The ‘Robin Hood’ model: A sustainable product testing for developing countries

Today, there are cost and time pressures placed on all of us for much of human activity.  Consumer product evaluations are no exception.
Over my 22 years as lab manager at Consumer Reports, the pressure to do things better and quicker was a continuing drumbeat to keep this famed, independent tester of U.S. consumer products growing.  Moving from a print- to a Web-centric business quickened CR’s pace and increased greatly the amount of information required for product testing and surveying.  Most importantly, to meet these far higher productivity goals, CR needed to assess critically what was the essential information needed by the consumer to make their buying decision.
In 2012, I began consulting under the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Comprehensive Initiative on Technology Evaluation, a research program funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development. To date, together with MIT personnel, we have evaluated both portable solar lanterns in Uganda and water filters in Ahmedabad, India. These comparative consumer products results were published using a “CR-style” of ratings. Test methods and procedures were also developed in a manner similarly used at CR.
Not surprisingly, the issues of cost and the required time to publish were factors that needed to be addressed throughout these test programs. Thus, the reason I believe this discussion topic needs to be addressed long-term if CR-style product evaluations are to succeed, be cost-effective and timely.
There are no easy answers. They are made more complex when one evaluates a consumer product in emerging countries where market intelligence is often hard to come by and the local marketplace can change quickly.
There is the option for looking locally in emerging countries for technical support to do this research. While this potentially solves some challenges, MIT found in Uganda that there are problems in finding sufficient, locally trained personnel who can be retained long-term.
Partnering with a “UL-like,” local, standards organization could have potential. They already evaluate products against safety standards. By expanding their charter to include performance-based product assessments, more local jobs could be generated using their technically trained, sustainable and cost-effective workforce.
Crowdsourced data could provide product market intelligence locally without having “boots-on-the-ground.” I am cautious about applying crowdsourced information to determine independent and accurate product performance factors. But there is undoubtedly a role for it with product reliability and defining which models are in the marketplace and for what price.

The ‘Robin Hood’ model
Crowdsourced data and the use of local standard testing labs can only go so far to develop a sustainable product testing lab for emerging countries. What is still required is a unifying force or overall management system to ensure its creation and long-term viability.  Below is a novel approach that I believe could better ensure this sustainability objective.
This proposal marries together a number of groups, each with its own expertise. The concept would move consumer product testing for developing countries from an academically centered lab like MIT with a transient staff, to a full-fledged, sustainable business connected at the hip with academia for fulfilling research needs and ensuring commercial independence. It would also seek out opportunities locally in the developing countries to build technical expertise and new jobs.

The proposed elements of this laboratory structure include:

  1. An already established global business like Underwriters Laboratories which would expand their business beyond standards testing to comparative, product performance evaluations.
  2. MIT and other academic institutions would drive innovative research — product evaluation and survey research — directed at developing countries. Specifically, this focus could entail new test methods development and survey research including crowdsourcing initiatives.
  3. Local expertise would be sought out from these targeted, developing countries for which products are evaluated. Technical field support for these product evaluations includes market intelligence by analyzing crowdsourced data; sourcing products from the marketplace for evaluation; and performing lab testing in situ. For instance, this concept would have provided solar lantern exposure testing in Uganda for comparison with the work done in Boston on MIT’s campus.

“Robin Hood” enters this proposal by providing sustainable funding for academic research (item No. 2 above) and developing local resources (item No. 3) using a small portion of the profits earned by the global business (item No. 1).  This Robin Hood concept would provide a steady stream of profits from the commercial sector to support the commercially independent work for the developing world.
This business model also ensures that there is an appropriate infrastructure to deal with the orderly policy and procedure developments as well as good management practices. Finally, using this sustainable model will allow the creation and maintenance of sufficient, permanent laboratories fitted with state-of-the-art equipment and trained, permanent staff.
This multipurpose business entity will have a face toward both the developed and developing worlds. The sharing of some of the same staff, management and lab space will bring greater efficiency for its overall impact.
Using the unique expertise from commercial to academic to the local developing country, the following deliverables could be envisioned:
Comparative product testing focused on the marketplace of developing countries.Ongoing and timely local, competitive market analysis.Survey research to better understand the consumer use of the product globally.Content development for media use (free and for pay).Transformation into an incubator to better ensure that the most promising, affordable and innovative products find their way more quickly into the marketplace of developing countries.
With CITE’s ongoing pioneering efforts to assist the consumers in emerging countries to make good buying decisions, these and other proposals should be evaluated and fine-tuned to develop a more sustainable, product evaluation business model.

Jeffrey Asher is MIT’s Comprehensive Initiative on Technology Evaluation suitability adviser and consultant. 



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