Sunday, November 2, 2008

Humanitarian Design & Real Needs

The world doesn’t need any more stuff! --- I have to question why I am in ID, designing more stuff!!! Who needs it???”

I have spoken recently with a number of ID students who expressed this concern. The answer, I feel, lies in a broadened sense of “who” and a non-market-driven sense of “needs”.

In fact, your skills are desperately sought to help solve the real problems that inescapably define the lives of millions of your fellow human beings living elsewhere in the world.

For example, the UNHCR (United Nations High Commission on Refugees) has released the depressing statistic that there were 67 million refugees and internally displaced persons in the world in 2007.
That works out to be about 1 in 100 people alive today are "of concern" to the UNHCR. and

What can designers do? In 2007, the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum held an exhibition, Design for the Other 90%. It began with the premise that 90% of the world’s total population has “little or no access to most of the products and services many of us take for granted; in fact, nearly half do not have regular access to food, clean water, or shelter.” This exhibition, book, and on-going web site hopes to inspire designers to get some perspective on their affluence, and sign on to help solve the real problems that define every day for ”the other 90%”. The website is filled with short lectures, resources, and examples of the design work or prototypes of fellow designers working in this field. I urge you to spend time exploring it.

Design for the Other 90%:

Today our guest lecturer is Dr. Bruce Becker, a Brown professor and first-response disaster relief provider. He will alert you to the problems faced every day in providing refugee and humanitarian relief after a disaster, war, famine, or civil unrest, and the design opportunities that beg to be addressed. He notes also that the principles apply to urban ghettoization in the third world as well. Dr. Becker currently sponsors a Brown/RISD course on Disability, and would welcome the opportunity to pursue collaboration on Humanitarian Relief with RISD-ID students. Dr. Bruce Becker's email address is:

We have talked about the various ways of writing an ID History, and we have often followed the thread that is concerned with design innovation and that “better mousetrap”. This week we look at a contemporary application of this ongoing chapter in ID History: How to solve a real problem in a better way, with your help?

So, if you find yourself asking, "Who needs more stuff?" See if you can't find opportunities to meet real needs by maybe turning your binoculars towards a different horizon.

Assignment due Sunday November 9th by 6pm: Please write and post on your blog a 500 word essay responding to some aspect of the lecture by Dr. Bruce Becker. These issues could include the problem of how designers can best contribute to user groups from extremely different cultural and economic backgrounds, such as refugees in third world countries. Should you do nothing because it might be wrong? What are some examples of positive interventions that could serve as case studies for the future? What do you see as the most important problems in the field of humanitarian design that should be top design priorities? 

I hope that these essays will spur dialogue among yourselves within the department, as well as with Bruce Becker and his colleagues from the field -- certainly a storehouse of information waiting for designers to start acting upon.  

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