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World: Designers Innovate For The World's Neediest

  • Heather Maher --> A child uses a Q-Drum to haul water in Zimbabwe (Courtesy Photo) June 6, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Billions of customers around the world are waiting for a $2 pair of eyeglasses, a $10 solar-powered lantern, and a $100 house. But most of the world's designers spend all their time thinking up products for the 10 percent of the world's people who can afford luxury goods.

That startling fact is the underlying premise of a new exhibition in New York City that features designs to meet the basic needs - health, food, water, shelter, education, and energy -- of 90 percent of the world's population. Some of the designs in the exhibition seem almost too simple not to have been invented 50 years ago.

Ideas People Need

Things like the Q-Drum -- a round container that holds up to 75 liters of water and can be effortlessly rolled along the ground with a rope. Anyone who sees it knows immediately that it would eliminate the backbreaking labor of carrying water long distances.

Each item was designed to not only to meet a basic need, but also to be easily manufactured locally, with local materials, and priced affordably for sale.

And the Big Boda load-carrying bicycle -- a sturdy bicycle designed with an extra long frame and wide rear platform. The design can securely hold hundreds of kilograms of goods for a small entrepreneur or farmer going to market.

Both innovations are featured in an exhibition at New York City's Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum called "Design For The Other 90 Percent," which runs through September.

Cynthia Smith, the woman who organized the show, says the idea came from the fact that the basic needs of billions of people around the world -- people who have no regular access to things like clean water, sanitation, housing, and fresh food -- are not a priority for the vast majority of designers.

Instead, they focus on luxury goods like cars and kitchen appliances, stereo systems, and speed boats.

Changing The Focus

This exhibition reflects the fact that that is starting to change.

"The exhibition 'Design For The Other 90 Percent' explores a growing trend among designers to develop low cost solutions for the vast majority of the world's population, 90 percent, not traditionally serviced by the traditional design community," Smith says.

All 35 items in the show offer a solution for a consequence, or cause, of poverty. They are grouped into five areas of need: shelter, health, water, education, energy, and transport.

For example, the Global Village Shelter -- which has been used in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and parts of Southeast Asia -- is temporary emergency housing for people made homeless by disasters or refugee situations. The square structures are made from biodegradable material, are weatherproof, low-cost, and last up to 18 months. Even better, they are entirely prefabricated, ship perfectly flat, and require no tools to assemble.

Global Village Shelters being set up in an earthquake-struck region of Pakistan in 2006 (courtesy photo)

In the education category, the One Laptop Per Child design is a revolutionary, bright green computer that costs just $100 to manufacture. It can connect to the Internet from just about anywhere in the world and stands up to harsh weather conditions and physical abuse.

Smith is particularly enthusiastic about the Pot-in-Pot design, which she says embodies the spirit of socially responsible, sustainable design. It was invented by a Nigerian engineer, Muhammad Bah Abba, who grew up in a rural village that lacked electricity. The pot-in-pot uses cheap local materials -- clay and sand -- to extend the life of fruit and vegetables that spoil quickly in hot climates.

One earthenware pot nests inside another, much larger pot. In between the two vessels, there is a layer of sand. Water is added to the sand, and as the water evaporates, it cools the inner pot, keeping the contents fresh.

"And so you have this very low cost way to refrigerate produce without electricity," Smith says. "For example, tomatoes -- which prior to this would only last three to four days now last 21 days. It allows young girls, who generally are tasked with taking the produce to market [more freedom] to go to school. Education is very important in helping people out of poverty. It also allows them the freedom to take their produce to market when the prices might be better, rather than having to take it within the three- to four-day period."

In the water category, the bamboo treadle pump design allows poor farmers to access groundwater during the dry season. Two treadles -- or foot pedals -- and support posts are made of bamboo or other inexpensive, locally available wood. Two metal cylinders with pistons form the pump, which can be manufactured by even the poorest communities. Water is pulled from the ground by a person who simply steps on the treadles.

More than 1.7 million bamboo treadle pumps have been sold in places like Bangladesh, and have generated more than $1 billion in farm income. That income generating capacity is an essential component of these socially responsible designs.

Using Local Materials, Local Labor

These innovations aren't produced by wealthy companies and presented as gifts to impoverished communities. Most items were designed not only to meet a basic need, but also to be easily manufactured locally, with local materials, and priced affordably for sale.

The Q-Drum for water transport, for example, creates dozens of jobs where the concept is introduced: there are the suppliers of ropes and metal, the welders who manufacture the drums, and the shopkeepers who sell them.

The product of the One Laptop Per Child project (courtesy photo)

The "Design For The Other 90 Percent" exhibition has only been open a few days, but Smith says it has already attracted enormous interest.

"The response has been overwhelming and broad -- geographically, internationally," Smith says. "I think what the show really shows -- it's a reflection of the interest [that is] kind of wide ranging in this area."

She says it was difficult to keep the number of designs in the exhibition to just 35, because there were hundreds of submissions from design groups, manufacturing companies, and even nonprofit groups that work to combat poverty and have developed their own solutions for certain problems.

So many submissions were received, in fact, that the museum created a special website where anyone can study the designs that were chosen and write in with comments or suggestions for new ones.

The organizers hope the show will generate public discussion about the need for more socially responsible designs and encourage more designers to take up the cause.

In Tune With Central Asia

Music On Film, Film On Music

CENTRAL EUROPE MEETS CENTRAL ASIA: A Prague-based festival featuring nearly 100 films about music from around the world placed a spotlight on the musical culture of Central Asia -- still one of the world's best-kept secrets. Films gave a glimpse into the lives of musicians in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty was on hand for a live musical performance.


View a short RFE/RL video presentation of the event (about 90 seconds). RealVideo