January 1st, 2015

David Stairs

Homo faber, humankind the maker, seems destined to design itself right out of a world.


MacGyver packin’

Unlike pharmacology, or agriculture, technology has a weak review process for testing its effects on the natural environment. We have user testing, of course, the way we discover what will make a product or service dangerous or addictive. And there are certainly safety regulations, but they often are 50 years out of date. Do you imagine Henry Ford thought much about crash-test dummies? Or John D. Rockefeller about climate change?

Mostly, our laissez-faire capitalist system loathes regulation. Technology is unleashed on today’s problems, usually caused by yesterday’s technology, with not enough consideration of the potential for today’s inventions to cause tomorrows problems. Thus do we dig a deeper, more precipitous hole.

Enter the entrepreneurs.

Why does the word entrepreneurial always bring up visions of tech and business types? Well, the concept has been colonized by certain professions, and capitalists always seem to race to the head of the line whenever they smell potential gain. I’m thinking here of what are called “accelerators for early-stage social entrepreneurs,” since these often involve technology. Take the Unreasonable Group, for instance. Their manifesto claims “pathological collaboration” is “baked into our DNA” and accepts “no assholes.” When faced with an intractable problem they ask WWMD? (What Would MacGyver Do?). They speak long and eloquently about the value of trust and empathy, and have made a commitment to “leveraging our brand to accelerate the next generation of entrepreneurs.” So, nothing new on the teamwork front. Walter Isaacson’s latest, The Innovators, is rank with re-tellings of collaborative tech invention— it’s almost his mantra. But I wonder whether it’s such a good idea to try to fix nagging problems with a Swiss Army knife? And again, here as elsewhere “entrepreneur” remains narrowly defined.

Or how about IDEO.org and its HCD toolkit? Whether one subscribes to the conceit of “human centered design” should not really matter, although, unless we are talking about designing for little green men, it’s difficult to conceive of non-human design. I suppose it could be argued that the potential technological injuries I referred to at the beginning of this essay qualify as anti-human design, if one wanted to quibble.

IDEO.org self describes as “a nonprofit design organization that works to empower the poor.” As such they underwrite two-week research projects that focus on “deliverables.” But a quick look at their Board of Directors and Advisors reveals that only 4 of 30 hail from the non-Western world, while fully 8 of 30 have direct ties to IDEO. Ditto the fresh young faces of the IDEO.org staffers, who are about 80% American. This feels like a dot org front for a dot com business or, put another way, an attempt to use altruism to access the markets at the bottom of the pyramid, an IDEO goal for many years.

Then there’s the Nike Foundation. Their Girl Effect project seeks to address the fact that girls were left out of the original Millennium Development Goals (along with numerous other groups, including pregnant koalas and Stone Age rainforest tribes). We are informed that “Ugandan girls leave school early 85% of the time, resulting in $10 billion in lost potential earnings.” Uganda instituted universal primary education, one of the MDGs, in the mid ’90s. Secondary education is a bigger challenge, partly because it is not free in Uganda. But nowhere is any mention made of what girls bring to the economy when they do stay home. In many Ugandan families girls are responsible for meal preparation and childcare, which frees adults, both men and women, to spend more time in the workplace.


Girl Effect studio project at Art Center

It would be more than a little disingenuous to discuss these topics in or outside a design studio without mentioning the girls who sweat in factories under contract to Nike, selling their labor for precious little. Anne Elizabeth Moore and her colleagues at Ladydrawers put things in pretty clear perspective with an excellent series of well researched documentary cartoon strips at truthout entitled “The Connecting Threads” that talk about the parallels between the world garment trade, especially “fast fashion,” and human trafficking. Part of the problem with seeing a clear picture is that celebrities, NGOs, and evangelical FBOs (Faith Based Organizations), those entities in whom we place our trust for the sincerity of their philanthropy, actually expend a lot of money and effort to keep the Western media focused upon their apparent altruism. An unfortunate example, written about here a couple years ago, was the Invisible Children 2012 initiative. Another, the fate of Somaly Mam, is covered by Moore’s reporting.

Obviously, girls need education every bit as much as boys; the world watched in horror when Boko Haram kidnapped 200 school girls in northern Nigeria, threatening to marry them off to fighters. In the West we assume secondary school is a conduit to a university education. But in many parts of the world, Uganda and Nigeria, Bangladesh and Guatemala among them, a university education is only available to a small percentage of the population. By referring to girls as “agents of change,” development doublespeak if it ever existed, the Girl Effect is ostensibly dedicating itself to the extremely challenging MDG of poverty eradication. While this has been a dream of large parts of the civil sector since the Millennium Summit of 2000, its attainability is still very much in doubt in a world of climate change deniers and globalized market advocates.

Many of the Directors of these and other foundations attend the World Economic Forum, which is distinctly different from the World Social Forum. These folks are often multi-degreed individuals, with backgrounds in law, business, and public relations, who may seem to march to a kinder/gentler tune but are often deeply invested in maintaining the world’s economic status quo (and I do mean the model of universal economic expansion). This is not unlike universal technological development, both hitched, in tandem, to emerging-world markets. For an in-depth argument about how free trade conquered the world at the expense of both labor and the environment, take a peek at Naomi Klein’s latest here.

Is it possible to conceive of non-avaricious, culturally sensitive, other-centered entrepreneurism, or is this too much to ask?

I believe it’s a question worth posing, if for no other reason than that it shines the light of probity on so much that masquerades as social entrepreneurism. If the people of the developed world are so much smarter than their developing world counterparts; And, if the current inhabitants of the West and North are less grasping, corrupt, and self-serving than their colonial-era forebears, then I’m just blowing hot air here. But the accelerating conflict diamond/coltan/uranium/petroleum resource-extraction of the world’s so-called underdeveloped regions makes me wonder about multi-national corporate practices which are, at the very worst, horribly destructive, and at best disguise rape in the form of a tax shelter.

And corporate complicity in the sweat slavery that underpins so much of the international garment trade makes one wonder whether proposals by designers to manufacture sanitary napkins from affordable locally-sourced materials are really helping the poor women of the world, or just making them into good reliable workers, the better to populate garment factories and thereby become good consumers, just like their American counterparts.

David Stairs is the founding editor of Design-Altruism-Project.

November 30th, 2014

David Stairs

Ah, autumn.

A crispness is in the air. The delectable smell of woodsmoke, the warm sun burnishing a hundred shades of orange, the tang of fresh cider at the orchard, or a field full of pumpkins at sunset. Into this idyll clomp the Boys of Autumn toting the ultimate example of techno-idiocy: leaf blowers.


The Boys of Autumn

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October 31st, 2014

David Stairs

As a person who answers a lot of mail inquiring about socially responsible design internship options, a recent Skype conversation with some grad architecture students at Ball State University got me to dusting off some serious criticism of the “faux humanitarianism” of do-gooder design.

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September 23rd, 2014

David Stairs

I grew up in a subdivision of a crossroads-small town named Mattydale, N.Y. In the early 20th century the area had been comprised of dairy and vegetable farms that supplied the city of Syracuse. In the 1920s the farmers sold out, and from then through the 1950s suburbia sprouted where carrots and cabbages once had grown. The earlier developments were diverse, with homes of various ages occupying the same block. Across from my parent’s house, built in 1926, was a Cape Cod constructed in the ’50s, itself sitting on land that once was a chicken farm adjoining the farm house next door.

In my early college days I knew friends who had grown up in Levittown, N.Y. I didn’t think about it much at first, I mean, what’s in a name? Only later, when I came to know why Levittown existed did I begin to question its sanity. The late ’40’s were all about developing affordable living spaces for returning GIs and the families they would raise. John Entenza’s Case Study House project in California was one approach, small, select, specially designed. Levittown, the mass-produced racially discriminatory version, was another. Both projects were constructed upon a concrete slab using pre-fab materials, but there the similarities ended.


Rapid tear down of existing structure in early June…

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August 27th, 2014

Victor Margolin

I like to go to a café in the morning to read the paper before I start work. I also enjoy meeting friends and colleagues in cafes. For some time, the Starbucks in my Chicago neighborhood was my choice for reading the paper and a Caribou Coffee a few blocks north of my home was the place where I chose to meet colleagues and friends. The reason for the distinction is that the Starbucks is designated as a high volume take out store with minimal seating, while the Caribou Coffee, now closed and soon to reopen as Peet’s Coffee, had better seating options for meeting others.

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July 22nd, 2014

The following is excerpted from Jesse McClain’s 2014 Master’s thesis—Ed.

Jesse McClain

Figure 1: Images from top to bottom: Top two images – Anawalt strip mining site in Southern West Virginia. Bottom image: Town of Keystone, West Virginia, near the city of Welch, WV. Photos: Jesse McClain.

SITE CONTEXT AND DOCUMENTATION

Southern West Virginia and Western North Dakota were both visited as part of the research process. These sites were chosen due to their similar connections with the energy industry and also their polar opposites in terms of economic prosperity. Welch, West Virginia is a small town which used to be called “Little New York” in the early 1900s. It was the city at the hub of the world’s first “billion dollar coalfield” and provided many of the area’s residents with a healthy and even prosperous income. Now it is deteriorating as the powerful strip-mining companies replace humans with machines and blow the tops off nearby mountains. Long-time Welch resident, Hilda Mitros, details accounts of personal and environmental violence experienced under the influence of the coal companies. She talks about gas and water explosions in and near her home as the earth becomes unstable with directional drilling and diverted water flow. Floods and sinkholes are commonplace in an area which is sacrificed for it’s fossil fuels. Hilda also reports that the decline in the economic and environmental health of the region has been accompanied by an influx of drugs and political buy-offs. She offers stories of attempts by community members to stand against the development of a major dumping site for disposal of out of state waste. The community was initially able to rally and protest this intervention but eventually, leaders were swayed through high pressure negotiation and shadowy bribery tactics. Hilda used to run a kitchen and bar and she remembers when the times were good and people prospered in a healthy community. I asked her if anything good was occuring in Welch and she said, “no, there is nothing good happening here.” A place that was once full of vitality and optimism is struggling to see a future that holds a promise of anything other than more destruction and abuse.

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June 30th, 2014

David Stairs

There is a concept in science, known as publication bias, that suggests editors of scientific journals prefer to publish positive test results over the results of failed, or negative tests. It’s human nature, one supposes, to prefer good news to no news, and it certainly is better for circulation. The only problem is, it makes for bad science. When a profession, take medicine for instance, is denied the knowledge that certain drugs did not perform the way their manufacturers claimed they would, doctors are less able to act in the best interests of their patients.

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June 10th, 2014

Victor Margolin

If you are a white-collar worker making a decent salary, chances are that your paycheck will go directly to your bank so you can access it with a check or a withdrawal slip or draw on it with a credit card or mobile phone payment. There are banks that charge for such accounts, but only usually if the customer’s balance drops below a given amount. In many banks you will get the checking account free, while in some you will even earn a modicum of interest on it.

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May 10th, 2014

Daniel Drennan


“Believe in stone and survive.”

Framework

From the Declaration of the Palestinian People during the first intifada in 1987:

We will no longer be a subject people. If you order us to our camps, we will roam the countryside. Dig up our soil and bury us alive in it if you will. If you direct us to work in your factories, we will confine ourselves to our homes. Herd us into concentration camps if you will. If you instruct us to buy your produce and your products, we will grow and make our own.

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April 19th, 2014

David Stairs

At 10:02am on Saturday, February 23, 2014 I officially became old.


X-ray of surgical plate to correct a comminuted fracture of my right distal radius

As I left my house to take my dog Asali for a walk I noted that the front steps were blocked by snow. I’d been working hard throughout an unusually harsh winter to keep them clear, but a recent thaw— it had been 48°F the previous day— had caused snow to slide off the porch roof and pile on the steps.

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March 28th, 2014

Victor Margolin

I once thought that the greatest obstacle to reflective thought was the endless haptic texting that occupies the mental space of so many people but now I have a new culprit, data. Devices that have dissected our bodily functions into tiny shards flood the market, enabling us to either confirm the smooth functioning of our multiple organs, energy flows, and synapse synergies or else to detect glitches that merit our attention. Never have people had such an opportunity to be so aware of their bodies and take control of even the most minute irregularities in their physical performance.

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March 7th, 2014

David Stairs

Looking for love? It doesn’t matter if you have specialized tastes. Not only the “fetish-friendly” or the “transgerdered” are searching, but single moms, cancer sufferers, BBWs, middle-age widowers, cheating wives, and sugar daddies, too. The internet caters for all races, ages, and economic levels, no sexual preference too kinky or niche group too small.

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February 10th, 2014

Victor Margolin

Everyone knows that university sports have become a big business and increased access to their aura and actual content is a great way to raise money. Besides luxury stadium seats, there are the intimate dinners with star athletes, free DVDs of great games, gifts of jerseys with the numbers and names of outstanding players on them, and even an opportunity to meet with coaches pre-game to put in one’s two million dollars worth of strategy advice. These ideas are good but they miss the mark.

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January 17th, 2014

Vassiliki Giannopoulos
National Design Awards
Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum
2 E 91st St, New York, NY 10128

Dear Ms. Giannopoulos,

Regarding your December 23rd email notifying us that Designers Without Borders has been nominated for the 2014 National Design Awards, we have this response.

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January 1st, 2014

David Stairs

An admission of personal weakness is not always a bad way to start a new year. I’m willing to stick my neck out and tell you a secret: I’m an inveterate maker of lists.

I can’t shop for food without using a list. At night I lie in bed evaluating the past with a list of events. In the morning I often compose an informal list of the days’ forthcoming activities. So, at a time of year when many people are generating lists of resolutions, it should come as no surprise when I tell you that the idea for this post presented itself in list form.

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December 8th, 2013

Victor Margolin

In recent weeks, I have been involved in three chaotic attempts to introduce changes in services that I have come to rely on. These include banking, public transit, and healthcare. The website of Obamacare is not the only evidence of innovative change that is malfunctioning. I would venture to say that a good many if not most of the new services that are being rolled out at a dizzying pace have glitches that range from minor to catastrophic.

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November 15th, 2013

David Stairs

Ask my Indian friend: Americans are in a coma.

What would evoke such an evaluation? Last year, while I was living in Bangalore, an American friend visited and my son and I met her for lunch. While crossing a busy boulevard she grabbed my arm and said, “I’ll trust you to get me across safely. Yesterday I spent 30 minutes trying to cross MG Road.” At that point I almost became a hazard myself, I was laughing so hard.

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October 1st, 2013

Cansu Akarsu

During my short career as a designer I have been a true nerd, spending all my free time participating in every workshop and design competition I found from all fields. Life is easy when you are learning, especially when one recognition follows the other, and motivates you to work on anything you love to work on. Still, I realize now that all the competitions, exhibitions, and networking events are far from the real recognition that comes with a village mother sparing the few dollars she earns to buy the product you have designed – this is how one falls in love with social design. Designing in real life and carrying out the process in the field is, on one hand, more frustrating and challenging, and on the other hand it is more meaningful, fun, and provides a unique learning experience.

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