Contributor ML wrote:
Here is something excellent for the EnergyBulletin – an exhibition of low-tech designs for the poor people of the world (soon to include us?):

Click on the headline (link) for the full text.

Many more articles are available through the Energy Bulletin homepage

Exhibition website: Revolution In Design

Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum

“The majority of the world’s designers focus all their efforts on developing products and services exclusively for the richest 10% of the world’s customers. Nothing less than a revolution in design is needed to reach the other 90%.”
—Dr. Paul Polak, International Development Enterprises

Designers, engineers, students and professors, architects, and social entrepreneurs from all over the globe are devising cost-effective ways to increase access to food and water, energy, education, healthcare, revenue-generating activities, and affordable transportation for those who most need them. And an increasing number of initiatives are providing solutions for underserved populations in developed countries such as the United States.

Encompassing a broad set of modern social and economic concerns, these design innovations often support responsible, sustainable economic policy. They 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. These designers’ voices are passionate, and their points of view range widely on how best to address these important issues. Each object on display tells a story, and provides a window through which we can observe this expanding field. Design for the Other 90% demonstrates how design can be a dynamic force in saving and transforming lives, at home and around the world.

On view at Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum through September 23, 2007.
Much more at the website.

Exhibition website: Focus on ENERGY

Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum
Fuel and power are needed for cooking, heating, lighting, communication, and income generation. More than 1.6 billion people lack access to electricity; and 2.4 billion people lack access to modern fuels for cooking and heating, relying instead on wood, dung, and crop residue. Increasing the availability of renewable energy is primary to reducing poverty in the developing world.

Ideas range from low-cost, energy efficient, simple technologies are helping to connect remote and underserved “to the grid.” Rather than large, expensive public infrastructure projects, smaller innovations with broad applications are allowing people to harness energy off the power grid. University students are teaming with local communities, and local enterprises are partnering with rural banks to provide solar lighting which enables teaching, reading, and income-generating activities after dark. An easily installed virtual utility combines street lighting for safety with a Wi-Fi mesh network for communication and information. Solar dishes built from bicycle parts and vanity mirrors power an informal kitchen, reducing the cost of cooking and supplying a renewed sense of community for the displaced rural migrants who use it.

Up to two million people a year, primarily children, die from inhaling cooking-fire smoke. Clean cooking fuels and efficient portable stoves can reduce indoor and urban air pollution, potentially saving millions of lives. In addition, they spare women and children the chore of collecting wood-an estimated fifty billion hours are spent collecting firewood around the world each year-freeing them up to attend school and engage in income-generating activities.

Design for the unwealthiest 90 percent

Alice Rawsthorn, International Herald Tribune
The numbers seem nutty. There are 6.5 billion people on this planet, 90 percent of whom can’t afford basic products and services. Half of them, nearly three billion people, don’t have regular access to food, shelter or clean water. Yet whenever we think, or talk, about design, it’s invariably about something that’s intended to be sold to one of the privileged minority – the richest 10 percent.

The $1 million chaise longue. The fast car. The sleek computer. The beautiful book. The super-legible typeface. The toothbrush, power drill or MP3 player that’s ingenious enough to be priced a little higher than its competitors. Museums, books, magazines, and blogs are stuffed with such things. Tens of thousands of designers devote their working lives to producing more.

It’s not that there’s anything wrong with designing things like that. But when you look at the bigger picture, doesn’t it seem strange that so much time, energy and resources should be consumed by creating luxuries for relatively few people, when so many essentials are needed urgently by so many more? Why are designers so focussed on designing for the wealthiest 10 percent?

“That question always reminds me of the quote attributed to the bank robber, Willie Sutton, when someone asked him why he robbed banks,” said Paul Polak, president of International Development Enterprises, a nonprofit organization that encourages innovation among poor farmers in developing countries. “His answer was: ‘Because that’s where the money is.’ “

Fair enough. Designers are entitled to earn a living. But if you flick back through design history, they haven’t all focused on the privileged minority. Think of R. Buckminster Fuller’s emergency housing, or the sustainable products devised by Victor Papanek for use in developing countries. Their work has already had tremendous impact. Fuller’s geodesic domes have provided shelter for hundreds of thousands of people in desperate circumstances; and Papanek is lauded as a pioneer of socially responsible design. Yet both have been treated as bit-part players in design history, as have other designers with similar goals.

That’s changing. Designers, like so many other people, have become increasingly concerned about the plight of the needy majority, and many of them are now using their skills to address it. Some do so by devoting part of their time to voluntary work for nonprofit organizations, like Architecture for Humanity or Engineers Without Borders. Others have chosen to work full time in humanitarian or sustainable design.

The Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in New York is exploring this phenomenon in “Design for the Other 90%,” an exhibition opening Friday. It is hard to think of a more important or inspiring issue for a design museum to address right now. It is equally hard to imagine a more appropriate venue than the Cooper-Hewitt, whose home is the wisteria-clad Carnegie Mansion built on upper Fifth Avenue at the turn of the 20th century by the robber baron, Andrew Carnegie. Having made a fortune in the steel industry, Carnegie gave most of it away to endow schools and libraries. This is the first time the Cooper-Hewitt has devoted an exhibition to humanitarian design. “It’s a call to action,” Cynthia Smith, the show’s curator, explained. “There’s a big interest among design students and design professionals in finding socially responsible design solutions to the underpinnings of poverty.”

“Design for the Other 90%” analyzes 30 humanitarian design projects, all addressing basic needs in the areas of shelter, health, water, education, energy and transport. As anyone who has dipped into the quagmire of development knows, it is a ferociously political field with diverse, often conflicting opinions. Humanitarian design is no exception, but the Cooper-Hewitt hopes to skate around the schisms by presenting a diverse range of approaches.
(29 April 2007)
Alice Rawsthorn is design critic for the International Herald Tribune. More writings.

Design That Solves Problems for the World’s Poor

Donald G. McNeil Jr., NY Times
“A billion customers in the world,” Dr. Paul Polak told a crowd of inventors recently, “are waiting for a $2 pair of eyeglasses, a $10 solar lantern and a $100 house.”

The world’s cleverest designers, said Dr. Polak, a former psychiatrist who now runs an organization helping poor farmers become entrepreneurs, 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,” he said.

To that end, the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, which is housed in Andrew Carnegie’s 64-room mansion on Fifth Avenue and offers a $250 red chrome piggy bank in its gift shop, is honoring inventors dedicated to “the other 90 percent,” particularly the billions of people living on less than $2 a day.

Their creations, on display in the museum garden until Sept. 23, have a sort of forehead-thumping “Why didn’t someone think of that before?” quality.

For example, one of the simplest and yet most elegant designs tackles a job that millions of women and girls spend many hours doing each year — fetching water. Balancing heavy jerry cans on the head may lead to elegant posture, but 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.

Interestingly, most of the designers who spoke at the opening of the exhibition spurned the idea of charity.

“The No. 1 need that poor people have is a way to make more cash,” said Martin Fisher, an engineer who founded KickStart, an organization that says it has helped 230,000 people escape poverty. It sells human-powered pumps costing $35 to $95.
(29 May 2007)

Interview with the curator of the exhibit
Janne Ryan, ABC (Australia)
A new show has just opened in New York called Design for the Other 90%. A quote by Eleanor Roosevelt caught By Design’s attention. To the United Nations in 1954, she asked and remarked: ‘Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, closer to home – so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any map of the world.’ These being the places we work, the homes we live in, the schools we attend, she said. Eleanor Roosevelt then observed: ‘Such are the places where every man, woman and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination.’

Guests: Cynthia Smith
Curator, Design for the Other 90%, Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum, New York City.
(2 June 2007)
The interview is in the first 15 minutes of the broadcast.

“Design for the Other 90%” at the National Design Museum

Amy Shaw, WorldChanging
…I found a few products especially useful, economical, and well built. The LifeStraw, shown here, is a portable water-purification tool that one drinks through to turn any still water into drinkable water. The Q Drum, designed to make it easier for people in drought-prone areas to carry water over distances, is a wide donut-shaped container with a rope strung through so that the water may be rolled rather than lugged. The Global Villages Shelters, three of which anchored the exhibition design, are 8-foot square temporary structures that ship flat, assemble easily, and protect people left homeless by earthquakes, storms, or other natural disasters. The Pot-in-Pot Cooler uses water evaporation to keep food cool in hot climates and can be easily produced by local potters.

…After the exhibition, I took my June issue of Harper’s magazine into Central Park for a rare moment of leisure. Coincidentally, the essay I turned to, “Pure Product,” threw the whole exhibition into question. Written by Binyavanga Wainaina, who grew up in Kenya and now teaches writing in Schenectady, NY, the essay considers with raw honesty how objects designed for the poor are really regarded by those they’re intended to help. The bottom line: such design objects communicate one thing only: “You are f***ed.”

…He posits that what motivates rich countries to design such “pure products” for the poor is a “feeling that the giant world of the urban poor is too pathetic to tolerate” and so “pins its hopes and dreams on some revolutionary product… a pure product [that] presents itself as a complete solution.” The problem is that “a product built to serve the needs of the needy assumes the needy have measured themselves exactly as the product has measured them.”

Some of the products in Design for the Other 90% might be regarded in this way. Yet many of the designers selected for the show worked directly with intended users to develop their products, listening to the users define their needs and then coming up with inclusive, solution-driven products.
(26 May 2007)

A review of the Cooper-Hewitt exhibition

Natalia Allen, Core 77
…while taking in the Cooper-Hewitt’s new show, Design for the Other 90%, I wondered if I was viewing an array of raw-edged artifacts, or true design solutions. The entire exhibition is laid out in the museum’s back yard—apt for the season—but as an exhibition of design for the poorest global communities, the clever inventions had a tough time communicating clearly while poised on the lawn. To truly appreciate their value, I needed to read the exhibition book, which details the origins of the designs and the specific issues the designers aimed to ameliorate. So by all means come to the garden, but be prepared to do some summer reading afterwards. …

Function versus Beauty

Poor communities make up approximately 90% of the world’s 6.5 billion people, and they receive the least design attention. Design aims to balance beauty, function and cost, but it seems that in order to build low-cost design, there is generally a compromise of aesthetics for function. This was evident in a majority of the objects on display. For example, Domed Pit Latrine Slab Kit by designer Martin Fisher (and based on a concept of a latrine slab by Bjorn Brandberg at the National Institute of Physical Planning in Mozambique) was retooled to be built by unskilled local laborers in developing nations. (Nearly 2 billion people live without access to basic sanitation.) Undeniably useful—and an improvement on existing options or the lack thereof—the concrete slab lacked, well, design. …

Aerial view

Apart from the artifacts, the statistics displayed throughout the exhibition were compelling. But perhaps the most sobering—for the designer’s side of the table anyway—was the following from Paul Polack, founder of IDE: “The majority of the world’s designers focus all their efforts on developing products and services for the richest 10% of the world’s customers.”

The good news is that in addition to the progress being made by foreigners serving poor communities with better design, I believe that prevailing changes will occur when we see less disparity in economic means. With circulating wealth comes education and equality. And as a result, developing nations will begin to produce more designers. Unlike designers raised in industrialized nations, however, this new crop will be versed in the indigenous cultures, and sensitive to the traditions and ways of life at home.

Design for the Other 90% – Problem or Opportunity?

Robert Davies, Seeing the Possibilities (blog)
…The challenge is to stop paternalistic top-down aid from undermining the self-help capacity of the poor, enable them to access affordable design and technology and facilitate traditional market mechanisms that empower local people as entrepreneurs and distributors. There is a quiet revolution now going on, led by designers, architects, social entrepreneurs, NGOs, micro-finance intermediaries and socially committed small firms, that business can partner to make a massive potential impact on poverty and sustainability.

The possibilities are well illustrated by an excellent exhibition of 30 projects I visited a few days back in New York. ‘Design for the Other 90%’ exhibits at New York’s Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum until 23 September. It is a bit deficient in the economics of the technologies, R&D and implementation, and some breakthrough technologies are absent such as cell-phones. But the exhibition encompasses a broad set of modern social and economic concerns that 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.

Each object on display tells a story – water purification, affordable energy and transport, food preparation, anti-malarial bed-nets, simple shelters and safe latrines – and provides a window through which we can observe this expanding field, applicable both to poor countries and poor communities in rich countries such as post hurricane Katrina New Orleans. In the main, they are all cost effective, affordable, locally maintainable and revenue-generating for local entrepreneurs, thus ensuring sustainability. Design for the Other 90% demonstrates how design can be a dynamic force in saving and transforming lives, at home and around the world.

…What I have come to realise, is that all too many organisations and companies that profess concern for sustainable global development find it difficult to scale down their thinking to the part they can play in low cost affordable solutions that are replicable, sustainable and amenable to local people through grass roots empowered entrepreneurs. All too many think in the dimensions of top-down, high tech Olympic swimming pool scale solutions. A new breed of social entrepreneurs and young designers are challenging this, and offer great potential partners for companies.
(23 May 2007)
Author Robert Davies is CEO of the International Business Leaders Forum (IBLF)