Design for Others: Beautiful and low-tech solutions for daily problems

A small but important collection of ingeniously designed yet simple-to-use devices from around the globe is currently on display at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum (part of the Smithsonian Institution) in New York City, where it will be on view until Sept. 23. Organized outdoors in the lush garden behind the former town house of Andrew Carnegie, the Bill Gates of his day in terms of personal wealth, the exhibit highlights affordable, innovative products created specifically for the worlds poorest people, as well as for disaster victims and refugees.

The exhibit, titled Design for the Other 90%, also focuses on designers as agents of social change, who can use their skills and creativity to house, feed, educate and otherwise assist people without electricity, adequate shelter, clean water, books or even a shady public spot in which to gather with families and neighbors. Designers from many nations have been responding to widespread basic needs and, along with the manufacturers, have envisioned potential business startups and markets among the 2.8 billion people who live on less than $2 a day. This is revolutionary, since designers typically work with just 10 percent of humanity in mindthe few who buy everything.


Cynthia E. Smith, the curator, has assembled products for viewing that already work, rather than blueprints or untested notions of what might work. The only exception appears to be the $100 laptop (nominated for the 2006 Peoples Design Award competition sponsored by the museum), a bright-green-and-white mini-model made of slick rubber that is still in production. Several governments stand ready to purchase the first batch of computers later this year.

Arranged on the grass are assorted water pumps, water filters, rain catchers and water storage devices. One finds the Domed Pit Latrine Slaba concrete disk with two footprints and an openingpart of a kit that furthers sanitation in refugee camps worldwide. One of my favorite products is the Pot-in-Pot cooler (from Nigeria), a non-mechanical refrigerator made of two clay pots with a layer of sand and water between them, which can keep produce fresh for 21 days even in arid climates. Small construction businesses in East Africa are buying an efficient steel block press that makes strong, uniform building blocks of various dimensions. Such products save time, labor and money. Others shelter, educate and promote health among whole communities.

Many of the products provide low-tech solutions to huge problems encountered daily. Think of the women in sub-Saharan Africa, who spend 15 to 30 hours each week just transporting necessities like water, firewood, crops and grain. How much better their lives would be if they could use the drip irrigation system on exhibit. It reduces water consumption while increasing crop yields. Just a bag and some plastic tubing, it needs very little water pressure to work properly. The result: more food for less work and less water. More than 600,000 systems have been sold so far. Then there is the Q- Drum, which is manufactured in South Africa. The one on display is a bright blue plastic doughnut, hollow inside, with a plastic rope attached. The newfangled water wheel transports by rolling along or by pulling as much as 75 liters of waterno lifting required. Big Boda is a load-carrying bicycle with a woven seat made to carry two passengers or oversize loads, and it is easy to manufacture locally. And what might the women do with a bamboo treadle pump on their land, so simple that a child can use it to irrigate a field?

Other equipment on view is high-tech by comparison. Imagine the excitement that would be stirred up by five motorcycles arriving in a remote Cambodian village, bringing temporary Internet access to all. Called the Motoman Network, it provides mobile Internet access points and a satellite uplink. That enables schools to send and receive e-mail and to use the Internet for a few hours or over several days of instruction. A visiting nurse can examine and digitally photograph patients, transmit the information to a hospital (the one described is in Boston) using a solar-powered computer, and physicians can respond within hours with medical opinions and treatment recommendations. All this takes a highly coordinated effort and tools (an antenna, solar panel, satellite and the motorcycles), but one team can move from village to village on a schedule.

At the exhibition one can examine each object up close. I stood inside the plywood hut built by Georgia Tech students originally for Atlantas homeless, and I felt the cool shade under the New Orleans 7th Ward Shade Pavilion, designed by University of Kansas School of Architecture students for a community center damaged in Hurricane Katrina. Being there helps one judge the dimensions and stability of a temporary cardboard shelter that requires no tools to assemble and can be mailed flat. And one can note how tiny are the Kinkajou microfilm projector and portable library, a solar- and battery-powered teaching tool that eliminates the need for books. With this one projector, Design that Matters, Inc., a U.S. company, has helped more than 3,000 adults in 45 rural villages in Mali learn to read.

It is unfortunate that the exhibit is not scheduled to travel, but many small museums could mount a limited collection like this. If you cannot see the exhibit in New York, try the museums attractive, informative Web site, The only thing I found missing is a list of what each item costs and who constitutes the market for it. Are the people the buyers or are nongovernmental organizations, the United Nations or governments the target? The works themselves are so humble and unassuming that one sees in many of them how beautiful and practical simplicity can be. Many of the products depend on computers and recently developed microtechnology.

Andrew Carnegie, the steel magnate turned philanthropist when he retired, would have approved of this exhibition in his backyard. It meshes well with his philosophy of building wealth though thrift and hard work and of improving oneself through education. It also would have made E. F. Schumacher proud. The economist and author of Small Is Beautiful extolled appropriate technology and urged finding ways to help people to help themselves out of poverty. The movement he spawned in the 1970s has inspired some of the designers whose work is on display here.

Not every problem made worse by poverty is intractable or unsolvable, as these socially responsible and thoughtfully designed objects so clearly demonstrate.

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