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.
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