Bridging the Opportunity Divide

3D Printing Can Lift People Out of Poverty

January 1, 2015
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3D Printing Can Lift People Out of Poverty
Using 3D printers, students can visualize a product and actually create a prototype. Oli Scarff/Getty Images
This professor teaches business basics to America's poor.

With a little help from 3D printing, Madhu Viswanathan, a professor at the University of Illinois in Champaign, is teaching a new kind of innovation that could help disadvantaged students unleash their creativity and succeed in launching a business.

How does he do it? By combining the technology with marketplace literacy (one’s understanding of their place in a commercial trading system), Viswanathan is helping students visualize a product and actually print a prototype that could provide real insight into commercial development.

Viswanathan, who has taught business to some of the world’s poorest communities in places like India and Tanzania, and his colleagues have imported their international strategy to help America’s poor with business basics.

Ron Duncan, a teacher involved in the extension program, says that 3D printing has unlocked a new door to business opportunity for disadvantaged students in this country.

“The fact that it was prototyped in India and Africa means there are more opportunities in those places. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t people here who are analogues,” Duncan tells Fast Company. “These crippling elements that stop people from unleashing their creativity are present here as they are in any third-world country.”

Duncan uses four phases in his class: He asks students about what they value (a computer, a necklace, etc.), what and where they buy things, if they can view those places from a retailer’s standpoint and finally, what product they would like to create. While these are fundamental questions in Business 101, Duncan says that it’s important to see commercial relationships from all angles before focusing on product prototyping.

His students have created everything from a personalized license plate holder to a seat-belt clip that lets you release yourself in an emergency. Duncan has taught about 250 students, but is aiming to expand the international-turned-local strategy.

“It’s a human nature kind of thing. When people have a lot of economic stress, their capacity to think is greatly hindered. That’s the same in a lot of places. This project addresses that,” Duncan adds.

MORE: Two Keys to the Future: 3-D Printing and Employed Veterans

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