Imagine that you and your family have just moved to an informal settlement on the outskirts of a major city – Buenos Aires, or Jakarta – with nothing but the clothes on your backs. You are wage laborers from the countryside, and all that awaits you in the city is a community of people with similar backgrounds who can take you into their network. Houses in such settlements are typically built of the lowest-grade material. And energy and sewage infrastructures in informal settlements are typically D.I.Y. and thus unreliable.
There are currently one billion people living in informal settlements around the world. By the year 2030, that number is predicted to double. A movement under the umbrella of “socially-responsible design” has set out to prove that people living in settlements have as much right to live in well-designed cities as do the rest of us.
The United Nations is hosting the second installment in the Cooper-Hewitt National Museum of Design’s series on socially-conscious design, Design With the Other 90%: CITIES. Whereas the previous installment of the exhibit series, held at the Cooper-Hewitt National Museum of Design in 2007, was called Design For the Other 90%, this edition is switching out “for” and instead saying “with.” The implication of “design with” is clear: collaboration and horizontal learning, rather than paternalism, form the cornerstone of social design.
One of the main ideas behind the Design With exhibit at is that knowledge exchange between formal and informal designers is crucial in making urban development sustainable and intelligent.
Cynthia Smith, the series curator and an industrial designer by training, was overwhelmed by the impact of the first exhibit. Socially-responsible design was picking up speed worldwide, but it wasn’t becoming part of public discourse or design education; the exhibit filled-in this hole.
The array of projects on display at Design With depict a world in which cities are becoming cleaner and better organized, while generating new opportunities for their burgeoning populations. Smith traveled to three continents while researching projects for the second installment, focusing on global cities and innovative solutions to problems in the informal sector. The projects that most caught her attention were done in a way she describes as a “hybrid” of formal and informal aspects of the city.
Working collaboratively and across disciplines is crucial for designers, Smith explained. Furthermore, she added that working alongside people who are from a very different socioeconomic background than yours requires empathy. And as many of the projects exhibited at the UN demonstrate, social design work often involves a kind of scrappy resourcefulness that takes advantage of local knowledge and materials, rather than viewing poor communities in terms of what they lack.
Durban is known to be the most ethnically diverse city in South Africa. Following the end of the Apartheid regime, the local government in Durban began looking for ways to improve public spaces that were dominated by the informal market, which, in South Africa, is a large part of the economy.
The city government collaborated with a local nonprofit called iTRUMP to take on the renewal of a sprawling market area and transportation hub called Warwick Junction. Each day, about 460,000 commuters and 5,000 traders pass through Warwick Junction. Neglect of non-white neighborhoods by the Apartheid government had allowed the Junction to become crime-ridden and unclean. Meat vendors were cooking cattle heads over open flames on rickety structures, leaving grease runoff all around, and providing ample opportunity for polluting the city’s water system as well as exposing the meat to bacteria.
In 2008, the co-founders of iTRUMP resigned from their role in local government, frustrated by a political agenda that viewed shopping malls as a viable form of development in light of the upcoming World Cup. They formed another local nonprofit called Asiye eTalufeni and continued their work at Warwick Junction, applying a bottom-up approach to the renewal in order to learn the design needs of people who commuted or traded in the Junction. They asked people directly what they needed and generated ideas based on that data.
The improved Warwick Junction boasts neat concrete cooking cubicles and steel tables for the cattle head vendors. The market’s design was also remade with widened pedestrian routes, storage facilities, and new kiosks for traders.
At the Design With exhibit, one representative from Ayise eTalufeni, Tasmi Quazi, looked at the display of before-and-after photos of Warwick Junction and reflected on the challenges her multidisciplinary team of researchers and architects had met during the initiative.
“Working with the illiterate poor hinges on social facilitation,” she explained. “You have to suck up your designer ego and work with people. You have to forget pure design because they will hybridize what you give them.”
In the exhibit book for Design With the Other 90%, South African urban planner Edgar Pieterse writes about the unique role that socially-conscious design can play in taking on challenges that ongoing urbanization presents.
Poor city-dwellers, he writes, are constantly finding ways to make their environments aesthetically and functionally better. The projects showcased in the Design With exhibit demonstrate that “innovation arises when activists and entrepreneurs respond to very practical needs in ways that allow people to bring their own creativity, cultural ownership, and sweat to the endeavor.”
Viewing the show at the UN, it is clear that each one of the projects on display in the exhibit is entirely specific to the context in which it occurs. There is no blueprint for solving urban problems worldwide, because every city has a distinct cultural history and its problems stem from that history.
It follows that problems have to be tackled by the people who are living in them, because these are the people who have in-depth knowledge about the situation. But designers add other kinds of knowledge, skills, and access to the mix. The result of such a collaborative approach is unending opportunity for generating sustainable solutions that empower poor, marginalized people to work toward a better tomorrow.