Smart design for people who need itby Marianne Combs, Minnesota Public Radio
A new exhibition of cutting-edge design opening at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis this weekend shows that cheap and simple designs can change, and even save, lives.
St. Paul, Minn. — The exhibition is called "Design for the other 90 percent."
Walker Art Center curator Andrew Blahvelt says the 90 percent figure refers to the vast majority of the earth's population that doesn't have regular access to things like clean drinking water, food, education, or sturdy housing.
Blauvelt says traditionally design isn't a word that's associated with poor or undernourished people.
"In western culture design is usually about styling, the appearance of things," said Blauvelt. "Most objects, when you attach the word design to them, it usually means its more expensive, it's more refined, it has higher quality materials, those kinds of associations."
The exhibition is contained primarily in a series of huts on the grounds of the Walker Art Center sculpture garden. The huts themselves are a part of the exhibition, designed to be used as short term housing and offices in the wake of a natural disaster.
Each hut contains different objects created to improve life in an impoverished community. In one hut is a row of clay pots used to filter water in Cambodia.
"What they basically discovered was that the fossil remains of these little prehistoric creatures that can be found in clay that's used for ceramics are perfect filters for filtering out most contaminants in the water," said Blauvelt.
Some of the objects on display reflect a combination of old and new technology.
There's a motorbike equipped with a satellite uplink on the back. The driver rides in a loop through several villages that have schools and health clinics using solar powered technology. The motorbike's satellite picks up their e-mail and medical queries, and links them up to the internet. On its next loop, the driver brings back a response.
"It's kind of a hybrid of the pony express and high technology at the same time," laughed Blauvelt. "The reason for that is because the satellite uplinks are more expensive, so to have one location tends to work a little better in this particular case."
Many of the objects in the "Design for the other 90 percent" exhibition represent a sort of leapfrog technology. Blauvelt says communities that never had telephone poles are now getting cell phones. And villages that never had power lines are learning to harvest solar and wind energy.
"Because a lot of what we're talking about happens in parts of the world where the sun is shining most of the time," says Blauvelt. "So solar energy is powering a lot of the projects on display that require electricity."
The exhibition, which runs through September 7, is on loan from the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York. Cooper-Hewitt curator Cynthia Smith says she sees a real interest in this kind of design, especially from students still in school.
"They have a set of talents and skills that can be really applied to all kinds of real-world situations," says Smith. "I think it's going to continue to grow and there's going to be a big wave as this younger set of designers starts to address these real issues."
Smith says she was inspired to organize the exhibit after seeing the work of Dr. Paul Polak, founder of International Development Enterprises.
Polak, author of the book "Out of Poverty" believes that rather than handing out aid to people in need, it's better to come up with affordable solutions that allow people to help themselves. He says cheap, simple devices can have a tremendous impact.
"It's going from barely surviving and seeing your kids not have enough to eat to having enough food seeing your kids education and having a future and improving your house and building some reserves," says Polak. "It's a profound change."
Polak says his irrigation drip system or bamboo treadle pump may not be as elegant or charming as an ipod, but to the small-scale farmers who use them, the results of his designs are just as beautiful.
- Morning Edition, 05/23/2008, 6:25 a.m.