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 And there are certainly safety regulations, but they often are 50 years out of date.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.