Thursday, July 15, 2010

Design: Humanitarian Design

Last week, I wrote about menu design. How many of you laughed and thought to yourself "really? menus?" I almost did the same but after I read the published the post, I felt happy. The kind of happiness that makes you think you have given something back to the community. This week's design post is just about that -- design for humanity. Humanitarian Design might sound like a complex issue but it's pretty self-explanatory. It happens when good-willed designers/architects/engineers pair up in order to work with communities with the goal of designing products that meet the need(s) of the said community. Or in the words of, it "connects the power of design to the people that need it most, and the places where it can make a real lasting difference."A popular example is one of the hippo roller, a product created to improve water transportation. The hippo roller was made 15 years ago by two South Africans and redesigned by

Today's post is a little different, it's different in the sense that I'd like to add my two cents to the humanitarian design debate sparked by Bruce Nassbaum's article on whether humanitarian design is the new form of imperialism. I'm not going to write a dissertation so don't close your browser just yet. Bruce voices his concern about the"western" designers who might be missing the mark in their quest to do good for the underprivileged. He raises a point about collaborating with the right partners and learning from the best local people in order to appreciate the bigger picture and actually help the people in need (as opposed to imposing western beliefs and values). He provides the One Laptop Per Child initiative as a example of a failed test run, in his words, it "failed in its initial plan to drop millions of inexpensive computers into villages, to hook kids directly to the Web and, in effect, get them to educate themselves."

From what I gather, Nassabaum is clearly not against the concept of helping others by designing products that they can use to help themselves. No, his concern is whether the right issues are being attended to, the right problems being solved. My answer to that is Yes & No. Growing up in a country that sometimes requires people to fetch clean water. While I never fetched water myself, I have witnessed images like the one seen below and the hippo roller is definitely an upgrade.

On the other hand, people living in congested cities(the hippo roller was specifically designed for rural areas so we can conclude that some thought went into the process) might not benefit from a roller and that's where collaboration begins continues. However, they probably have other needs that will benefit from innovative product design. Just because an idea doesn't work does not mean that it should be classified as "imperialism." Yes, people/designers might be ignorant of certain issues but all they need is education. They have the energy and passion to help and that is mainly what matters.


I can also see how the One Laptop Per Child is an initiative that, given poor infrastructure, will not work. Issues such as lack of electricity remove the benefit of OLPC. However, the concept behind OLPC should not be discouraged. It is forward thinking that should not be shunned. The human race is an ever evolving one. The fact of the matter is that, one day, the hippo roller might become obsolete in very areas that it is being used. But it will have served a purpose. Just as the One Laptop Per Child will one day serve a purpose in villages with electricity. Baby steps people, baby steps.

You can check out more examples of humanitarian design on Project H or google "humanitarian design" to learn more about this awesome discipline of design. Likewise, you can participate in the ongoing debate by searching for "humanitarian design" on twitter.

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