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For the people, by the people: How inclusive design can help tackle extreme poverty

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The Obinju Climate-Smart Farm in Kenya was designed by an agriculture scientist to create solutions to common problems faced by the local farming community, including an unpredictable rainy season.

A museum is probably not the most obvious place to examine global inequality, but something is happening at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York City that deserves a good look.

The museum is presenting the “By the People: Designing a Better America,” the third exhibition in its series on socially responsible design. Using 60 design projects from every region of the US, the exhibition, which ends on February 26, 2017, highlights how design can tackle social and economic inequality in the United States and its bordering neighbors. It also succeeds in stirring a thought on my mind since my student days in NYC: design for development.

As a music student, I sometimes took organ lessons at Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church. To get there, I usually walked from Lincoln Center and crossed Central Park. Lincoln Center shone as the stage for the arts in performance. Central Park towered as a mighty cathedral of nature. Madison Avenue, not be outdone, fascinated in its own way; from chairs to lamps, its shops exhibited items of elegant design.

I love design, so as I walked along Madison, the items mesmerized me, but something else also caught my attention: the cost. Back then I used to instantly convert dollars into my native Ugandan shillings. If a chair cost $2,000, I thought, “oh my gosh, that’s more than six million shillings!” That it would take 2,000 days for a poor farmer who earns a dollar a day to make that much is telling.

Kibaha District Court, located just outside Tanzania’s capital city of Dar es Salaam, is the one of the country’s first modular buildings designed to improve court workflow and increase Tanzanian’s access to justice.

But there’s another important issue here. Inequality is not just about income; it’s also about power dynamics and the gap between the quality of services for the haves vs. the have-nots. People tend to respond to beauty and functionality; the combination of which can be magical. But somehow, elegant and functional design seems to be an afterthought when it comes to designing for the poor.  

In an article published in the New York Times nearly a decade ago, Donald G. McNeil, Jr. takes a look at that problem. He highlights Paul Polak, cofounder and CEO of Windhorse International, a social venture with the mission of inspiring companies to design, price, market, and distribute products to benefit the 2.6 billion customers who live on less than $2 a day. Polak observed something the Madison Avenues of the world tend to exhibit, that the “world’s cleverest designers cater to the globe’s richest 10 percent, creating items like wine labels, couture and Maseratis.”

“We need a revolution to reverse that silly ratio,” that article quotes Polack as saying.

He’s right. It may seem like an insignificant place to tackle inequality, but design is important because it should meet the basic needs of the poor, reminding us that development is more than disbursing monies; it also about applying our diverse creative energies to battle extreme poverty.

In reversing the design ratio, inspiration can be found in initiatives such as “Design for the Other 90 Percent” exhibition curated by Cynthia E. Smith, curator of Socially Responsible Design at Cooper Hewitt. For example, consider the Q-Drum.

This simple and elegant design “tackles a job that millions of women and girls spend many hours doing each year — fetching water,” McNeil points out. I couldn’t agree more. And while balancing “heavy jerry cans on the head may lead to elegant posture” like that of a ballerina, as McNeil writes, “it is backbreaking work and sometimes causes crippling injuries. The Q-Drum, a circular jerry can, holds 20 gallons, and it rolls smoothly enough for a child to tow it on a rope.”

Items like the Q-drum can indeed make the life of the poor a little better. But what’s their use in a museum? Cooper Hewitt’s Director Caroline Baumann has an answer: They can empower “visitors to see themselves as designers — not just of objects, but also of ideas, strategies and solutions that improve our daily lives,” she said.

That brings up another point: the need to enable local design in development. Local inventors tend to understand the needs of their communities better (this thought is not new in development discourse), however, does their work gain meaningful attention? If local design is promoted, it could attack inequality from the bottom up.

But how can sustained attention be drawn to this issue? One approach might be to create an annual People’s Design Week that celebrates local design from around the world. That gesture might encourage countries to support their own local designers who cook up solutions that fuel homegrown, inclusive development. As the exhibition attempts to show, this is what design ‘for the people and by the people’ is all about.


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