Looking for a Kickstarter project to support? Try these ones!

Acquaintances of mine who run a kooky, experimental design project called spurse are trying to Kickstart a project called “Eat Your Sidewalk!” that will merge local food, public art, and urban revitalization. They plan to hold a 7-day challenge where people only eat what they find under their feet, on the sidewalk, in order to raise awareness about our immediate environments. This will happen in Sherbrooke, Quebec, and Detroit, over the summer.  Read more

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Detroit Diary: Initial Thoughts

I’ve been in Detroit since Thursday night. Overwhelmed by so many things to do. The people: friendly, candid, intelligent, and interested in everything. The landscape: like dwelling in an architectural depiction of everything America has been–skyscrapers and factories–and is–empty homes and racialized inequality–and seeing what it’s becoming–gardens and collaborations, tensions between old ways and new ways. Young people are making Detroit vibrate with their creativity. Projects are unfurling everywhere; writers and artists and critics are generally unrestricted by boundaries that exist in most cities, but not in Detroit.

Things that matter much more in other cities–image, seniority, and money–

Excuse the “ruin porn.”

don’t factor in here, where there is a smaller and more connected creative class (I sense that a review of Richard Florida’s argument will be necessary in one of my future blog posts). And people are taking advantage of Detroit’s unique offerings: the extra space, added leisure time, intimate network, and opportunity to make their marks. Twenty-somethings are leaders in scenarios where normally they would be in the background. But the new way of doing things–social enterprise and foodie pop-ups–is clashing with the established nonprofit approach to ameliorating inequality. People talk about an old guard who don’t quite get what the deal is with things like crowdfunding. Read more

Design Impact Reflects on its First Year Launching a Social Enterprise in India

Design Impact's fellows apply a grassroots design approach within community organizations in India

At Dowser, we were excited to recently reconnect with the leadership team of Design Impact at the end of their pilot year launching an innovative social enterprise across India. Per the name, Design Impact addresses social problems using the toolkits of design in a grassroots way. Ramsey Ford and Kate Hanisian, the co-directors of Design Impact, have been working with small businesses in India to develop sustainability-produced, fair trade products for international markets.

In November, Hanisian and Ford were joined in India by six international fellows with design backgrounds, who received funding from Design Impact to work with community-based organizations, fusing design and social enterprise. When Dowser spoke to Ford, he and Hanisian were in Thiruchuli, Tamil Nadu, where they were working to develop a fair trade soap that is now being sold in stores in the U.S., including Whole Foods. Ford shared some takeaways from their pilot year, as well as thoughts about their vision moving forward.

Dowser: What’s the update on the products you are developing?

Ford: We have launched one project—we’re selling fair trade glycerin soaps—the glycerin is made locally with biodiesel energy, made from a local nut, and we’re hoping to scale through a connection through Whole Foods. We worked with ODAM to put together a shipment of about 1600 soaps that arrived in the States in December last year. We’re starting in some Ohio stores, and then got into our first Whole Foods just a few weeks ago—and as a small producer, we start out in a store or two, and if we do well we’ll move up to regional or national. Sustainable production level would be about 1000 soaps a month—so that would work if we were in about thirty Whole Foods.

How are you determining whether the soaps qualify as ‘Fair Trade’?

One of the reasons the village wanted to do this was to support the biodiesel program, but another was to create good jobs. The product is not certified fair trade-you have to be in products for about 1.5 years before you apply. But we put into practice fair trade—the primary one is that wages are about four times what people might make as agricultural labors–$5 a day, roughly, as opposed to $1.50 per day. And the women who work there have rights, they have a say in how things go, and they have benefits. The women who are working there are happy to have the jobs, and ODAM is excited to have the project—it’s a profitable intervention and for them, it’s been a big learning experience, and they’re trying to look at other places where they can do similar work, and find  ways to use social enterprises to deal with local problems. Read more

Yves Behar on green design

My interview with the founder of fusedesign for The Atlantic’s website:

Yves Béhar founded and manages the California-based design firm fuseproject. The company, which has a team of around forty people, received the INDEX award for their innovative approach to socially-responsible design in “See Better to Learn Better,” an initiative that provides free customizable eyeglasses to needy students in Mexico. In addition to running Fuseproject, Béhar is an avid surfer, and his love for the outdoors is part of his motivation for achieving sustainability through design. Béhar believes that it is important that design be both ecological and affordable. Here, he explains how Fuseproject approaches sustainability by partnering with organizations and finding ways to “disrupt markets.”

How is fuseproject unique from other design firms?

It’s unique in that we tend to partner with people over long periods of time and work with them on all aspects of a company or business. By being partners, we’re able to do what I call a 360-degree approach to building businesses through design, using all the tools design has. Being partners puts us in a unique position to focus on sustainability or social good, in addition to creating cohesive product and brand experiences.

What are some examples of partnerships fuseproject is involved in?

One example of this would be Pact, an underwear company. We worked with the founders over three years to develop a completely different approach that not only has sustainability and social good at the center, but also to deliver a product that’s very comfortable, and also very cool because it changes every six weeks. We provided printed underwear with unique graphics that refer to the cause of these non-profits, so we used a modern version of a Japanese block print for a campaign to raise awareness about earthquake relief in Japan, in partnership with Architecture for Humanity. We’re giving ten percent of the sales of each pair of underwear to these non-profits. We did a largeproject with Puma on redesigning their shoebox; it was a three-year exercise in rethinking the shoebox — its materials, its logistics, its weight — to reduce the amount of materials that go into a shoebox by fifty-five percent, and energy uses, too. Forty million of these shoes are being shipped every year in these reduced shoeboxes, and by next year it will be eighty million.

And fuseproject has partnerships with non-profits, too, right?

Fuseproject has an ongoing involvement with various non-profit organizations, like One Laptop Per Child, [which offers inexpensive laptops to children in developing countries]. There’s also See Better To Learn Better, which distributes free eyeglasses to schoolchildren in Mexico. Our business model allows us to both put design at the center of those businesses as well as focus on sustainability.

Your website says that your design approach works to “disrupt markets.” Can you unpack that concept?

Design is a tool that either allows us to create new markets or disrupt existing ones. Herman Miller is the number one high-end chair-maker. The mid-market of chairs is where they come at half the price, but those products don’t follow the principles of the high-end chairs, and have a lower level of design innovation and sustainability. We worked with Herman Miller for three years to develop a very low-carbon-footprint, innovative, high-design product for market — the Sayl Chair — that is sold at a much lower price point than most high-end chairs. We used the tools of design to disrupt existing markets. Read more

Bill Moggridge On Socially-Responsible Design, Connectivity, and Globalization

Bill Moggridge has pioneered evolutions in design by responding to the quick global transformations in communications technology. He founded the design and business consulting firm IDEO, which is piloting an IDEO.org fellowship this year. And his current work has him directing the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York City, which has an exhibit,  “Design with the Other 90%: CITIES,” on display at the United Nations.

Here Moggridge shares some front-line observations about changes in the field that led to the birth of socially-responsible design.

Rachel Signer: How can we distinguish socially-responsible design from just ‘design’?
Moggridge: To me it’s really about the expanding context of design. If you look historically, back at really everything that happened in the last millennia, design is thought of as relatively craft-oriented. It’s about doing things. So you find designers in a discipline, learning how to actually do the actual designing, but not necessarily work out what to design. So this question of what should we do has somewhat been separated from how to do it. And the craft and the skill of design tend to be the ‘how to do it’ part, and the ‘what to do’ came from somebody else – a leader or a boss. Read more

Amplify Brooklyn: Designing A Sustainable Economy At The Community Level

The concept of “wicked problems” refers to problems that are considered impossible to solve because of complex interdependencies within a system; only discrete and context-specific interventions can be applied to wicked problems. Examples of contemporary wicked problems are climate change, the U.S. health care system, and the obesity crisis.

Across the world, socially-responsible design practitioners are taking the idea of wicked problems, and flipping it on its head. “If we want to be agents of change, we need to start with a positive approach: look for what works, and build the model on that,” explained Lara Penin, who co-founded the Desis Lab, a network of design schools focused on social innovation. “We have to see things as living laboratories, learn from them, and translate them into everyday language,” said Penin.

Penin studied industrial design in Italy and began applying design-thinking to social change in Europe, as part of a team of researchers who set out to document ways that people were using local resources and ideas to make their communities more livable and ecological. The team learned that a top-down approach to behavioral change would not breed success. “People want beauty and pleasure,” said Penin. “We need to come up with more attractive ideas and solutions to promote behavioral change.” Instead of telling people, “don’t do this: don’t drive a car,” the group realized that people should be rewarded for their own initiative in solving problems.

This fall, graduate students in the Transdisciplinary Design MFA program at Parsons, in New York City, worked with Penin and her co-director, Eduardo Staszowski, to create Amplify, an exhibit currently on display at Brooklyn’s Arts at Renaissance, which demonstrates existing and potential design solutions to local issues related to everyday experience. The project’s aim was to re-think service design in terms of sustainability. Duane Bray, Sarah Soffer and Tom Eich from the design firm Ideo facilitated the Amplify workshop. Read more