Design across disparities, a conversation

David Stairs’ insightful critique of Cooper Hewitt’s exhibition Design for the other 90% on Design Observer this week has given us all much food for thought. The crux of his essay seems to be that the disparity of conditions between the designer and the end user are so great, when developing solutions for those at the bottom of the pyramid, that without direct experience and understanding, a designer at his desk in New York may never quite be able to find a sustainable solution to a problem faced in a village in Uganda. An important and valid point, but does it justify the contention that Design won’t save the world?

Stairs pinpoints three key issues or errors made when designing for the “other 90%” [of which I am one since I was born in Calcutta ;)], quoting from the article:

  • remote experience – 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.
  • 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, […] 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.
  • 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.

Rather than address these points remotely myself, I thought to throw them out to David Tait, my colleague, a designer practicing in Pretoria, South Africa for his thoughts, from the field, so to speak. Dave has not only worked on the design of high tech products for Motorola but also been involved with providing design assistance to the MIT FabLabs project near Johannesburg. His work on the safety bottle cap is an excellent [and INDEX nominated] example of relevant design for the “other 90%”.

Before giving his opinion on the three issues, Dave suggested something that struck me, particularly since I’ve written extensively on jugaad or rural innovation, that innate creativity in the liminal space where scarcity of resources meets the mother of all invention. He said “the best way to make design work would be to promote designers in the developing world. this guy is great, no design education” referring to William Kamkwamba, the teenage designer of a home made windmill. Design by the other 90% might be a far more eye opening and valuable exhibition, showcasing the products designed in the environment in which they will work by those who see the needs in their own daily lives.

On the three points above, Dave had some interesting observations to make, and I’m sharing his thoughts directly,

“you can’t design something for africa from a desk in new york-  at least have Western universities send their students out into the real world for a semester. immersion in the environment in which your design will reside/be used/will work is crucial to effective design solutions particularly when there is a great disparity in the environmental conditions surrounding the creator/designer and the user/customer”

“designers might better use their skills ability and time [from the developed world] going out on projects in the field that actually transfer the knowledge and skills that would assist those creative individuals who are inventing  solutions that they know fit their needs and scarce resources and environment but do not have the technical knowledge or skills that educated experienced professioinal may have from the ‘first world’. that this may be a better solution than the actual design of such products sitting far away.”

“An open source two way exchange of information between the first and the third world would be of more use. I see this in my work that the local inventors are hungry for knowledge, they know what they want to build but feel frustrated by their own lack of education and access to information, which brings me to my next point about technology.”

“technology either works well or not at all. but you can’t throw the baby out with the bathwater and say that technology cannot provide relevant solutions for the developing world. It needs to be appropriate – Nokia is an excellent example of a company providing relevant solutions to these market niches – in fact those that actually help develop the populations income generating ability by providing ways and means to release the flow of wealth, through products and services that directly address the vital needs.”

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