Wes Janz

This piece was recently presented at a workshop at Ball State University —Ed.

I. Whose vantage point is privileged when we speak of “the base of the pyramid”? Whose construction of “base” and “pyramid” are we talking about? Can we say with confidence that the people (not “population”) at “the base of the pyramid” consider themselves to be at “the base of the pyramid” that we have designed? Who are the 2.5 billion people at “the base of the pyramid”? What sorts of meaningful generalizations can be made about one-third of the planet’s residents?

Is it possible — is it essential — to have some specific insights about the “the base of the pyramid population”? We’re very comfortable with numeric, quantitative measures – “over 2.5 billion people” and “under $2.50 a day.” Might some small understanding of another person’s life provide inspiration, insight, and humility? And might it elicit caution, reluctance, or disengagement? What do the people at “the base of the pyramid” know? What is their knowledge, what sorts of intelligences do they have? What do they know that others with knowledge about “extreme affordability” don’t know? Is it possible to provide approaches from within their knowledge? Or do we expect someone else to change in order for our well-intentioned offerings to succeed (on our terms)? Are we sympathetic or empathetic towards the people we view as living at “the base of the pyramid”? That is, are you interested because you feel sorry for them or because you want to better understand someone else as a way to better understand yourself?

Here, I like the perspectives offered by David Stairs in his “Why Design Won’t Save the World” post for Design Observer. In his writing, Stairs leverages his experiences at the “Design for the Other 90%” show at the Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum (2007) into a commentary about “the challenge facing outsiders, who cannot begin to imagine the vicissitudes of life in such distant places.” He frames three critiques: remote experience often leads to remote solutions; a belief by designers that technology can, more often than not, provide the solution; and “gargantuan thinking,” i.e., thinking we should and could house the world’s poorest people, eliminate disease, or halt global warming, just for example. Possible alternatives, according to Stairs? Recognizing that we don’t need to remake other people or their societies in our image and likeness, living among other people, and “education is also a wonderful access point … but how many design curricula are supporting, let alone implement such global initiatives?”

II. How is our work complicated, as members of a university culture, when we are concerned with “the base of the pyramid population”? That is, do our loyalties reside within academia (with tenuring processes, demands for funded research, aspirations for named professorships), within our practice protocols (licensing, advancement to fellow’s status, having our work featured in professional journals), or with the local people? Can engineering, architecture, and design education be transformed to focus on humanitarian problems and the improvement of the lives of those typically seen as being in-need? What sort of evolution is imagined, is possible, is required in order for us to become more socially focused and responsible? Do good models exist? Every day I remember something said to me by a woman on the sidewalk in East St. Louis, Illinois, one of the USA’s most distressed cities: “Professor, we don’t need to be studied. We need help.” How, then, should we help?

III. Is “socially responsible design” practice different from any other kind of design practice? Can practitioners be socially responsible? Are non-profit and for-profit our only options? And, who is making a living doing such work? Are any recent graduates paying off student loans while working on the ground at “the base of the pyramid”? To what extent does the “top of the pyramid” entrap all of us, limit all of us, define the practices of all of us? I agree with Margaret Crawford1 who wrote in her 1995 article “Can Architects be Socially Responsible?” that practitioners can not be socially responsible because 1) we are too concerned with economics, what Crawford terms “compromised practice” – deadlines, office overhead, per square foot costs, developers, timesheets, and marketing dominate — and 2) professors are too comfortable talking in school while practicing “esoteric philosophies of inaction.” Crawford’s suggestions? Biography (getting to know another person) and stopping our reliance on new material systems – on technology – when considering how we can imagine and implement new futures for ourselves and alongside others.

IV. And a final question: is the sort of engagement considered by this workshop more important to “us” than it is to the people that are being categorized as being at “the Base of the Pyramid”? Do we need them more than they need us? Here, I like this quote from the homeless man John, as posted on the Archidose blogspot in early 2004: “no matter what architects do, somebody else is doing something more interesting than architects would ever dream of.” Thank you.

Wes Janz teaches architecture at Ball State in Muncie, Indiana. He’s the founder of onesmallproject.

1) Her book, Building the Workingman’s Paradise: The Design of American Company Towns, examines the rise and fall of professionally designed industrial environments. She edited The Car and the City: The Automobile, the Built Environment and Daily Urban Life and Everyday Urbanism, and has published numerous articles on shopping malls, public space, and other issues in the American built environment. Her recent book Nansha Coastal City: Landscape and Urbanism in the Pearl River Delta was published in early 2006 and co-edited by Alan Berger.

One Response to “A Few Questions about “The Base of the Pyramid Population””

  1. Wes Janz Says:

    As a follow-up to the NSF workshop (which was titled “Research in Materials and Manufacturing for Extreme Affordability” and for which I wrote the “Ten Questions about “the Base of the Pyramid population” white paper) … among the invited participants who addressed the concerns cited above were:

    Anil Gupta of The Honey Bee Network (Ahmedabad) @ http://www.sristi.org/hbnew/ Among his comments: “We must look for innovations that do not scale up.”

    Amy Smith, a senior lecturer in Mechanical Engineering at MIT and founder of D-Lab (“Development through Dialogue, Design and Dissemination”): “a new paradigm is needed to move (people) from dependence to sustainable livelihoods.” For more, see: http://d-lab.mit.edu/

    And Maria Paula Gonzalez Bozzi, who founded Fundacion Juligon – Laboratorio de Arquitectura Juliana Gonzalez — “a non-profit architecture and design lab (in Bogota, Colombia), where young professionals with an active social awareness can explore the possibilities of their professions.” Included in group’s design strategies is participative design with communities, usually through workshops, activities, and meetings where local people work as “active designers” for their own projects. http://fundacionjuligon.org/juligon/home.html

    The three — Anil, Amy, and Maria — are deep humanists, placing local people, oftentimes a conversation with just one person, at the center of their shared design process.

    Thanks David!