Design Activism Gone Wrong?

A Recent post by John Thackara on Design Observer led me to consider the prospects of design activism gone wrong. Thackara suggests that recent efforts by Architecture for Humanity and AMD, to design and build community internet centers, have missed the boat, as have efforts to design $100 laptops. In his view, other mobile technologies such as phones are quickly and more cheaply replacing the need for equipment that is far too expensive–even at $100–for populations of poor countries. His general point is that far from “teaching” developing countries how to do things, we in developed countries need to learn from their existing and inventive solutions using existing, cheap, low-energy-intensive technologies.

Although I don’t entirely agree with Thackara’s criticism of Architecture for Humanity and $100 computer initiatives, I do agree that activism can go wrong, or be perceived to go wrong. Here are a few examples.

The Red Cross
The San Francisco, Bay Area chapter of the Red Cross ran a campaign on earthquake preparedness with the tagline, “what do we have to do to get your attention.” They used portable billboards to create the illusion of well known buildings destroyed by earthquake. Karrie Jacobs , in a report in Metropolis Magazine, noted that at least one viewer did not appreciate the “scare tactic” and said, “It almost makes me regret the many times I’ve given money to them.” The point was to get people’s attention, because despite repeated earthquake preparedness campaigns, surveys show that only 6% of Bay Area residents are ready for a big one, and the figure stubbornly refuses to climb. Activists generally strive for media attention to bring their message to the target audiences -those who can enact change or change their behavior. But did the Red Cross judge their audience well enough?

Red Cross Prepare Bay Area campaign
Jill Palmer, Courtesy Red Cross Bay Area

Recycled Materials
A number of design activists stress the value of recycling and using recycled materials, but more than one critic has pointed out the potential inconvenience of creating supply chains that rely on streams of waste material. Does creating products out of recycled waste material basically guarantee a waste stream? A conflict of interest could arise when producers need a steady stream of waste to produce their products, and so wouldn’t want consumers to create less waste. I originally heard Pete Grogan, then at Weyerhauser (the forest and paper company), suggest this back in the late 1990s. McDonough and Brangaurt pick up on this idea in their book, Cradle to Cradle, by investigating how recycling perpetuates undesirable chemicals that find new life in inappropriate uses when one material is recycled into another that it was not intended for. Have design activists in this case been thinking too small about the changes that are needed?

plastic bottle
PET, commonly recycled into other products
it was not initially intended for

Postwar Reconstruction
As urban civil conflicts become increasingly common, more architects are taking their activism into the effort of reconstruction. But Esther Charlesworth, founder of Architects without Frontiers and author of a book of the same name, notes that this arena is fraught with difficulties. In her own experiences in Bosnia, designers were involved in efforts to recreate iconic monuments (such as the Stari Most Bridge in Mostar), while many more significant design needs were ignored. She writes of her disillusionment with foreign architects (activists by another name), working in post-conflict cities, “Generally, they had little experience of working in divided political and physical landscapes and, as a result, tended to produce (and impose) quick fix design strategies that are attractive to international donors but which invariably denied or, in some cases, accelerated the underlying causes of conflict.” Charlesworth even has a term for this, “Trauma-Glam,” which she attributes to Richard Becherer. Have some humanitarian-aid architects gotten priorities wrong?

Activism can go wrong for any number of reasons, and we’ve seen a few here. Activists can answer the wrong question – as Thackara thinks some design activists working in development have. They can misjudge likely responses, as the Red Cross may have done. Activists can think too small, in the way that some critics think design using recycled materials may be doing. And activists can lose sight of priority issues, as some foreign architects might do when they get involved in post-war reconstruction.

One difficulty we have in assessing design activism is that although “actions” are often reported as news, we don’t necessarily find out how effective the actions were in moving the cause forward. If $100 laptops were to appeal to international funders to buy for third world schools, and not as Thackara suggests, for individual families to buy, then perhaps they would do some good. If the Red Cross shock tactic did get more people to prepare for an earthquake, then they achieved their aim. These reports that assess the outcome of activism are often missing, just as assessments of how various designed products and buildings perform in real life are also often missing.

Do you have any cases of “design activism gone wrong” to share?

3 Responses to Design Activism Gone Wrong?

  1. Cameron Sinclair says:

    John did have a number of good points but I also objected to the generalization made about the AMD Open Architecture Challenge and our organization for a few reasons.

    Firstly. The point was not to develop a project for others but in collaboration with. The challenge was borne out of an RFP that 103 communities from around the world applied for (a dozen of which were from India). Three local community organizations were selected, by a global group, and we developed a brief/criteria in unison with the client/end user – ie. not the imposition of technology, rather the inclusion to already existing programs. These included a health facility in rural Nepal, fair trade chocolate factory in Ecuador and a youth media lab in Nairobi.

    What was striking in the criteria development that while, as John pointed out 6M people in India are getting cell phones every month, the community in Kenya were looking to utilize technology for skills training, job creation and community out reach. Can this be all done with a cell phone – yes – Can it only be done with a cell phone – no. Creating equal access to technology is not just providing one option but many options. This is where the overlap with architecture happens and that well designed, appropriate, energy efficient structures can make a difference.

    This is my second point. Architecture is no longer about form making – it never was – it is about creating appropriate structures that interweave the local context of a community and that hopefully inspire. Many young and emerging architects are not taught the way that many ‘star-architects’ are currently practicing. These designers are creating structures that are not only appropriate but are site specific based on local knowledge and involvement. The challenge had 800+ designers from 35 countries develop a conceptual solution where the winner, selected by community members, has the opportunity to realize the design with both the local client and design professionals. This entire process will take a couple of years, most of which will be on the ground.

    My third point is that all 400+ designs are now CC licensed solutions that can be adapted and replicated by others. When the designs are for social change they should be shared. Hosted on the Open Architecture Network, this allows local community organizations and regionally based NGOs to find a solution and work with designers to adapt it to a specific site. Our last competition, to design a youth sports facility and hiv/aids outreach center, is a good example of this. While we are still building the winning solution we are currently developing 20 other centers around Sub-Saharan Africa based off of this initiative. These centers will impact upward of 150,000 lives.

    Finally, just a side point. I do find it a little arrogant of writers to speak of design and architecture as a ‘western’ or ‘developed world’ notion – and then insinuate the ‘look at what they are forcing on them’ self-guilt world view. There are designers, both licensed and unlicensed, all over the world. They are not divided by boundaries but by skill and desire. There will always be the Zaha Hadids and Karim Rashids of this world but there are also the Diébédo Francis Kérés, the Rodney Harbers and the Yasmine Laris of this world. For as many designers working in the realm of architectural plastic surgery, there are just as many working in the emergency room. The difference is that the latter are not seeking accolades and therefore do not grace the covers of magazines and the design media.

    Yes there are a dozen ‘examples’ where we can point to designers screwing up, getting it wrong, undervaluing the input of the community. Yet there are hundreds of stories where quiet moments of innovation have been an element of incredible change in a community. Most of us who are actually building look at bemusement to all the structures going up in Dubai and Doha – why are those deemed as great feats of ‘design excellence’ but yet a community led participatory process is often scrutinized by cynical, often western, eyes.

    Perhaps it is time to write more stories of the successes on the ground. Come join any of us, but do expect to pick up a shovel when you are on your site visit.


  2. Cameron Sinclair says:

    ok. that was a little rant (I was writing to John at the time). We are uploading all our best and worst case studies to the Open Architecture Network.


  3. Ann says:

    Thanks for your comments. I accept the rant and you’ve made some great points. I also intend to focus here in this blog largely on the positive side of activism.

    But activism does seem to be a relatively new framework for designers and this piece was really to call attention to the fact that it does have broad strategic underpinnings that go beyond a conventional design brief — as you have also made clear. The “client” takes on entirely different dimensions and a key question concerns how designers gear up for that work.

    Your book’s introduction (Design Like You Give A Damn, listed on my “books” page) candidly reveals how little prepared you were for these dimensions of activism when you started Architecture for Humanity. Learning through the experiences of others, both design activists and “generic” activists and just plain people making changes, is clearly a top priority — so thanks for the bit about case studies on the Open Architecture Network.

    Perhaps I should have ended my post with a request for both positive and negative cases…


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