One of the most pernicious elements of the poverty trap is the difficulty to think beyond the here and now. In subsistence marketplaces in places like India, the poor are so concerned with finding their next meal or keeping a roof over their head that they do not have the luxury to think beyond those needs and do broader planning that would allow them to escape poverty.

This is as much about material constraints as it is about cognitive constraints due to lack of education and exposure. Envisioning what lies beyond the immediate without exposure is difficult; notions of business, value chains, and competition can be abstract.

These constraints are present in the United States too, where the low-literate poor aren’t just resource deficient, but also have much lower levels of marketplace literacy. That’s why our team decided to adapt our successful, decade-old marketplace literacy program in India for use here in Illinois this year. And we’re doing it with the help of 3D printing.

Marketplace literacy refers to skills, self-confidence, and awareness of rights as customers and entrepreneurs. It is one of at least three elements that low-income individuals need to participate in the marketplace—along with financial resources and access to markets.

Teaching marketplace literacy is really about teaching the concept of value—how to get more value as a consumer. It simultaneously lays the groundwork for becoming an entrepreneur, where understanding how to create value and connecting with customers matters most. It even applies more broadly to how we seek what we value in life and in relationships.

In India, we start workshops by focusing on how to be a better customer—then we delve into creating value as an entrepreneur. We follow the same approach in Tanzania in a small program working with tribal communities. If we had one, our slogan would be: concretizing, localizing, and ‘socializing’ education. We have moved beyond face-to-face programs to physical, teacher-less, multi-media based approaches that can reach wider audiences.

We’ve encountered some surprising challenges in adapting the program for the United States, an advanced economy compared to India. In India, poverty is widespread and more extreme, but so is the ecosystem of small vendors and buyers creating and reselling products to each other. There are two distinct markets in India, and the poor create, shape, and participate in one of them out of sheer necessity.

Indians in subsistence marketplaces can develop a basic level of marketplace literacy at a young age by participating in an intensely one-to-one world of social interactions. The institutions of the formal market (such as banks and corporations) are often not accessible to them, so they develop networks among others like them, which they use to buy and sell goods and services.

In America, low-income individuals still participate in the mainstream economy. They often work for and patronize large corporations such as McDonald’s or Walmart. They don’t have the same social networks found in contexts of extreme and widespread poverty, which are stepping stones to developing marketplace literacy. Technology does the shopping-related computations, and large chain stores and information displays assume a certain level of literacy. As a result, low-income individuals may display a general low level of marketplace literacy and rarely have experience as entrepreneurs. Abstract concepts like “value” are particularly difficult for them to comprehend.

We knew going into the adaption process that we would struggle to make concepts like the marketplace and entrepreneurism concrete. While we kept the basic concepts the same, we partitioned the education differently. For example, we categorized consumer literacy into before, during, and after shopping. Our educational content and examples reflected local examples, such as videos of extreme couponing. Our caricatures to illustrate concepts were similarly customized.

In our latest versions, we have added a new twist, bringing 3D printing into the equation as an educational tool. We knew that as long as potential product ideas remained hypothetical, they would be abstract as well. But if you can create a hypothetical product, and then watch that product printed right in front of you, we thought, well now that would be a concrete education.

Our workshops begin by walking through consumer equity—discussing what a good deal is and what value means. Then we ask students to think as a shop owner or supplier—what goods and services would they need to get the job done? Then we ask students what they would create using a 3D printer.

The ability to provide infinite customization and the ease of incorporating complexity into product concepts, combined with an ability to rapidly iterate and improve a design, makes 3D printing an ideal platform for motivating learners to experiment with making. And it allows us to communicate a message of empowerment—everyone can create and add value, even if there’s a niche market for an idea, since products built around this technology don’t need scale to be viable.

So, what does that look like in practice?

During a break at one of our Chicago workshops, one of the participants noticed a friend’s car. She recognized his license plate because the frame was customized—something he was known for doing. The light bulbs started going off: license plate frames customized for community institutions, like school colors. So she and her workshop partner started looking into customized license plate frames and doing the customer research—finding out how much people would pay for them. By the time they were done, they were printing out actual custom license plate frames. In the course of the workshop, they learned how to develop a commercially viable product.

Through this reverse-innovation experiment—adapting educational innovation from a context of widespread poverty to an advanced marketplace—we’ve learned that many people living in poverty in the United States could benefit from marketplace literacy and maker literacy. Imagine what they can accomplish if we help them think beyond the here and now.

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