John Thackara | Essays

We Are All Emerging Economies Now

Photo: Jan Chipchase / Nokia

I recently received an invitation to discuss design and development with a wonderful group of design peers in a beautiful location. But I have decided to decline the invitation. Why?

It is my growing conviction that, as designers, we can usually do more good in our own backyards than in foreign parts. It is, in principle, great that many colleagues donate their time and expertise to projects such as $100 laptops, emergency shelter, and mobile hospitals. But I can't get it out of my mind that I personally, along with most other US or European citizens, emit as much CO2 in one day as someone in Tanzania does in seven months. And if I go as a tourist, even an eco one, I'll use as much water in 24 hours as a villager who lives there, uses in 100 days.

Who needs whose help here?

I say we can do more good at home than abroad — not that we can do no good. Our skills and connections can, of course, be valuable to people in other places than our own. But if we are to exchange value — rather than just take it, like cultural tourists — what do we have to offer?

In theory, a designer's fresh eyes can reveal hidden value and thus mobilize otherwise neglected or hidden local resources. But, in practice, this hardly ever happens. The vast majority of designers go somewhere different, are inspired and stimulated and maybe even humbled by the experience — but leave without turning their insights into value that local people can use. The exchange ends up being one-way in favor of the visitor. 

I am also troubled by the words "poverty alleviation." Those words — like the word "development" — imply, to me, anyway, that we advanced people in the North are under some kind of moral obligation to help backward people in the South "catch up" with our own advanced condition.


Poverty is a real enough challenge for half of the world's population, but in many cases it's caused by patterns of development exported from and imposed by, the North. 

Besides, I'm not convinced, when it comes to things like food, water and shelter, that designers from the North can add a gigantic amount to what grassroots organizations and NGOs are already doing.

The most powerful lesson for me, after 20 years working as a visitor on projects in India and South Asia, is that we have more to learn from smart poor people on things like ecology, connectivity, devices and infrastructures, than they have to learn from us.

I’ve never forgotten the time when Jogi Panghaal, one of Doors of Perception’s co-founders, took me to a sleepy hamlet an hour from Bangalore. We encountered a group of villagers standing around a wide patch of ragi (a grain that is used to make dark bread) spread thinly over the road in a neat circle. Six chickens appeared to be eating up the grain, while the villagers watched and chatted. Why, I asked, don't you feed the grain in a bowl? The villagers laughed, and then explained that the chickens are eating tiny maggots, smaller than our eyes can see, which need to be removed from the grain before it can be stored. It's a smart, low-tech solution to a practical issue faced by farmers everywhere. But when I recently Googled "clean bugs from grain," the first link was to the "Opico Model 595 Quiet Fan Batch Dryer With Sky-Vac Grain Cleaner." I can’t help but find this to be a clunker solution than hens in the street.

Big D development tends to view human, cultural and territorial assets — the people and ways of life that are already there — as impediments to progress and modernization. A huge development industry measures progress in terms of economic growth and increased consumption. This industry often assumes without question that urbanization and transport intensity are signs of progress. It tends to devalue human agency and often imposes solutions that replace people with technology, automation and “self service.” These ways of looking at the South from the North are the result of a wrongly-developed model from the perspective of sustainability.

And it has to be said: this wrong model is making many designers rich. Around the world, from Dubai to Pakistan, the worst excesses of development are fuelled by design “visions.” One Dubai property developer has teamed up with Giorgio Armani to build thirty hotels and resorts around the world. One of these design destinations will feature in a US$43 billion luxury development on two islands — Bhudal and Bhuddo — off Karachi. Government officials describe the islands as being "deserted": but according to the Asian Human Rights Commission, the livelihoods of about 500,000 fishermen (indigenous people who have been living on the islands for centuries) will be severely affected. 

Ten million people a year suffer forced displacement from their homes and livelihoods to make way for the development of dams, transportation systems and waterfront developments like this one in Pakistan.

Every week, it seems, another brand-name designer opens an office in Dubai on the back of a huge development. These big projects are often promoted on the basis that they will reduce poverty — but poverty is more often a pretext for developments that are primarily designed to improve incomes and lifestyles for the rich. The result, in the words of Maggie Smith, a wise and experienced development professional, is that "millions of people are expelled to the margins of fruitful existence in the name of someone else's progress."

When development ushers in a world of luxury resorts and service industry jobs, most local people end up less secure than they were before. When the possibility of living off the land and sea is removed, only a tiny minority of displaced attain formal employment. Most (and we are talking by now about a third of the world's population — two billion people) live outside the economy of secure jobs, mortgages and pensions.

Half the world’s economy is informal — and that proportion is growing. And yet every time a new wave of development is unleashed, the informal economy is either ignored by planners or, if the poor get in the way, they are routinely swept aside, along with the ways of doing things that have served people well for generations.

Many property developers don't even pretend to care about poor people. But in the North, a lot of people are keen to do good. Advanced Micro Devices and Architecture for Humanity, for example, ran a $250,000 competition for the design of technology centers in the developing world. AMD spoke proudly of its ambition to connect 50 percent of the world's population to the Internet by 2015. The organizers seemed to be unaware that in India, six million mobile phone accounts are being opened each month without the participation of a single "technology centre" and that smart poor people are often ahead of the game in their access to connectivity, devices and infrastructures.
Another North-to-South project that missed the point was the $100 laptop. Nicholas Negroponte, founder of the Media Laboratory at MIT, launched his project at the World Economic Forum in Davos. To the delegates in Davos, $100 probably sounded cheap; many were paying $1000 an hour to be there. But in Mali, where 90 percent of the population lives on $2 a day, this cheap laptop would cost people two or three months' earnings.

Donating information technology for development is not, of itself, virtuous. Connectivity is more about the design of clever business models than about the mass distribution of devices. Delegates to the Doors of Perception conference back in 1994 were mesmerized hearing how the extraordinary Sam Pitroda enabled hundreds of millions of people in India to gain access to telephony by designing the Public Call Office (PCO) concept — a low-tech, high-smarts system based on the clever sharing of devices and infrastructure. PCOs exemplify the kind of design skills that we need to learn from India and adapt to our own situations.
As I mentioned above, well meaning top-down-ness afflicts the architecture profession. Many architects offer to help whenever a natural disaster hits poor countries far away. But itinerant design professionals often lack in-depth knowledge of local ways of building and living, and propose solutions that cannot be readily adapted to local conditions and are therefore unlikely to be sustainable.
Eighty percent of other design professionals are in the representation business. But designing a poster about an issue, or launching a media campaign about it, is not the same as helping real people, in real places, change a material aspect of their everyday reality. Development is not primarily about products, let alone posters.

An entrepreneur from the North who understands this, Paul Polak, helps people in developing countries improve water extraction and distribution systems. Polak has concluded, after years of work, that the design and technology of a device, such as a pump, is not much more than ten percent of the complete solution. The other ninety percent involves distribution, training, maintenance, service arrangements and the development of partnership and business models. These, too, must also be co-designed.
New approaches to development are more about exchange and distribution than blue-sky invention. Among the elements of a sustainable world that already exist, many are social practices — some of them very old ones — already learned by other societies and in other times. From this insight flows the idea of designers as global hunter-gatherers of models; processes and ways of living that already exist. Or used to. As scavenger-innovators, our first response should be to ask: Who has cracked a similar question in the past? How might we learn from, or piggyback on, their success?
The South can teach the North all manner of useful techniques for the re-localization of production and exchange. The South also knows a lot about service intensity. Those two billion people who live outside of formal economies have innovated a thousand-and-one ways to keep body and soul alive. And in Africa, right now, tens of millions of people are innovating a new system of value exchange, based on swapping airtime via cellphones, that could well become the replacement banking system that we'll need on the road to sustainability.
The North, despite being wrongly developed in so many ways, still has plenty to offer. For example, Northern designers are good for casting fresh eyes on a region's assets that have not been appreciated by local people. The North also has useful tools and skills to offer: these range from service design, to technologies of co-operation, to systems for resource allocation (ranging from people, to water) than can be re-purposed for ultra-local use.
The most exciting opportunity for innovation lies in combining the knowledge systems, tools, and social and territorial assets of South and North. In a light and sustainable economy, we will share resources such as time, skill, software or food using socially embedded systems, enabled by networked communications, that are a hybrid of assets from North and South.

This is why I'm declining the most enticing invitation I've received in ages. I wish my friends well in their meeting, but my personal view is that it's time to get out of the tent more.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Business, India

Comments [20]

James Puckett

I agree with your premise of combining local and foreign design resources as would many designers working on development projects, but I can't see how declining a convention helps unless you really feel that no one there would listen to your arguments.

On the contrary, perhaps you should instead consider working on this problem with some of the people who are actively engaged in the field.

Sloan Kulper

I think there are a few generalizations within your article which bear further consideration and examination. One of which is the generalization of the developed world (the "north," if I'm understanding this correctly), and these issues around poverty and development.

To me this development issues are inextricably tied to regional economies and politics. These issues of indigenous populations in Dubai, China, Pakistan, India, Vietman and other rapidly developming emerging economies are not something that I, as a graphic designer, can meaningfully inflluence or control. In fact, I the goverment of the United States can not meaningfully influence them.

Additionally, I am bothered by your attribution of the collective "we" reading this blog as belonging to a developed region called "the north." I would ask that you elaborate on this further. China has been a major contributor to this displacement of their population in favor or urban development. I would question how they fit into your regional charachterization.

I wonder also, do architecture firms which take on high profile projects such as OMA's development of the headquarters for the CCTV, bear more of a responsibility for those they displace than the government who commissions the project? What about the nature of the organization they're building it for? What about the nature of the human rights abuses by the Chinese government? Aren't these questions also a part of this larger dialogue?

Eighty percent of other design professionals are in the representation business. But designing a poster about an issue, or launching a media campaign about it, is not the same as helping real people, in real places, change a material aspect of their everyday reality. Development is not primarily about products, let alone posters.

This begs the question, in what ways can graphic designers meaningfully contribute to social causes? I would agree that there are plenty of awareness building tools that designers contribute to which arguably have little or no direct impact to the people affected. In this case, I think what you're describing is a kind of scenerio where we sit at our computers, brainstorm some idea which has no direct impact on a cause and then go back to our normal 9-5 routine.

Question: why is this a negative? Is it not better than just doing nothing?

I would also argue it depends on the cause. Are we, as Saint Francis of Assisi did, supposed to abandon our personal belongings and livelihood to commit ourselves towards poverty and social causes? I think even Saint Francis would say to do that would be its own kind of wasteful foolishness.

I can think of a handful of organizations - the other 20% you describe - who are meaningfully putting their graphic design skills to work "on the ground" so to speak. I will mention two.

One of them is Empax, who works actively towards building brands for charitable and social organizations. You can find more information about them on their website: http://www.empax.org.

The other is an initiative called the Phuket Project, started by the late Mach Arom, a former Executive Creative Director for DraftFCB. Mach's organization was started as way to help the lives of local people affected by the tsunami disasters in Thailand. Their goal is to bring attention to and directly impact those regions who may not receive high profile coverage in the news media. They are starting in Phuket.

This may be the kind of involvement you are proposing. Mach's team not only created a website and various other methods to get the word out, they also send teams of volunteers to southern Thialand for periods of 2 weeks or more to help with rebuilding and other initiatives. You can find more information of their website at: http://www.phuketproject.org/

However, not everyone is capabile or willing to contribute on this level. Again - what options are there for us to meaningfully contribute?
David Hartman

Is it me or does this article sound a lot like David Stairs' "Why
Design Won't Save The World?"

Let's just be honest, since both this article and Mr. Stairs are
saying the same thing:

Design is, by nature, the child of "western"

Design may feed the soul, but without a full stomach, soul be

And so design has not, and never will as a conceptual category,
do what Mr. Stairs and Mr. Thackara would like it to do.

That is what is called, as a category, engineering.

Honestly, I don't think this topic warrants much more energy;
Mr.Stairs' article was posted less than a year ago (8.20.07), and
yet here we are again about to natter on about things design just
simply will never do.
Thomas Jockin

Being one from India, I appreciate the author for shedding some
much-needed light on the small yet unconventional systems of
survival that exist in these "developing" countries. I grew up in
New Delhi in the late 70s and the idea and philosophy of
disposable products was unheard of. TVs, cars, toys, quilts,
furniture and everything else of trivial value was reparied and
re-engineered to last as long as it can. It was the basic fabric of
The people in neighborhood exchanged food and recipes on a
regualr basis. I know my friends who would come back from
school during the day, and if they were sick and their mother
was at work, my mother would take care of them till my friend's
mother returned.
This structure was truly organic in nature and fostered learning
and culutural/social development in a way which was not
resource expensive. And after so many years, my mom is
appalled and amazed at the kind life we have all come to live
now. At my brother's house she would always end up washing
even the plastic disposable cutlery they owned. Even Chinese
food take-out containers, which I think are such a waste.
There are so many things that remind me of the fact that the
lifestyles (offered by way of all-natural and organic products
and even Yoga, meditation teachings for example) have been a
way of the Indian lifestyle for centuries. Spices that help our
bodies in digesting food, to the science of Ayurveda that is
extensive and amazing, are all miracles that intended life to be
the way they planned it. It almost seems like although these
changes in the western culture are for the good, it's really the
lack of "development" that had turned them to these novel ideas
of living from the "developed" world.
Nitin budhiraja

Thomas Jocklin:
In your opinion does design mean just what it seems to mean? Is it
merely engineering? Human beings have evolved and so have our
sensibilities. Design is also a plan to achieve goals that cannot be
achieved by other means. It could be a design for a machine in a
factory, it could be business model or it could be a draft that sets
the rules for poor people in the villages for self-sustainability. It's a
plan that will help achieve, in a perfect scenario, a novel outcome.
Let's keep aside the western vs. eastern culture differences and
let's try to compare what this amazingly developed and potent child
of the western civilization can do for the lost children of the eastern
Nitin budhiraja

A project at the Institute Without Boundaries (where I was a
student) this year faced these very challenges. The Institute was
commissioned by the Government of Costa Rica to, amongst
other things, develop a proposal for sustainable social housing. Of
course it turned out that people living in the older housing types
are already, by most standards, very sustainable.

We had to deliver so what to do? What kind of involvement was
acceptable? None at all? Complete prescriptive designs?
Something in the middle? In the end we decided to suggest ideas
and practices based on the strengths already present in the
communities. Time and again, the best ideas came from
observing what was already happening.

Ultimately thinking about these problems resulted in a design tool
(called the Dashboard) that we used to negotiate the complexities
of this project (not least our own involvement). We've made a
website about this tool (plug, plug) - href="http://www.thedesigndashboard.com" target="_blank">www.thedesigndashboard.com - and the
entire Costa Rica work should appear on the Institute's website

Still, it is an uncomfortable position to do this kind of work
sometimes. There are so many issues and it's never clear cut.
But by working though them, it might be possible for designer and
client to learn together. At least that was the experience we had.
Mark Watson

Mark Watson

I think the reason we prefer our grain vacuum cleaners to hens is pretty obvious--chicken feet and road dirt don't fit the lofty standards of the FDA. Please don't discredit the fact that our frivolous need for clean, sanitary conditions was a hard-fought battle during the turn of the last century. Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle" put the wheels into motion for the Food and Drug act, so there was a sense of ethics and decency about what we were putting into the food that was being sold to people of all economic strata. This wasn't far off from a time period when cheap wheat and water was being sold as "baby formula," resulting in the colic-y deaths of hundreds of infants.
It may seem/have become indulgent now, but the germination of this concept was a social justice and a giant F-U to businesses that were thriving off of cheap and unsanity food products.
And it's cool if you live in a village and found a quick way of feeding your birds and get your grain clean, but it's not a tip I think we should be picking up over here.

@ Nitin,

"In your opinion does design mean just what it seems to

My metric of the category of "Design" is simply this;

If it was not taught at institution of education, then it's most likely
not design.

(To be fair, I can only speak for typography/type design, the other
areas I did not go to school from and thus my metric is null for
those areas.)

None of my classes discussed or assigned, designing for factories, sustainability plans for villages, nor business models. Thus none of
those things are design. They're something else.

Is this simplistic? You bet. But for VERY complicated manner of
poverty, economic development, the continual existence of
civilization setting some orientation is need.

But we're discussing very serious manners that require very
serious words and actions. And with that orientation, separating,
pardon the vulgar term, bullshit from the useful discussion is essential.

Yes, I do know the contradiction of saying this in the ultimate manifestation of bullshit, a blog.

"Is it merely engineering?"

This is there something wrong with engineering? Engineering
seems to free of the disconnects from reality, aka bullshit, in areas
like "Communication Design."

And its Product Design's relationship with engineering that helps
give that sector of design its value in questions like we're
discussing today, IMHO.

"Design is also a plan to achieve goals that cannot be
achieved by other means."

I mean this with the upmost respect, but doesn't this sound like
bullshit? There's always a relationship between concept and
execution, which, for design, they are closely tied together. The
best plan means not very much if it implodes when it hits the

Let's keep aside the western vs. eastern culture differences
and let's try to compare what this amazingly developed and potent
child of the western civilization can do for the lost children of the
eastern world.

Is this a masked sarcastic remark? And isn't this comment
contradicting itself? You say disregard a culture difference, and
then immediately afterwards frames the next sentence using a
west vs. east division.

Honestly, my point is that design doesn't have any agency of itself
on these manners, so you're question is, with all due respect, null
and void.

Thomas Jockin

Great post Mr. Thackara. Not to pile on Nitin, because maybe there is a productive conversation to be had here, so let us all continue, but one point asks me to comment:

Let's keep aside the western vs. eastern culture differences and let's try to compare what this amazingly developed and potent child of the western civilization can do for the lost children of the eastern world.

The idea that the West can simply set aside cultural differences*, and that it can do so in order to help the 'lost children' of the eastern world, is fundamental to the rhetoric which fueled the disasters of imperalism.

As for earl, the point isn't that westerners should employ chickens in the factory, the point is that noble-minded 'solutions' ignore valuable local ways of doing things by treating them as marginal 'cultural differences' that aren't part of the Western framework.

Also, great response, David.

I can't help but constantly reframe my own understanding of design. Depending on who you ask, it seems to be understood differently from expert to expert. Judging by the typographic response above me,(earl) to which I can relate, design is a very detailed and multifaceted area, which unfortunately is the cause of many conversations gone astray. I've read many a blog post and article about design issues that call to arms our combined strength for the improvement of the less fortunate billions. And they all use this term freely; "this needs a re-design" and "we designers have the fresh set of eyes". The very definition of design is constantly exchanged between contexts when it is very limited in it's range by profession. As mentioned above, architecture is a very noble pursuit in an ailing foreign environment but it is often completely unsustainable by local standards. What it needs on top is an understanding of local economies, social structures, history and culture.

I heard a story recently of a designed solution that aided transportation and connectivity within northern communities close to the arctic. A system was designed which incorporated snowmobiles into local communities so that people in those regions could connect easier, travel better, hunt and gather with ease etc. But the unpredicted outcome was that the whole region became heavily dependent on gas due to this new technology. Furthermore the machines would soon begin to break down, and the local communities had no way to repair them let alone begin to understand them. So a whole chain of services followed that was required to keep this system functional. This in return had an adverse affect on the population because they became more and more hooked on technology that they could not maintain sustainably but could not survive without. This goes to show that a design is something that is much more complex and multi-faceted than just a one off solution. It is too easy to call it design.

I don't think it aids any conversation about progress, aid, or development, when people refer to a solution as design, because the usage of that term design lends itself to an all too easy agreement, without considering the specific details. I agree with the comment that design is a western creation, which in turn carries a whole different understanding when brought to a foreign culture. So I don't see designers, as we know them, doing anything abroad that actually aids human progress and alleviates suffering. You can't just slap the design tag on everything and say "oh that structure is designed","that system needs a re-design" and "designers built that". The people who help are not designers, they're concerned individuals from many professions. They are engineers who specialize in construction, steel work, water mains, electricity etc. Plumbers building pipe systems, irrigation specialists helping with communal water supplies, agriculturalists aiding farmers, medics dealing with diseases, educators providing basic training and the list goes on. It shouldn't take a designers' perspective to intervene in an ailing environment. It does not require a designer to communicate urgency and need to a wider audience. When dealing with issues of severe human tragedy you don't need a designerto spread the word, all you need is a loud voice and a large forum. The context changes completely, from an environment where typography and cultural nuances enhance day to day messages to areas where what you need first is a voice, next to that is food and water. Like the chicken example above me shows, these kinds of regions require us to unlearn our design process and therefore reframe our understanding of what exactly design is.

I think the issue is our wide understanding of design. This term has been integrated into our every day lives, but when exported to an "informal economy" it fails to function like we see it. We need to re-define this very wide term so that it can be closely aligned with the equally grey definitions of sustainability and green living etc. Because aside from the very basic and much needed practical aid, designers fall flat when trying to deal with such complicated yet often quite simple issues abroad.

John Thackara has done a great job of contributing to the
SenseMaking around numerous sustainability related challenges
that humans in many countries are grappling with today. Not only
that, but John’s work has done a lot to raise awareness in the
design community that new approaches and skills are needed to
tackle fuzzy complex issues far upstream from “briefs”. Some
among us approach giant sized fuzzy challenges with content
expertise, others with process (cocreation) expertise. Both are

I agree with John that there are many challenges close to home
for those of us who choose to get involved in ChangeMaking. Here
in the United States it is being increasingly recognized that we
face enormous challenges that will keep us all busy for

In the SenseMaking / ChangeMaking cycle there are lots of places
for those with design minded skills to contribute.

One change initiative that we have been working on recently is
The Measure of America. As part of the initiative, a book
containing research made visible and hopefully understandable
will be released to the public on July 16, 2008 at the National
Press Club in Washington, D.C. The Measure of America is the
first-ever human development report for a wealthy, developed
nation. It introduces the American Human Development Index,
which provides a single measure of well-being for all Americans,
disaggregated by state and congressional district, as well as by
gender, race, and ethnicity. Reading The Measure of America is
like getting a new pair of human-centered glasses.

Carefully crafted by the authors to be nonpartisan, we are hopeful
that The Measure of America 2008-2009 will become a significant
catalyst for societal change in the United States.

Within The Measure of America others will hopefully find many
ideas for meaningful ChangeMaking projects. One documentary
film project already underway involves looking more closely at
two kids schools only 5 subway stops apart (Bronx and Upper
East Side of Manhattan). “These two districts have a fifty-six-year
gap in human development. Separated by little more than 2
miles, they might just as easily be located in different

Here are ten sample quotes from The Measure of America:

“Americans live, on average fewer years than people from
virtually every Western European and Nordic country”.

“The United States will spend $230 million on health care in the
next hour.”

“One in six Americans have no health insurance.”

“The US infant mortality rate is on par with that of Croatia, Cuba,
Estonia and Poland.”

“Some 30 million Americans lack literacy skills to understand a
newspaper article, read a bus schedule or fill out a job

“In 2006, 4.5 million young people ages eighteen to twenty-four
were not in school, not working, and had not graduated high

“The United States ranks second in the world in per-capita income
but thirty-fourth in survival of infants to age one.”

“The richest 20 percent of all US households earned more than
half of the nation’s total income in 2006.”

“In 2004 median net worth was $140,800 for whites and $24,900
for nonwhites.”

“The bottom 60 percent of households has only 4.2 percent of
America’s wealth.”

What's stopping us from doing better?

See the intro video on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AbRCaVvbPH8 For more information about The Measure of America: http://humantific.com/news/ You can join Measure of America on FaceBook: http://http://www.facebook.com/pages/Measure-of-%3Cbr%20/%3E%0AAmerica/21675134318?ref=mf On July 16 the site will be relaunching with interactive map tools, report highlights and other resources: http://measureofamerica.org

Before Change Happens New Understanding Happens. Have a great week all.
GK VanPatter
Co-Founder, Humantific
GK VanPatter

As a biologist by training, I am immensely interested in the study of ecological "design" (whether it is Intelligent or Natural is up to you). My 9-5 is in the energy policy arena. As such, re-imagining how our constructed world functions is still, at base, an issue of design. There are many types of "design" depending on the application.

To echo Pav, "The people who help are not designers, they're concerned individuals from many professions." This is partly true, but in a sense they are also designers. Perhaps the term takes on a special meaning for typographers or fashion icons or graphic artists, but we all would do better to take a broader view. Design to me is bringing to bear intention and forethought (from wherever derived) to solve a problem. Plumbers, engineers, gardeners, farmers, legislators are all, to some extent, designers in my book. As are bacteria, ants and chickens. We not only adapt to the world we live in, we are each constantly restructuring it to suit our own needs.

To Mark Watson:

I think that you may have missed Mr. Thackara's point on this one. The FDA is an organization needed to prevent agri-food companies from cutting corners. However in an "informal" economy, one doesn't really require external regulation; at low quantities, the "economy of scale" hasn't yet forced the producers to cut corners to make a profit. Further, accountability is added to the system in the informal economy, as one knows both the people who farm the food they are eating, and that the farmer's family is eating it too. The problem is not the grain vacuum, but the entire food system that keeps prices artificially low and requires producers to cut corners to get ahead. A move towards local food economies could reduce the need for an agency like the FDA, as well as reducing carbon usage.
Danielle Wojtyniak

GK VanPatter,

With regard to your citations from the measure of America, I
have to ask: is the timing of the release of this report at all
coincidental with the coming election?

Clearly those facts are difficult to evaluate totally out of context.
Of course, any group of people can be perceived in a negative
light if you selected the right statistics.

I don't disagree that there are plenty of causes which are
attention worthy. However, where is better? And - if things are so
bad here, why are so many people clamoring to become citizens?
As we've seen, the immigration issue continues to be a hot-button
subject for both parties.

I can't help but think that I've seen these kind of gloom and doom
generalizations before. It would be a shame to see so much time,
effort and dollars put towards a cause who's only result is to point
out the extreme negatives of what is one of the most prosperous
democracies in the world.

David Hartman

GK VanPatter asks:

"What's stopping us from doing better?"

one word?


Please can we stop the liberal hand-wringing and understand how a system of profit for profits sake causes these problems? Read 'A Brief History of Neo-Liberalism' by David Harvey if you want the outline of the war that Capital has fought for the last 30 years against us all to create the conditions you outline.
noel douglas

Cameron Sinclair separately responded to this post via email to John Thackara, and his letter was posted by Thackara at Doors of Perception here. Cameron Sinclair has given us kind permission to reprint the letter here on Design Observer as well. The Editors.


"Great post, as per usual, and yes there are some strong and valid points you raise. Naturally I do object to the generalization made in the comments about the AMD Open Architecture Challenge for a few reasons.

"Firstly. The point was not to develop a project for others but in collaboration with. The challenge was borne out of an RFP that 103 communities from around the world applied for (a dozen of which were from India). Three local community organizations were selected, by a global group, and we developed a brief/criteria in unison with the client/end user - ie. not the imposition of technology, rather the inclusion to already existing programs. These included a health facility in rural Nepal, fair trade chocolate factory in Ecuador and a youth media lab in Nairobi.

"What was striking in the criteria development that while, as you point out 6M people in India are getting cell phones every month, the community in Kenya were looking to utilize technology for skills training, job creation and community out reach. Can this be all done with a cell phone - yes - Can it only be done with a cell phone - no. Creating equal access to technology is not just providing one option but many options. This is where the overlap with architecture happens and that well designed, appropriate, energy efficient structures can make a difference.

"This is my second point. Architecture is no longer about form making - it never was - it is about creating appropriate structures that interweave the local context of a community and that hopefully inspire. Many young and emerging architects are not taught the way that many ‘star-architects’ are currently practicing. These designers are creating structures that are not only appropriate but are site specific based on local knowledge and involvement. The challenge had 800+ designers from 35 countries develop a conceptual solution where the winner, selected by community members, has the opportunity to realize the design with both the local client and design professionals. This entire process will take a couple of years, most of which will be on the ground.

"My third point is that all 400+ designs are now CC licensed solutions that can be adapted and replicated by others. When the designs are for social change they should be shared. Hosted on the Open Architecture Network, this allows local community organizations and regionally based NGOs to find a solution and work with designers to adapt it to a specific site. Currently we are scaling our 2004 competition to 16 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa (60% of the designs are from local architects and the other 40% are a marriage between international/regional firms and locals).

"Finally, just a side point. I find it a little arrogant of writers to speak of design and architecture as a 'western' or 'developed world' notion - and then occationally insinuate the ‘look at what they are forcing on them’ self-guilt world view. There are designers, both licensed and unlicensed, all over the world. They are not divided by boundaries but by skill and desire. There will always be the Zaha Hadids and Karim Rashids of this world but there are also the Diébédo Francis Kérés, the Rodney Harbers and the Yasmine Laris of this world. For as many designers working in the realm of architectural plastic surgery, there are just as many working in the emergency room. The difference is that the latter are not seeking accolades and therefore do not grace the covers of magazines and the design media. In addition to training more global architects we need to encourage and develop new schools of design where the work is. Ie currently we are training 70% of the worlds’ architects in the developed (over developed) nations, yet 70% of the work is in emerging nations.

"Yes there are a dozen 'examples' where we can point to designers screwing up, getting it wrong, undervaluing the input of the community. Yet there are hundreds of stories where quiet moments of innovation have been an element of incredible change in a community. Most of us who are actually building look at bemusement to all the structures going up in Dubai and Doha - why are those deemed as great feats of 'design excellence' but yet a community led participatory process is often scrutinized by cynical, often western, eyes.

"Perhaps it is time to write stories of the successes on the ground. Come join any of us, but do expect to pick up a shovel when you are on a site visit"

Cheers, Cameron"

The Editors

Thanks for this clear thinking on the topic John. I wonder if it has to be an either-or. Perhaps you could attend the conference remotely? I think we're right as designers to be careful about the impacts of our work - that sounds suspiciously like an opportunity to me.
Adam French

I am delighted to have come across a writer who understands the value of local knowledge, and asks the question "Who needs whose help here?" I believe we need "equal-respect collaboration".

At one time I thought that "equal-respect collaboration" is what researchers mean when they talk about "participation" - but over time I have got more cynical. I feel that what some people describe as participation compares with a parent allowing a child to choose between Smarties and Jelly-Tots to decorate their birthday cake - without ever asking the child what kind of birthday cake (s)he wants - or even if (s)he would rather have something completely different.

We need to "rub minds" to get the best of the knowledge of differen cultures. I was trying to suggest that idea through my blog entry at http://www.dadamac.net/blog/20091015/pam-we-want-street-lights

For anyone who genuinely wants to collaborate and “rub minds” the story of the Ecodome at Attachab may be of interest http://www.dadamac.net/projects/ecodome.

If anyone wants to get involved in this kind of collaboration please contact me - [email protected] - to see how Dadamac can help (Dadamac is like a dating agency - but for knowledge. We help people to “meet” each other, communicate effectively, and move forward with their projects)
Pamela McLean

Jobs | July 12