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The Problem with Design: Imperialism or Thinking Too Small?
Alex Steffen, 15 Jul 10

Bruce Nussbaum has stirred up a fierce debate with his new article Is Humanitarian Design the New Imperialism?. Nussbaum criticizes groups like Project H, Acumen Fund and Architecture for Humanity for being perhaps naive about the post-colonial landscape they face in Asia and Africa:

Is the new humanitarian design coming out of the U.S. and Europe being perceived through post-colonial eyes as colonialism? Are the American and European designers presuming too much in their attempt to do good?

What's more, Nussbaum says, we ought to be focusing our efforts closer to home: "And finally, one last question: why are we only doing humanitarian design in Asia and Africa and not Native American reservations or rural areas, where standards of education, water and health match the very worst overseas?"

Of course, Emily Pilloton of Project H has shot right back, saying it is Nussbaum himself who is out of touch with the younger generation of humanitarian designers, designers who are well-aware of the cultural and political landscapes in which they're working, and are in fact increasingly focused on problems closer to home:

It is only through this local engagement and shared investment that the humanitarian design process shines. It is through this personal connection to place and people that the human qualities of design rise to the top of the priority list, through which our clients are no longer beneficiaries, but experts and co-designers right there with us. In his infamous address titled “To Hell With Good Intentions,” Ivan Illich puts this beautifully: 'If you have any sense of responsibility at all, stay with your riots here at home...You will know what you are doing, why you are doing it, and how to communicate with those to whom you speak. And you will know when you fail. If you insist on working with the poor, if this is your vocation, then at least work among the poor who can tell you to go to hell.' We all have to learn how to be citizens again: citizens first, and designers second. Citizenship is inherently local, defined by our connection and commitment to the places we best know and most love.

In the last few days, there have been different takes on this debate from leading thinkers like Cameron Sinclair, Susan Szenasy and Robert Fabricant. Now, I have conflicts of interest all over the place here -- Emily and Cameron are friends, I've sat on a panel and shared ideas with Susan, and Worldchanging's discussing a project with Frog Design -- so I'm not going to take sides, but I find the conversation extremely encouraging.

That said, some things are missing here, I think. In particular, the whole discussion has glanced over two critical realities: the scope, scale and speed of the planetary crisis we face, and the profoundly unequal distribution of access that exists to tools of innovation globally. I don't have time to write a proper essay today, but I'd like to share a few thoughts.

Most of us in the Global North are out of touch with the scope, scale and speed of the problems we face. We live in a global civilization that can measure its life expectancy in decades if it continues to operate as it does today. We know that we're straying beyond a series of non-negotiable ecological boundaries (the most obvious being the concentration of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere). The predicted consequences are profound in a way that's difficult to fully grasp, but could well involve the complete collapse of large portions of human society and almost unimaginable suffering and destruction.

"This is not a small probability of a rather unattractive outcome," as Lord Stern, former Chief Economist of the World Bank, reminds us. "This is a big probability of a very bad outcome.”

This planetary sustainability crisis is impossible to tackle unless the Global North redesigns its own prosperity to be at least carbon neutral (and probably actually carbon negative) by 2050. Because it takes time for innovations to spread and become universal, that 2050 goal, in turn, means innovating many of our urban land use, transportation and energy systems (as well as the products and services we use) to be carbon neutral by 2030. Zero impact is the only rational goal, and we need to be working towards it right now.

In addition, between two and four billion young people are expected to raise themselves into the global middle class in the Global South over the next 40 years, and billions more poorer people will have to find stable systems of survival in a rapidly changing world. The new global middle class can only adopt a bright green, climate-responsible model of prosperity if such a model is available when they need it. That forces us to confront a second planetary reality: the international distribution of problem-solving resources is profoundly unfair.

A gigantic imbalance in capacities and resources exists between the Global North and Global South. This is, obviously, not to argue that Southern designers, engineers and entrepreneurs are less capable (or less innovative) than their Northern counterparts. If anything, the evidence points to the opposite conclusion.

But in Northerners' desires to avoid the pitfalls of cultural imperialism and the failed model of top-down aid (and, let's be honest, to be seen to be down with other cultures), we go whistling past the mountainous reality of power inequality in our global society, and the extent to which, in a knowledge economy, that power is about the ability to generate and deploy ideas.

The Global North has the vast majority of the world's finest universities, libraries and broadband connections. It has the lion's share of the best-trained designers and professional innovators: there are probably more top-level product designers in New York than in all of India; probably more top-flight software engineers in the Bay Area than in all of Africa. That's not even getting into corporate R+D labs, incubators, fellowships, internships and all the other capacity that spins off the design, technology and engineering industries: almost all of which are in the developed world.

What's more, we know that innovation sparks from clusters of talented people in close proximity -- from scenius -- but it catches fire when exposed to capital, subjected to debate (in magazines, at conferences, on campuses) and connected to networks of other equally talented professionals in other fields. Most of those clusters are in the Global North; the remainder are in places (like Sao Paulo and Shanghai) that are already approaching "developed" status. Hotbeds, conferences and venture capital are not fairly distributed around the Earth.

It's a harsh reality that the vast bulk of the world's ability to solve system-scale problems is concentrated in wealthy countries. If a bright green model of prosperity is going to be invented in time for billions of young people to adopt it, big chunks of it will have to come from the Global North and be spread through partnerships between the North and South.

Obviously, complexities abound. Some of the world's most innovative thinking is happening on "the edges" of the wealthy world, in newly emerging economies. The Global North often stifles innovation with outdated codes and regulation. Many designers in New York or London may mot have the foggiest clue what on-the-ground challenges present themselves in the cities of the Global South, and so lack the ability to design solutions at home that will have a broader value. Many people cannot afford to participate in the major capitalist forms of innovation diffusion. Furthermore, flowing innovations to the bottom billion is wrought with difficulties. Some nations suffer from a hipness invisibility (what some have called the Ninja Gap), which makes them unable to draw even the most modest notice from folks in a position to help them solve problems. Finally, the ability of experts operating in ignorance of context to screw a system or place up beyond recognition should never be underestimated.

Yet, yet, yet... the reality is that we inherited a broken future, and designing a better one is going to take the whole-hearted participation of hundreds of thousands of creative, innovative people in the cities of the Global North. It's going to take grappling with remaking our own cities and systems into sustainably prosperous forms -- and doing it with an eye to global realities, the need for innovation diffusion and the cultural minefields involved. It's ultimately going to take redesigning (or at least reconsidering) pretty much everything about the way our cities work.

So, perhaps it's worth shifting the debate a little to discuss the obligations of not just humanitarian designers, but all designers to design responsibly? Maybe presumption is less the problem than a lack of planetary thinking.


Image from Design for the First World, "The Rest Saving the West," a competition commenting on the cultural presumptions of northern designers.

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Comments

Unfortunately, I think your article reinforces some of the problems here. If nothing else, could you please stop using the horrible self-referential phrase "Global North"? Some of use who live in the developed world have never even been to the northern hemisphere, and every time I see that phrase it feels like you're talking about the old European colonial powers, plus America.

If you want to discuss post-colonialism, why are you only referencing European and North American thinkers? This discussion is happening in New Zealand, South Africa and India too. And I think you might be surprised just how many designers India has, or the nature of some of the barriers that developing nations experience in trying to enter the US and European commodity markets, except as (badly paid) vassals of huge multinationals. That probably has as much impact on development as any amount of targeted aid.


Posted by: Chris on 15 Jul 10

Alex -

I study designers in India. In particular, ones working on social impact projects meant to do massive systems innovations. I would like to contest a couple of your points based on my own time there.

First, designers doing innovative ninja thinking in the "global north" linked up with capital -- that fire -- can actually be a huge problem. Sexy projects that we assume are based on a universal need, like malaria vaccines, are often unrecognized as problems by people they target, say villagers and slum dwellers. The big, sexy problems-from-the-north can end up displacing human and financial capital from really big problems like overfluoridated bore wells that can cause paralyzing fluorosis that are actually a felt pain among millions of in the developing world. The agendas come from San Francisco and Switzerland and are often ones that are more attractive to the agendas of philanthropists and corporate partners.

Second, why does the solution to the global crisis you point to have to come from everyone everywhere adopting the same innovation? Wouldn't approaches to dealing with global warming look different if you're in a high-consumption vs a low consumption context, or in a culture that highly values multi-generational family structure vs smaller family residential units? The 1990s globalization hype didn't happen -- the whole world didn't choose to turn into America and it still won't. I doubt even authoritarian dictatorship would successfully force the diffusion of the large scale world-saving, lifestyle transforming innovations you speak of. I highly recommend, by the way, that you read James Scott's "Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed." It's a great read about modernizing schemes. Le Corbusier, efficient forestry, and some failures of rationalism.

Third, you say that India doesn't have rockstar designers. There may be fewer people who recognize themselves as designers in India for two reasons. One, it isn't a broadly known profession in India. This is related to two, the National Institute of Design in India started in the 60s under some guidance of the Ford Foundation and the Eames. It produces no more than 200 students a year. In a country with a billion people. Those students are rockstars. The acceptance rate to NID is something like 0.025%. So yeah, Stanford and Harvard admits got nothing in terms of making the cut on these guys. But they aren't that numerous. A second issue, though, is what it takes to even get recognized as a rockstar designer. A lot of design debating, from what I can tell, is as much performing the professional role -- the sharpie, the post it, the moleskin notebook, up to date knowledge on Pitchfork, and strong opinions on English language fonts and consumer products -- that, as a lifestyle, isn't all that relevant to or even known to the vast majority of India. (I wrote a forthcoming publication on this: http://www.ics.uci.edu/~lirani/writings/icic2010_sharpiescollab.pdf) "Systems thinking" itself is an idiom for a particular kind of Bucky Fuller inspired engineering that depends on a world-as-mechanism cosmology. There are other ways of thinking, other cosmologies, other rational-spiritual ways of seeing the world that might be as or more innovative but we couldn't even recognize them as interesting or useful from our vantage point.


Posted by: Lilly on 15 Jul 10

Thanks for the thoughtful comments.

Lilly, you say "why does the solution to the global crisis you point to have to come from everyone everywhere adopting the same innovation?" The short answer is that it doesn't. It's just more likely that solutions will come disproportionately from places with a profoundly greater capacity (and money, training, infrastructure, etc.) to create them. In case it's not clear, I'm not advocating this as the best path, just the most likely one to work given global realities.

There are places where solutions will be the same, though, where the problems are universal, because they deal with universal scientific laws (such as essentially all machinery). A solar panel for instance that works anywhere works the same essentially everywhere. An energy efficient cellphone designed for disassembly and reuse will work in Chad or Chicago, by and large. A breakthrough on either front will benefit people around the world.

My personal preference would be to see lots of Global North (sorry Chris) designers taking on the problems that make their own home communities unsustainable, but designing with an eye to making their solutions adaptable to other circumstances.


Posted by: Alex Steffen on 15 Jul 10

Oh, and this -- "There are other ways of thinking, other cosmologies, other rational-spiritual ways of seeing the world that might be as or more innovative but we couldn't even recognize them as interesting or useful from our vantage point" -- I completely agree with.


Posted by: Alex Steffen on 15 Jul 10

G'day,

It seems to me that this issue shares a more universal theme in terms of the need for social engineering and social technologies to pave the way for the training of the mechanical designers and the penetrance of the amazing new technologies we are seeing everyday. I think a lot the underlying debate here simply referenced as culture/captial/capactiy issues is perhaps more central to the solution than any particular design solution. I think that the self organized on the ground organizations in the global south can play a vital role in selecting and creating feasible distribution networks for the designed products from the global north. I understand that this is indeed happening and is an organic and self forming process as the design hotbeds are an organic process in the global north. Thanks for the article and to the other posters, this is by far the type of debate that can lead to a bright green future, I hope!

Cheers,

spiritkas


Posted by: spiritkas on 16 Jul 10

Great article Alex.
Just a tip: the name of the brazilian city is Sao Paulo, instead of Sao Paolo.
=)


Posted by: Alexandre Ribeiro on 17 Jul 10

Hi, I'm a white European. I'm building a company that's investing in designers and tech start-ups in Central and West-Africa. They're very good. Great for investments. I'm going to make a lot of money with them. Both Europe and America are a bit old and passé.

I'm going to make a lot of money with them, because I take these people seriously. They don't hate humanitarian designers. They just work with them as long as they can make a profit from them. I like their sharp attitude and their irony.

Neither Nussbaum nor the humanitarian designers make a point. None of them gets it. What's really happening is that "Africans" are laughing at all these people, and will go along with them as long as there's a profit in it. Nussbaum et al haven't understood the clues they should be able to see in each mega-city in Africa and Asia, namely that they're already far more globalised and post-modern than any of them are. Most Anglo-Americans and Europeans are in a sense horribly parochial compared to these other people.


Posted by: Laurens on 18 Jul 10

"A gigantic imbalance in capacities and resources exists between the Global North and Global South. This is, obviously, not to argue that Southern designers, engineers and entrepreneurs are less capable (or less innovative) than their Northern counterparts. If anything, the evidence points to the opposite conclusion."

How can you arrive to this conclusion??


Posted by: zam on 19 Jul 10

"There are places where solutions will be the same, though, where the problems are universal, because they deal with universal scientific laws (such as essentially all machinery). A solar panel for instance that works anywhere works the same essentially everywhere. An energy efficient cellphone designed for disassembly and reuse will work in Chad or Chicago, by and large. A breakthrough on either front will benefit people around the world."

this statement shows such a lack of understanding of the importance of CONTEXT in good design that... i don't even know where to start.

just the fact that you use the word "universal" and the phrase "universal scientific laws" shows that your philosophical bent as a believer in modernism, broadly stated... and modernism has proven if anything, to be fairly unsuccessful in solving the supposed "universal" problems of the world.

the book lilly irani refers you to looks like a good place for you to start.


Posted by: a. on 30 Jul 10

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