Design for the Other 90%, catalog cover. Photograph by Vestergaard Frandsen; design by Tsang Seymour Design.
The well-documented efforts of other professions to assist impoverished nations is already a part of the legend and legacy of global altruism, but designers often seem woefully behind the times. After ten months in Africa, I recently visited the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum to see Design for the Other 90%
. Here, I thought, was an exhibition I could enthusiastically embrace. Unfortunately, I soon learned the culture shock I experience every time I return to America was in no way diminished by an exhibition supposedly sympathetic to the plight of billions of the world's poorest people.Design for the Other 90%
is largely underwritten by the Lemelson Foundation
, a direct financial supporter of several of the anchor participants, including KickStart
, International Development Enterprises
. Such sponsorship seems benign enough: after all, the curators had to begin the selection process somewhere. The list of exhibition consultants, however, includes instances of previously favored exhibitors. Despite the need for consultants, as a starting point these liaisons do not bode well for an exhibition claiming to document a sea-change in both method and practice.Design for the Other 90%, exhibition in Cooper-Hewitt garden. Exhibition design by Studio Lindfors; graphic design by Tsang Seymour Design. Photograph by Andrew Garn.
The show itself is installed in the Museum's Fifth Avenue garden, and some of the objects will be familiar to museum-goers. There's the ubiquitous, INDEX award-winning LifeStraw
, a not inexpensive personal drinking device that accomplishes the same thing as boiling water but in less time. (Unfortunately, it doesn't protect the people using it — shown here standing in rivers — from infection by bilharzia worms swimming in the water.) There's Big BodaBoda, a transport bicycle with an extra-long carrier to handle large loads. (The transport bikes I've observed are often pushed rather than ridden, and the Big BodaBoda's derailleur would unlikely stand the strain of huge loads — the reason why most bikes in Africa are single speed.) Then there's the One Laptop Per Child
, the celebrated $100 wind-up computer championed by Nicholas Negroponte of MIT's Media Lab. Ignore the fact that the price has ballooned to $195, or that a minimum order of $250,000 must be placed first, putting them out of the reach of any organization smaller than Oxfam. (As an aid to literacy I tend to doubt that the devices are more useful than flashcards. And flashcards, which cost 40 times less, are impossible to find in Africa.)
Essentially, Design For the Other 90%
is shot through with well-intentioned nostrums, familiar statistics, and a messianic calling to open peoples' eyes to the disparities of the world. A cross section of new design products and services is "showcased" and some, like the Kenya Ceramic Jiko
charcoal stove which dramatically improves fuel efficiency, have been very successful. Others, like Operation Village Health
, which makes remote clinical online consultations possible for rural Cambodians at Massachusetts General Hospital, are more questionable. Even participating legends like Peter Polak of IDE and Martin Fisher of KickStart come across somewhat conflicted with Polak contending that cheap wrenches are more desirable than expensive ones while Fisher argues that centrally mass-produced durable goods create jobs and reduce costs.David Latim at home in Gulu. Photograph by David Stairs.
Such problems can be hard to crack. Not long ago I visited Gulu
, the epicenter of northern Uganda's twenty-year insurgency, with my friend David Latim. David was born in Gulu, but fled to Kampala after escaping from the Lord's Resistance Army in 1995. One day, I recounted a particularly gruesome scene in the movie, Hotel Rwanda
. He responded by describing a similar massacre he had personally witnessed as a young man in Gulu. Before he was half-finished with his story, I blushed with shame at the realization that I was comparing my movie-going experience to his life experience. My well-intended faux pas is emblematic of the challenge facing outsiders, who cannot begin to imagine the vicissitudes of life in such distant places.Remote experience
is, consequently, one of the issues curators face in mounting such an exhibition, and it is a price we, in the West, pay for our mediated existence. Too often design solutions are remote solutions, even by those with years' work in the developing world (myself very much included). The only reference I could find in the catalog to this problem was Martin Fisher's observation that poor families like to prepare their main meal indoors in the evening, when solar cookers are considerably less effective — an issue contradicted in exhibiting a solar stove made from bicycle parts. Remote experience also leads to naïve criticism — like design futurist Natalia Allen
's concern that the exhibition does not pay enough attention to aesthetics: "Is it that beauty should not be considered when designing for poorer communities?" When considering these communities, such a rhetorical question might explain why many Western design initiatives are not sustainable.PermaNet by Vestergaard Frandsen. Photograph by Palle Peter Skov, ©2005.
A second fallacy afflicting design thinking is what I call instrumentalization
, or the notion that technology can, more often than not, provide the solution. Designers are especially susceptible to this delusion, perhaps because they are often trained to solve immediate rather than long-term problems. By way of example, inventions like the Hippo
water rollers work well at alleviating hard work over level ground, but are less effective than a jerrycan headload over meandering, hilly, narrow footpaths. Or, the exhibition's catalog shows an Indian man in a workplace illuminated by a solar lighting system, but ironing clothes with a charcoal-heated iron. Similarly, the PermaNet
— a specially-treated mosquito net — repels bugs for twice as much time as conventionally-treated nets. Regrettably, as it was displayed in the exhibition, it did not reach the ground; this is precisely the real-world oversight that heat-seeking vectors take advantage of in Africa.Gargantuan thinking
is a third error: the need to house the world's population, eliminate disease, and reverse global warming. (Here I much prefer
Wes Janz's onesmallproject
to Bruce Mau's Massive Change
.) The United Nation's Millennium Development Goals
have been cited with increasing frequency of late, and — not surprisingly — the Design for the Other 90%
catalog refers to many of them. "International humanitarian crises" and "sustainable projects...to help people meet their most basic needs" have grown into the new form of secular tithing. But, while we slavishly reiterate these laudable targets, they become more distant and unrealistic every day. This is not to say that such goals aren't important as ideals, but while the MDG goal of 0.7% of GDP might be achievable by countries with small populations and high standards of living (like Norway or Denmark) the current donation level of the world's wealthiest economy (guess who?), at 0.01%, makes MDG implementation a dream deferred.Design for the Other 90%, exhibition in Cooper-Hewitt garden. Exhibition design by Studio Lindfors; graphic design by Tsang Seymour Design. Photograph by Andrew Garn.
Is there a realistic response designers from developed countries can offer? A starting point might be to recognize that in many cases, we don't need to remake other people or their societies in our image and likeness. The idea of design intervention — sustainable or otherwise — may feel very intrusive to people who are still reeling from 150 years of colonial intervention. (You don't just waltz into a patriarchal society and aggressively advocate equal opportunity for women, or deliver pumps and boreholes to peasant farmers without understanding the sociology of migratory herdsmen). Living among other people and learning to appreciate their values, perspectives and social mores is an excellent tool of design research. (To their credit, both Polak and Fisher have spent considerable time abroad, not just user-testing, but living and working with their client-partners.) Education is also a wonderful access point, as is a required second language. But how many design curricula are supporting, let alone implementing such global initiatives? The first product design curriculum
in Uganda is being implemented at Kyambogo University. More designers are needed to develop and launch such initiatives.
I wish there were more answers offered — and more questions posed — by the Cooper-Hewitt's Design for the Other 90%
. As it stands, this design showcase on Fifth Avenue in New York City seems removed from the exigencies of the world's poorest five-sixths. Until designers and design curators spend more time in self-evaluation they'll remain far from encouraging the dialogues or the learning that would bring about effective change for the billions who really are in need.Design for the Other 90% is on view at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York City through September 23, 2007. The catalog for the exhibition is available from Amazon.David Stairs coordinates the graphic design program at Central Michigan University. He is the founding editor of Design-Altruism-Project, and the executive director of Designers Without Borders.