30 May 2007

Design for the Other 90%

I just noticed this story in The New York Times (29 May) on a new exhibition at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in NYC. Called Design for the Other 90% it features work by various designers (and fellow travelers) who are "devising cost-effective ways to increase access to food and water, energy, education, healthcare, revenue-generating activities, and affordable transportation for" populations in the developing world and for poor populations in the 'developed' world. The products are intended in one or another way to contribute to "help, rather than exploit, poorer economies; minimize environmental impact; increase social inclusion; improve healthcare at all levels; and advance the quality and accessibility of education." The exhibition runs through through September 23.
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PS: (Added later that same day) - One thing that bothered me about the exhibition and the reports on it - well, OK, two things - revolve around the political economy of this enterprise.

First, these design solutions primarily are ameliorative (read "humanitarian") and only secondarily transformative, in the sense that they afford those who use them to devote the energy or attention the designs free up to other tasks. They in no way address the underlying causal forces that create the problems of say, inadequate shelter, lack of potable water, and so forth. In other words it is important to note that even well-intentioned design per se is not a panacea.

Second, there are crucial question regarding how these items might be produced and distributed. (Where? By whom? Through what insititutional arrangements? With what costs on the social and natural environment? To whose profit? And so on.) The backers of the exhibition have clear views on this. But it is not at all obvious that those views are defensible. They tend to spurn the notion of "charity" but presume that the only alternative to that is selling products to the poor on the market. The designers whose work is represented in this show display a ton of problem solving imagination. Perhaps what is called for is a corresponding level of imagination regarding institutional alternatives? That is a problem-solving task too! For a critical perspective on all this see this post at Art For A Change.

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