CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — A new book by a University of Illinois business professor who studies the intersection of poverty and marketplaces details decades’ worth of experiences and lessons learned from working in subsistence marketplaces, and how those insights can be applied to other settings, including business and higher education.
Madhu Viswanathan, the Diane and Steven N. Miller Professor in Business at Illinois, is the author of “Bottom-Up Enterprise: Insights from the Subsistence Marketplaces.” The narrative explores not only Viswanathan’s personal journey as a scholar studying people living in poverty, but also how the impoverished function in the marketplace as consumers and entrepreneurs in their own right.
“Over the course of my career, I’ve studied a number of resource-constrained settings by taking a ‘bottom-up’ approach. Sometimes, the most insightful lessons come from exploring extreme settings,” he said.
Unique to the subsistence marketplace body of work pioneered by Viswanathan is an approach based on an understanding of life circumstances at what he calls “the micro-level.” He argues that, when compared with a top-down approach, the bottom-up approach is often neglected by different sectors.
“This is particularly accentuated in contexts of poverty, which are unfamiliar to researchers and practitioners, and where there are significant challenges in accessing communities and understanding them,” said Viswanathan, who directs the Marketplace Literacy Project, a nonprofit organization that helps to enable marketplace literacy among low-literate, low-income people.
The book covers a personal journey of immersion and reflection on Viswanathan’s work to date, a bottom-up journey that began almost two decades ago and details his nascent desire to “learn from and, in turn, empower vulnerable segments of society with some potentially useful research,” he said.
The first part of the book takes the reader on a bottom-up journey of how “you understand subsistence marketplaces and how you design a solution and an enterprise around it,” he said.
The second part is Viswanathan looking back and “reflecting about what I have learned, covering topics about charting a path, implementing and sustaining bottom-up enterprises, guiding values and the essence of the bottom-up approach,” he said.
In the third and final part, Viswanathan broadens the dialogue to include bottom-up applications to a variety of settings and operations.
“Even for those not working in subsistence marketplaces, there is significant value in understanding the implications of these bottom-up approaches to their own efforts,” he said. “We illustrate a number of situations where our approaches have had impact in other domains.”
This section of the book is about how companies and other entities can apply the bottom-up approach, “and how the reader can use it in their own setting,” Viswanathan said.
“I think it applies more broadly than just for people who want to work in poverty,” he said. “For example, when you’re a business and you go to the consumer, you’re being bottom-up. When you go to the employee who’s in the lowest rungs of the organization, you’re being bottom-up as well. Often, they’re the ones on the front lines delivering the services. The cover image of the book is an upside-down iceberg, to convey how the bottom-up approach can help us see the entire iceberg, and create momentum by empowering those at the bottom of the hierarchy, by involving them and using their insights.”
Viswanathan said organizations are often so conditioned to function as top-down enterprises that it’s very difficult to change course and consider the opposite.
He elaborates in the book about the interplay between the top-down and the bottom-up, whether it’s how learning happens or how to manage people and organizations.
“To me, it is a constant dance between top-down and bottom-up influences,” Viswanathan said. “I’m not saying it’s one or the other; I’m just saying that bottom-up is often neglected. We are used to being top-down, and we need to be top-down to function.”
But there has to be balance, Viswanathan said.
“Top-down may be a person’s current worldview that they work from. Bottom-up is what keeps them honest with new data coming in,” he said.
But learning to think bottom-up entails more than just a few token gestures toward people at the bottom, Viswanathan said. It’s more of cultivating a mindset.
“When we design something, we should be thinking about the life circumstances of the user – the customer, the community and the larger context,” he said. “If we’re designing solutions for small farms across the world, for example, we need to understand the world of the two-acre farmer and incorporate it into the design process.”