendences,” as Pelle Ehn put it . As design researchers and practitioners, we will always struggle to understand and have an effect, be it through new, accessible technologies, artistic interventions, or other means. The emerging markets are not there to be discoveredthey are striving, changing, emerging, consuming, and so on. I thus invite you to shift your designerly gaze toward gaining an understanding of and appreciation for the local in conjunction with the global, the traditional with the modern, so as to let people live their lives as they want. They are truly hybrid, after all.
Let us then explore the world of the “emerged” markets.
Rogério de Paula is a research manager at IBM Research, Brazil, where he leads the Social Enterprise Technologies Group, an interdisciplinary group that explores the new frontiers of social, smart technologies in the context of large-scale organizations.
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