States of Design 10: Social Design - Design - Domus
States of Design 10: Social Design
 

States of Design 10: Social Design

Motivated by an ideal of equality, the dedication with which architects and designers strive to achieve even small improvements in living conditions opens up new perspectives for design, politics and the management of public and private sectors.

 

Design / Paola Antonelli

In early 2011, a public controversy exploded when Bruce Nussbaum, a well-respected American critic and educator with a solid background in the business perspective on design, wrote a post on FastCompany.com titled Is Humanitarian Design the New Imperialism? Nussbaum did not use incendiary language but on the contrary was rather measured in reporting the "rumblings" (his word) of some Asian and in particular Indian designers, who resented the uninvited generosity of US-based design companies big and small such as Project H (small) or IDEO (big). Some of Nussbaum's scepticism perhaps came from his youthful involvement in the Peace Corps, the historical programme founded by President Kennedy in 1961 that has often been accused of pursuing an imperialistic US agenda disguised as humanitarian support and relief. The selflessness of many young American liberals in the 1960s and '70s had been burned by that accusation. In 2011, the reaction to Nussbaum's words was, however, swift and very heated, and the comments at the foot of his post represent only part of the discussion. He had evidently touched a nerve in the design community, and elicited responses ranging from sincere, articulated and candid to opportunistic, sanctimonious and manipulative. Social Design is apparently above criticism and reproach—albeit not infallible, as even recent history teaches us.

What is Social Design, anyway? The term is typically used to label the work of those designers and architects who focus on tasks born out of humanitarian and socio-political issues, but the term is deeply unsatisfying. For instance, it suggests a type of design that is not conceived for the benefit of individuals, but rather for idealised and averaged groupings thereof, with the intent of improving their conditions. But isn't the generalisation dangerous? And isn't it what designers do? Isn't all design "social"? It also suggests outside intervention and, indeed, a teacher-pupil relationship.

Top: Elemental, <em>Quinta Monroy</em>,
Iquique, Chile: examples of
housing units completed and
enlarged through informal
interventions. The project
allows for the residents to
intervene autonomously to
double the initial 36-m2 floor
area of the individual units. The construction of the
93-unit housing complex
began in 2004. Above: Project H: Studio H,
<em>Windsor Super Market</em>. The public farmers’ market
pavilion was designed and
built as part of the Studio H
public high school “design/
build” programme based
in Bertie County, North
Carolina. Studio H is an
initiative by Project H

Top: Elemental, Quinta Monroy, Iquique, Chile: examples of housing units completed and enlarged through informal interventions. The project allows for the residents to intervene autonomously to double the initial 36-m2 floor area of the individual units. The construction of the 93-unit housing complex began in 2004. Above: Project H: Studio H, Windsor Super Market. The public farmers’ market pavilion was designed and built as part of the Studio H public high school “design/ build” programme based in Bertie County, North Carolina. Studio H is an initiative by Project H


Social Design walks a very fine line, and it has often gone hand in hand with moralism and sweeping declarations. Several charismatic personalities in the history of architecture and design have thundered against dissolution and disparity with the vehemence of preachers. In the 1960s and '70s, Victor Papanek was among the first to put it in contemporary terms, addressing not only issues of living conditions, class and income difference, but also environmental responsibility. Physically diminutive, he made up for his appearance with a gigantic ego and Star Trek-like attire, and he always had in mind the biggest picture possible, working with UNESCO and the World Health Organization on poverty, disabilities and economic development in the Third World. Many designers practicing today carry in their pocket his "little green book" Design for the Real World, published in 1971 and subtitled Human Ecology and Social Change, and through it they have learned to think that they can really change the world.

Victor Papanek, <em>Design
For The Real World: Human
Ecology and Social Change</em>,
First Bantam Books Printing,
1973

Victor Papanek, Design For The Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change, First Bantam Books Printing, 1973

Changing the world, whether globally or locally, is the common aspiration of all forms of social design. We will from now on use the term with small caps and consider it in the same way we consider social science, as an umbrella under which to cluster markedly "extroverted" attitudes that include for instance activist design (politically charged, manifesto-like, partisan, actively pushing against the status quo, ideologically averse to the commercial aspects of product design), humanitarian design (in response to natural or man-made crises and catastrophes), compassionate design, or even public-interest design.

 
Social Design walks a very fine line, and it has often gone hand in hand with moralism and sweeping declarations
 
Project H: Studio H,
<em>Public chicken coops</em>. The chicken coops project
involving high-school
students from Bertie
County was set up as part
of the Studio H programme
established by Project H

Project H: Studio H, Public chicken coops. The chicken coops project involving high-school students from Bertie County was set up as part of the Studio H programme established by Project H


The defining characteristic among the case studies presented below lies in the choice of their area of influence. Hilary Cottam and her London-based company Participle work locally. Educated as a social scientist, Cottam realised early on design's potential to focus purpose and to lead to concrete and feasible solutions. After working for the World Bank as an urban poverty expert, doing a stint in Zambia for them, working on a London-based experiment to redesign school buildings, in 2007 Cottam founded Participle together with innovation strategist Charles Leadbeater and entrepreneur Hugo Manassei. Participle project teams are composed of ethnographers, psychologists, social scientists, economists and other experts selected for each task at hand. Its partners are cities, governmental institutions and private enterprises. Its clients are diabetics, prison convicts, dysfunctional families, at-risk youth, elderly people and obese individuals, to name just a few. A deep-tissue massage, rather than social-design acupuncture, Participle's process is not about making things, but rather about designing ways to make good things happen—a crystal-clear definition for service design, one of the main ingredients of social design.

Nathaniel Corum’s straw
bale architecture building
process. Corum is the
author of <em>Building a Straw
Bale House: The Red Feather
Construction Handbook</em>,
edited by Princeton
Architectural Press

Nathaniel Corum’s straw bale architecture building process. Corum is the author of Building a Straw Bale House: The Red Feather Construction Handbook, edited by Princeton Architectural Press


As Cottam explains, her method is quite straightforward: "The project work I do is: collaborative—it's about putting people first and working as part of an interdisciplinary team; innovative—it's about creative problem solving and new solutions; delightful—I hope the solutions are covetable and the process is fun; affordable—a promise to deliver something within existing budgets and often saving money; and most importantly practical—simple solutions that really work every day." The projects start out with pilots (the prototyping phase that distinguishes the design approach), and if those are successful and appreciated by the partner institutions they continue with fully fledged rollouts. Relationships are the focus of the design process, as well as its most powerful tool.

Massoud Hassani’s <em>Mine
Kafon</em>, a wind-powered
land mine clearance device.
Made with an integrated
GPS system, it rolls over the
land deactivating mines and
memorising cleared paths.

Massoud Hassani’s Mine Kafon, a wind-powered land mine clearance device. Made with an integrated GPS system, it rolls over the land deactivating mines and memorising cleared paths.


The elderly are encouraged to join phone conversations focused on shared interests (in a project called MeetUp); diabetic and overweight individuals are steered towards a healthier lifestyle by friendly peer groups called Activmobs; young people's networking behaviours are redirected to enable them to take part in local activities in a youth project called Loops.

Massoud Hassani’s <em>Mine Kafon</em> is a low-cost product,
easy to assemble, and its
designer hopes it will help
communities in his native
Afghanistan

Massoud Hassani’s Mine Kafon is a low-cost product, easy to assemble, and its designer hopes it will help communities in his native Afghanistan


Companies like Participle, Live|Work (another pioneering London-based service design company) or WeAreWhatWeDo (also based in London) use the traditional design approach and methodology—analysis of goals and means, synthesis, prototype, refinement—to tackle specific and urgent issues of public interest. If local service design engagement seems to be particularly lively in the United Kingdom, examples involving buildings and objects can be found all over the world, from Chile—where the Elemental studio provides citizens with minimum-cost yet dignified basic residences that act as architectural "canvases" on which real homes and whole communities can be built and which accommodate expansion and invention—to Alabama—the well-known example of Auburn University's Rural Studio (since 1993), where architectural students cut their teeth while offering the population better living conditions.

Philips Design,
<em>Low Smoke Chulha</em>. Promoted by Philips Design
in close collaboration with
NGOs, the low-tech cooker
project Low Smoke Chulha
considerably reduces
firewood consumption and
also curbs harmful emissions

Philips Design, Low Smoke Chulha. Promoted by Philips Design in close collaboration with NGOs, the low-tech cooker project Low Smoke Chulha considerably reduces firewood consumption and also curbs harmful emissions


Project H, the principal subject of discussion in Bruce Nussbaum's post, started global and then went local, gaining strength and impact on the way. Project H (H like Humanity, Habitats, Health and Happiness) was founded by Emily Pilloton and Matthew Miller in 2008. It began with a remote intervention, focusing on the redesign and deployment of Hippo Roller, a trailblazing 1991 project by South African engineers Pettie Petzer and Johan Jonker. Made of stable and inexpensive rotation-moulded PET, the 90-litre rolling tanks allow even children and women to carry water from faraway streams to their village, even on rough terrain. Project H set out to deliver 75 rollers to Kgautswane, a faraway rural community in the Northern Province of South Africa that has somehow become the case study for many different social design and technology experiments. Pilloton and Miller approached the task with the élan of a fully fledged design company, addressing inefficiencies in the design that led to inefficiencies in manufacturing and shipment. However, many hurdles and inconsistencies along the road made this project an example of the brutality of reality checks on idealism, no matter how pragmatic. After other remarkable experiments, Project H recently successfully completed a very local project in Windsor, in rural North Carolina, where they taught design to high-school students and led them to build chicken coops and a new farmers' market structure for their community.

Project H Design, <em>Hippo
Roller Redesign</em>. The task of redesigning
the original Hippo Roller to
reduce shipment costs was
commissioned by <em>Hippo
Water Roller Project</em>. More
than 38,000 of these water
conveyer systems have been
distributed in 17 countries

Project H Design, Hippo Roller Redesign. The task of redesigning the original Hippo Roller to reduce shipment costs was commissioned by Hippo Water Roller Project. More than 38,000 of these water conveyer systems have been distributed in 17 countries


When it comes to life-changing design, deep community involvement is often the key to success and global networks such as Architecture for Humanity (AfH)) always seek to establish local partnerships. I met Cameron Sinclair, co-founder of AfH with Kate Stohr, at the turn of the last century while I was preparing an exhibition titled SAFE: Design Takes on Risk, and he still had a day job in a big architectural firm that paid for AfH twilight activism. Since then, AfH has grown into a worldwide force and has pioneered the decentralised structure that lies at the core of the most successful humanitarian ventures. What many of these companies have in common is their acting as a tripping wire, micro-investing instead of micro-lending, as stated by Project H, and also picking communities where the power of design can make a real and lasting difference.

Architecture for Humanity, Daniel Feldman, Lompreta
Nolte Arquitetos, Nanda
Eskes Arquitetura, Mel
Young: <em>Homeless World Cup
Legacy Center</em>, Santa Cruz,
Brazil, 2010. Architecture for Humanity
worked in collaboration with
Homeless World Cup and
Nike GameChangers

Architecture for Humanity, Daniel Feldman, Lompreta Nolte Arquitetos, Nanda Eskes Arquitetura, Mel Young: Homeless World Cup Legacy Center, Santa Cruz, Brazil, 2010. Architecture for Humanity worked in collaboration with Homeless World Cup and Nike GameChangers


The return in motivation, inspiration, experience, market expansion and also in public goodwill and image is what has presumably attracted giant companies such as Philips and IDEO to embrace this model, Philips with its celebrated Chulha stove and IDEO with its offshoot network IDEO.org, devoted to "design solutions for social impact". As often happens with new movements fuelled by enthusiasm and idealism, a few cautionary tales buttress the success of others. Some are surprising failures—like PlayPump, the photogenic children-powered solution to the dearth of drinkable water in Mozambique that so many, yours truly included, fell for unconditionally—while others show the pitfalls of process, especially when global scale, industrial manufacturing, software roll-outs and competitiveness are concerned—as with the case of the groundbreaking One Laptop Per Child, whose vicissitudes are described in a recent essay by Alice Rawsthorn. Other products tell success stories, from LifeStraw—a portable water filter by Switzerland-based company Vestergaard Frandsen—Freeplay Radio—which counts on a system where First World buyers subsidise Third World users of free human-powered models called Lifeline—or Condom Applicator by Cape Town-based XYZ Design, introduced to counter the spread of AIDS in South Africa.

Whether called social, compassionate or public interest, this type of design is supported by a groundswell of activity and dedication, relying on designers' natural inclination towards altruism. Pioneering agitators such as writer and speaker John Thackara and Metropolis editor-in-chief Susan Szenasy are now joined by strong champions like Julie Lasky, editor of the website Change Observer, Cynthia Smith, curator of the exhibition series Design for the Other 90% at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York, Lauren Currie of Redjotter, and many others. Architects and designers all over the world are working hard, not just to score one of the numerous awards—from INDEX to Curry Stone and Victor J. Papanek—devoted to projects that will change the world, however attractive, but also to find ideal partners, from public institutions and NGOs to social entrepreneurs and local communities, that will make ideas become reality. They are passionate, dedicated and not always right. They lead and work along with a pack of younger teams of designers, entrepreneurs, anthropologists and consultants who work all over the world to bring beauty and common sense not only to design practice, but also to policy-making, management in the private and public sector, and very simply, to life. Paola Antonelli

<em>One Laptop Per Child</em>.
Nicholas Negroponte, the
project’s promoter, presented
the new-generation XO-3
tablet (below), which is
the evolution of the first XO-1
laptop (above).
The design is by Yves Behar’s
Fuseproject

One Laptop Per Child. Nicholas Negroponte, the project’s promoter, presented the new-generation XO-3 tablet (below), which is the evolution of the first XO-1 laptop (above). The design is by Yves Behar’s Fuseproject


<em>One Laptop per Child</em>, new-generation XO-3 tablet

One Laptop per Child, new-generation XO-3 tablet