Nov 2020 | Books & Other Publications, Design for Society, PhD Projects


Doctoral thesis at TU Delft, defended February 2020

Jairo da Costa Junior

A common approach to deal with a complex problem is to simplify it. Alternatively, this research aims to provide a novel approach to handle complex societal problems: embracing the complexity within the system.


The personal and professional decisions one makes through life are often very close to one’s idea of what makes a fulfilling and purposeful life. When I started my doctoral education, I wanted to make this an opportunity which would allow me to contribute, through my profession, to where I come from and the people with whom I most identify. For this reason, I decided to research the topic of design for the base of the pyramid. I was particularly interested in pursuing sustainable development through better energy systems. More specifically, I wanted to focus on how to improve the living standards of people for whom the idea of sustainable development may fail to resonate due to their personal challenges. Soon, I realised the complexity associated with my goal.

While I come from a poor beginning, my professional life as a designer led me to realise that my understanding of the complex problems experienced in low-income contexts is limited. Dealing with the challenges associated with living in low-income contexts and going through everyday life with limited resources is, in itself, a complex and unique experience. Therefore, such experience can be easily overlooked or misunderstood by an outsider.

It is evident that when designing solutions for problems with high societal complexity and limited resources, which are typical in low-income markets, designers need to have a thorough understanding of the unique characteristics of the system in place.

However, less obvious is how to approach such a challenge. Designers are typically educated to apply traditional design approaches which are associated with knowledge developed in the context of middle-/high-income markets. Therefore, the current expertise of designers loses relevance when developing sustainable solutions for low-income, markets.

As design education and practice is expected to deal with the increasing complexity of the problems faced by society, higher education institutions become an essential agent for change from the traditional design approach to a new perspective. This thesis is intended to share lessons I have learned from developing a systems design approach to pursue sustainable development in low-income markets. Moreover, it is an opportunity to discuss some differences between low-income contexts and middle-/high-income contexts that may have implications for how designers deal with complexity.

Embracing the complexity of energy challenges in low-income markets I invite you to read this thesis with an open mind. This work builds on existing and emerging research and ultimately is intended to contribute to a large research field. It suggests new ways to look at old and complex problems and disputes some common assumptions about solving complex societal problems through design. Also, it requires acknowledgement that we might know less than we think about such problems. Often, the solutions we designers create can be more harmful than the problems we desire to solve. This complexity cannot be dismissed, but rather, it should be embraced.