Volume 20 Issue 6 | June 22 - 28, 2007


Curing poverty through conscientious design

The Other 90%
Through September 23
Concurrent with the Design Triennial
Through July 29
Cooper-Hewitt Museum
2 E. 91 St., at Fifth Ave.

By Stephanie Murg

iPods, Aeron chairs, Nike shoes, and the animated creations of Pixar might be among the greatest hits of contemporary design, but they’re only household names in the households that can afford them—that is, the richest 10% of the world’s customers. What about the other 90%? This is the question posed by an exhibition on view through September 23 at the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum. “Design for the Other 90%” features objects that aren’t pricey, slickly packaged, or even particularly attractive. They are design solutions that spare the space-age polymers in order to address basic needs for the billions of people whose daily budget is less than the price of a single iTunes download.

At first glance, the exhibition gives the impression that a highly sophisticated troop of renegade Boy Scouts have set up camp on the Museum Mile. “Design for the Other 90%” colonizes a corner of the Cooper-Hewitt’s Arthur Ross Terrace and Garden with a grouping of huts crafted of plywood and biodegradable corrugated cardboard (structures designed to house the homeless or serve as temporary emergency shelters) circled by rough-hewn lumber enclosures that contrast with the mirror-limned objects of the Design Triennial on view inside the museum.

The bivouac-style spread is divided into sections that focus on water, shelter, health and sanitation, education, energy, and transportation. The objects on view are elegant, compelling, and their value almost always immediately apparent—from a drinking straw that works as a mobile water purifier and a $100 laptop computer to a mosquito net treated with long-acting insecticide and a bicycle that is stretched to accommodate hundreds of pounds of cargo or two additional passengers.

“The inspiration for the show came from the work being done by International Development Enterprises (IDE),” says exhibition curator Cynthia E. Smith, referring to the international non-profit development organization founded by Paul Polak, M.D. “We were introduced to Paul [through Barbara Bloemink, then curatorial director of Cooper-Hewitt], and that was really the entry into seeing the terrific work that’s being done around the world in this arena.”

Bloemink’s first encounter with Polak, at a conference in 2005, spurred her to reconsider the meaning of design. “Contradicting the usual definitions of design, I began to notice that a few designers were suddenly designing works that are not beautiful, do not function very well, and cost next to nothing when compared to what is on the consumer market,” says Bloemink, now deputy director of the Museum of Arts and Design. “Instead, and far more importantly, what they can and do is actually save lives! And to me, these are therefore the most powerful and transformative works being designed today.”

For nearly three decades, Polak’s organization has introduced such problem-solving technologies as microirrigation to impoverished regions worldwide. Microirrigation technology may sound fancy, but groups such as IDE have brought it to the farmers of Bangladesh, Kenya, Tanzania, and India in the form of Stairmaster-like manual treadle pumps and plastic bags designed to efficiently capture and store monsoon rain water. These innovations are sold, not simply given away, in a sustainable system that promotes entrepreneurship.

One manually-operated treadle pump in the exhibition is manufactured by KickStart International, a non-governmental/non-profit organization. The pump directs water where needed by pulling water from a depth of seven meters and lifting it 14 meters above the water source, enabling farmers to grow crops during the dry season and boost crop yields throughout the year. Retail price? $95 (a smaller version sells for $34). “If you go from irrigating with a bucket, which is what many of these people do before they get the pump, to irrigating with this pump in east Africa, you have an average increase of tenfold in net farm income,” says Martin Fisher, who founded KickStart in 1991. “This literally lifts them out of poverty.”

The pump is sold and promoted under the brand “MoneyMaker,” a fitting name for a technology that is now used by 52,000 farm businesses in Kenya and Tanzania. “Currently, 800 new businesses are being started every month [with MoneyMaker pumps] and between them, they’re making $54 million a year in new profits and wages,” says Fisher. “This is a huge percentage of the GDP of Kenya.”

The exhibition is full of such humble-looking objects that have made huge impacts. “Each object tells a story about the unique way that the individual or the organization saw a need and how they went about coming up with a solution,” says Smith, who worked with an exhibition advisory council that included Polak, Bloemink, and Fisher to select which socially responsible design solutions to include in a show with limited space. “There could be many more objects included in the show, and I looked to make it a broad survey, and each object would then be a window into a bigger story.”

Even the smallest object in the exhibition has a big story. The Solar Aid is an affordable, solar-powered, rechargeable hearing aid developed and manufactured by Godisa Technologies, a five-year-old nonprofit organization that is based in Botswana. The concept was born when ten people — eight of them deaf — decided to do something to ensure hearing aid use in developing countries, where hearing impairment is rampant but cost and access to traditional hearing aids remains prohibitive.

More than 7,000 Solar Aids are now in use in South America, Central America, Africa, and Asia. “We have changed the perception of [hearing-impaired] people in developing countries,” says Modesta Nyirenda-Zabula, a project manager at Godisa. “In Africa, people who are disabled, they are literally called ‘unwhole people.’ Perceptions are beginning to change.”

In his essay in the exhibition catalogue, Polak crystallizes the ever-widening design divide: “Transport engineers work hard to create elegant shapes for modern cars while the majority of people in the world can only dream about buying a used bicycle.” And this consumer chasm is in full view at the Cooper-Hewitt, where Jason Miller’s tiny ceramic Hostess cupcakes and thousand-dollar garments designed by Narciso Rodriguez in the Design Triennial contrast sharply with objects like charcoal briquettes made from sugarcane processing waste products, designed to simultaneously address the problems of respiratory infections, deforestation, and environmental degradation in Haiti.

“Design has an extremely superficial image in the western world,” says Cheryl Heller, CEO of New York City design firm Heller Communications and also a member of the exhibition advisory council. “The inventor of the ceramic water filter did not design a new shape or material or color, but he did design a way for people to purify their drinking water, as well as an infrastructure for manufacturing it, and teaching the technique. That’s pretty awesome, and whether or not you call it design seems incidental.”

Bloemink hopes that the exhibition will highlight how the work of one person or organization can affect millions of people in a positive way while challenging established designers to take on projects that affect those in developing countries. “Rarely does design touch your heart, change your way of thinking in a paradigmatic way, or help prevent people from dying,” says Bloemink. “Yet that is, as we have tried to show, what these works do.”

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