Design For Good: The Controversy

Written by Lee Schneider, Director of SHELTER

The Haiti SOFTHOUSE is described by its creators as “a flexible and sustainable approach to shelter that provides immediate transitional housing.” It’s steel-framed housing with fabric on top. The SOFTHOUSEgroup, which is behind the project, reports that it’s currently working in conjunction with The Rural Haiti Project to deploy the project in Haiti. In other words, they are outsiders trying as best they can to work with locals to create a project that is relevant and which fills a need.

That’s not always so easy.

Bruce Nussbaum, a design commentator, recently asked in his blog if humanitarian design might be the new imperialism. It’s a good bomb-throwing concept that has people talking. Certainly, Nussbaum has shined a big flashlight on the problem of outsiders coming in with design solutions that locals don’t always want. Why don’t locals want these solutions? Well, they don’t always employ locals. They don’t always work well with local infrastructure. There’s a general grumbling to the effect that “what makes these outsiders believe they can just come in and solve our problems?”

It’s a question that sometimes comes up for Nathaniel Corum, a self-described nomadic architect who has just started working with Architecture for Humanity on Haiti reconstruction. Corum has recently worked on a Navajo reservation, where he designed and helped residents build solar-powered homes made from straw bales. To protest the wasteful use of plastic, he’s made a 130-day voyage across the Pacific Ocean in a boat called Plastiki. It was made from 12,500 recycled plastic bottles and he designed the cabin.

As quoted by the Times, he answered the charge of design imperialism like this:

“The richer the dialogue you have with the people you’re working with the better,” he said. “I spend lots of time with them, and learn so much, especially from people living close to the land. Humanitarian design isn’t the new imperialism, it’s the new compassion.”

Many would agree that compassion as a design concept is a good idea. But what about execution? Another story. Tell that to the people who are working – and failing – to get the One Laptop Per Child design into India. The mission is to put inexpensive laptop or notebook computers into the hands of children in developing countries. But it hasn’t worked in India – because the Indian educational establishment has blocked the one-laptop movement. They know there are problems with their schools, they say, but the problems are not technological. The system is dysfunctional for other reasons. So they don’t need a technological solution like a laptop.

Designing for good can start with good intentions – but for those who practice it, deploying good design in the field requires diplomacy and a truly personal sort of compassion.

You can follow me on Twitter here.


4 comments so far

  1. Bob Ellal on


    What’s more basic than shelter–outside of food? Kudos to Corum–he could be making millions designing mansions for rap stars–but he’s “manned up.” Same to you–instead of filming those Mensa candidates on “Jersey Shore,” you’re doing a film that will make people think and feel and get out of their own ego consiousness (in my former life I was a shameless sycophant).



    • docuguy on

      Jersey Shore is easier to fund these days but I’d rather be working on this. If you know of any logo designers – we need a logo -and we’re offering a prize. Have a good weekend.

  2. Jesseca Woywod on

    Very true. The best design – NGOs, non-profits, charities working through partnerships with local organizations that are already in place and have proven track records displaying their accountablity and transparancy.
    Local people with local solutions backed by international funding. That’s the only way to tackle the cultural imperialism that is taking over the developing world.

  3. Bruce LeBel on

    Given that construction is one of the most effective economic development channels for cycling capital through a local economy, there is an imperative for shelter programming to emphasize locally spent capital – on local labor and regional materials and equipment procurement. Foreign-built ready-made transitional shelter has a place in contexts where the local resources are scarce, when those imports are designed and field-programmed to catalyze local adaptations of the delivered shelter into permanent housing. Where significant capital is spent on imports that are not on the path to permanent housing, e.g. ShelterBox, that is a misdirection of capital away from more effective community rebuilding efforts. Relief shelter efforts must ultimately shift from an expense-based model (giving stuff away with no expectation of retained value) to an asset-based model (partnering with local entities to create transitional shelter and permanent housing with substantial retained value – think “collateral”). When families have adequate shelter, they can change from survival mode to productivity mode and participate again as contributors to their local economies. This economic development function of shelter is a powerful lever for community rebuilding, and one of the principal benefits of adequate shelter that is on the path to permanent housing. The asset-based model can make people “bankable” who currently are not. As more people become bankable, increased capital can be brought in to the local economy for progressive locally-driven economic development. The process requires comprehensive engagement with, and trust in, the local stakeholders. In short: Maximize locally spent capital for shelter and minimize foreign purchases of tents and other temporary materials. Asset-based transitional shelter programming can catalyze community rebuilding and economic development.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: