Design – a tool for development

Image by Kevin Dooely
As early as in 1970 Victor Papanek stated that

 In this age of mass production when everything must be planned and designed, design has become the most powerful tool with which man shapes his tools and environments (and, by extension, society and himself). This demands high social and moral responsibility from the designer.

Papanek suggested in his major text, ‘Design For The Real World’, that the ideal strategy to help the developing world would be for a designer to move to the designated country where he can educate the designers themselves to train designers. By doing this, the country gets the help to help itself, rather than providing short-term help. This is similar to the old saying ‘Give a man a fish; you have fed him for today. Teach a man to fish; and you have fed him for a lifetime’.

Furthermore, in 1973 Ernst Freidrich Schumacher wrote a book called Small is Beautiful – A study of Economics as if People Mattered to illustrate his philosophy of how to deal with the in-equality in the world. In this study he suggested a strategy of how to resolve the problems in the developing world.

The concept of his philosophy, which was referred to as Intermediate Technology, was to ‘find out what people are doing and help them to do it better’. Schumacher comprehended the fact that instead of implementing Western sophisticated technology to the developing countries, the objective of helping had to focus on the already existing knowledge in the country and introduce an appropriate technology. Schumacher referred to this as technology for the developing countries being a £1-technology, and the Western sophisticated technology he named the £1000-technology. His philosophy was that a £1000-technology could not be implemented to a £1-technology country, although if a £100-technology was introduced it would increase the effectiveness of the already existing technology and yet it would not be as expensive as the sophisticated technology existing in developed countries.

If you combine these philosophies, you end up with a philosophy that could be similar to the one Design without Borders has implemented in its work.  Design without Borders was initiated in 2001 by Norsk Form and Petter Opsvik, and was established to highlight the needs in societies where well-functioning economies and infrastructure are underdeveloped. Design without Borders aims to make use of the creative and analytic skills of the industrial designer. In that way, they improve solutions to promote development; thus the quality of emergency aid will increase. The designers that work for Design without Borders normally go and live in the country where the project is running, according to Papanek’s philosophy.

However, this organisation does not only work with designers and their way of design, they also work across other disciplines, much like what Schumacher suggested. Design Without Borders works together with the local people, using their already existing knowledge and resources. Knowledge transfer is a key component in order to make sustainable changes. By collaborating closely with local partners Design without Borders seeks to transfer knowledge about design methodology and innovation to its partners, thus enabling them to develop better products and lower their production costs.

For more than 10 years, over 30 projects have been run in different countries mainly in Uganda, Guatemala and Norway. Design has been used for developing shelters in Guatemala, ecological urinals for slum areas in Uganda, bicycle paths in Guatemala City and even a birthing simulator. All these projects, and more, will be presented at an exhibition in Oslo, from September to November 2012

After more than 40 years, the philosophies of Papanek and Schumacher are still in focus, although the methods might be altered to fit the situations of today. There is still a need to put focus on the high social and moral responsibility of both the designers and the public in general…




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