Photo: Jan Chipchase / Nokia
I recently received an invitation to discuss design and development with a wonderful group of design peers in a beautiful location. But I have decided to decline the invitation. Why?
It is my growing conviction that, as designers, we can usually do more good in our own backyards than in foreign parts. It is, in principle, great that many colleagues donate their time and expertise to projects such as $100 laptops, emergency shelter, and mobile hospitals. But I can't get it out of my mind that I personally, along with most other US or European citizens, emit as much CO2 in one day as someone in Tanzania does in seven months. And if I go as a tourist, even an eco one, I'll use as much water in 24 hours as a villager who lives there, uses in 100 days.
Who needs whose help here?
I say we can do more good at home than abroad — not that we can do no good. Our skills and connections can, of course, be valuable to people in other places than our own. But if we are to exchange value — rather than just take it, like cultural tourists — what do we have to offer?
In theory, a designer's fresh eyes can reveal hidden value and thus mobilize otherwise neglected or hidden local resources. But, in practice, this hardly ever happens. The vast majority of designers go somewhere different, are inspired and stimulated and maybe even humbled by the experience — but leave without turning their insights into value that local people can use. The exchange ends up being one-way in favor of the visitor.
I am also troubled by the words "poverty alleviation." Those words — like the word "development" — imply, to me, anyway, that we advanced people in the North are under some kind of moral obligation to help backward people in the South "catch up" with our own advanced condition.
Poverty is a real enough challenge for half of the world's population, but in many cases it's caused by patterns of development exported from and imposed by, the North.
Besides, I'm not convinced, when it comes to things like food, water and shelter, that designers from the North can add a gigantic amount to what grassroots organizations and NGOs are already doing.
The most powerful lesson for me, after 20 years working as a visitor on projects in India and South Asia, is that we have more to learn from smart poor people on things like ecology, connectivity, devices and infrastructures, than they have to learn from us.
I’ve never forgotten the time when Jogi Panghaal
, one of Doors of Perception’s co-founders, took me to a sleepy hamlet an hour from Bangalore. We encountered a group of villagers standing around a wide patch of ragi (a grain that is used to make dark bread) spread thinly over the road in a neat circle. Six chickens appeared to be eating up the grain, while the villagers watched and chatted. Why, I asked, don't you feed the grain in a bowl? The villagers laughed, and then explained that the chickens are eating tiny maggots, smaller than our eyes can see, which need to be removed from the grain before it can be stored. It's a smart, low-tech solution to a practical issue faced by farmers everywhere. But when I recently Googled "clean bugs from grain," the first link was to the "Opico Model 595 Quiet Fan Batch Dryer With Sky-Vac Grain Cleaner." I can’t help but find this to be a clunker solution than hens in the street.
Big D development tends to view human, cultural and territorial assets — the people and ways of life that are already there — as impediments to progress and modernization. A huge development industry measures progress in terms of economic growth and increased consumption. This industry often assumes without question that urbanization and transport intensity are signs of progress. It tends to devalue human agency and often imposes solutions that replace people with technology, automation and “self service.” These ways of looking at the South from the North are the result of a wrongly-developed model from the perspective of sustainability.
And it has to be said: this wrong model is making many designers rich. Around the world, from Dubai to Pakistan, the worst excesses of development are fuelled by design “visions.” One Dubai property developer has teamed up with Giorgio Armani to build thirty hotels and resorts around the world. One of these design destinations will feature in a US$43 billion luxury development on two islands — Bhudal and Bhuddo — off Karachi. Government officials describe the islands as being "deserted": but according to the Asian Human Rights Commission, the livelihoods of about 500,000 fishermen (indigenous people who have been living on the islands for centuries) will be severely affected.
Ten million people a year suffer forced displacement from their homes and livelihoods to make way for the development of dams, transportation systems and waterfront developments like this one in Pakistan.
Every week, it seems, another brand-name designer opens an office in Dubai on the back of a huge development. These big projects are often promoted on the basis that they will reduce poverty — but poverty is more often a pretext for developments that are primarily designed to improve incomes and lifestyles for the rich. The result, in the words of Maggie Smith, a wise and experienced development professional, is that "millions of people are expelled to the margins of fruitful existence in the name of someone else's progress."
When development ushers in a world of luxury resorts and service industry jobs, most local people end up less secure than they were before. When the possibility of living off the land and sea is removed, only a tiny minority of displaced attain formal employment. Most (and we are talking by now about a third of the world's population — two billion people) live outside the economy of secure jobs, mortgages and pensions.
Half the world’s economy is informal
— and that proportion is growing. And yet every time a new wave of development is unleashed, the informal economy is either ignored by planners or, if the poor get in the way, they are routinely swept aside, along with the ways of doing things that have served people well for generations.
Many property developers don't even pretend to care about poor people. But in the North, a lot of people are keen to do good. Advanced Micro Devices and Architecture for Humanity
, for example, ran a $250,000 competition for the design of technology centers in the developing world. AMD spoke proudly of its ambition to connect 50 percent of the world's population to the Internet by 2015. The organizers seemed to be unaware that in India, six million mobile phone accounts are being opened each month without the participation of a single "technology centre" and that smart poor people are often ahead of the game in their access to connectivity, devices and infrastructures.
Another North-to-South project that missed the point was the $100 laptop. Nicholas Negroponte, founder of the Media Laboratory at MIT, launched his project at the World Economic Forum in Davos. To the delegates in Davos, $100 probably sounded cheap; many were paying $1000 an hour to be there. But in Mali, where 90 percent of the population lives on $2 a day, this cheap laptop would cost people two or three months' earnings.
Donating information technology for development is not, of itself, virtuous. Connectivity is more about the design of clever business models than about the mass distribution of devices. Delegates to the Doors of Perception conference back in 1994 were mesmerized hearing how the extraordinary Sam Pitroda
enabled hundreds of millions of people in India to gain access to telephony by designing the Public Call Office
(PCO) concept — a low-tech, high-smarts system based on the clever sharing of devices and infrastructure. PCOs exemplify the kind of design skills that we need to learn from India and adapt to our own situations.
As I mentioned above, well meaning top-down-ness afflicts the architecture profession. Many architects offer to help whenever a natural disaster hits poor countries far away. But itinerant design professionals often lack in-depth knowledge of local ways of building and living, and propose solutions that cannot be readily adapted to local conditions and are therefore unlikely to be sustainable.
Eighty percent of other design professionals are in the representation business. But designing a poster about an issue, or launching a media campaign about it, is not the same as helping real people, in real places, change a material aspect of their everyday reality. Development is not primarily about products, let alone posters.
An entrepreneur from the North who understands this, Paul Polak
, helps people in developing countries improve water extraction and distribution systems. Polak has concluded, after years of work, that the design and technology of a device, such as a pump, is not much more than ten percent of the complete solution. The other ninety percent involves distribution, training, maintenance, service arrangements and the development of partnership and business models. These, too, must also be co-designed.
New approaches to development are more about exchange and distribution than blue-sky invention. Among the elements of a sustainable world that already exist, many are social practices — some of them very old ones — already learned by other societies and in other times. From this insight flows the idea of designers as global hunter-gatherers of models; processes and ways of living that already exist. Or used to. As scavenger-innovators, our first response should be to ask: Who has cracked a similar question in the past? How might we learn from, or piggyback on, their success?
The South can teach the North all manner of useful techniques for the re-localization of production and exchange. The South also knows a lot about service intensity. Those two billion people who live outside of formal economies have innovated a thousand-and-one ways to keep body and soul alive. And in Africa, right now, tens of millions of people are innovating a new system of value exchange, based on swapping airtime via cellphones, that could well become the replacement banking system that we'll need on the road to sustainability.
The North, despite being wrongly developed in so many ways, still has plenty to offer. For example, Northern designers are good for casting fresh eyes on a region's assets that have not been appreciated by local people. The North also has useful tools and skills to offer: these range from service design, to technologies of co-operation, to systems for resource allocation (ranging from people, to water) than can be re-purposed for ultra-local use.
The most exciting opportunity for innovation lies in combining the knowledge systems, tools, and social and territorial assets of South and North. In a light and sustainable economy, we will share resources such as time, skill, software or food using socially embedded systems, enabled by networked communications, that are a hybrid of assets from North and South.
This is why I'm declining the most enticing invitation I've received in ages. I wish my friends well in their meeting, but my personal view is that it's time to get out of the tent more.