Designing Interdependent Systems to Course-Correct the World

Posted November 1, 2011

“Almost one billion people are living in the informal settlements, commonly called slums. This population is projected to swell to two billion by 2030.” A staggering statistic at the heart of the Cooper-Hewitt’s Design With the Other 90%: CITIES exhibit on display at the United Nations Visitor Center until January 9, 2012. This show expands on the 2007 show, Design For the Other 90%. While that show focused on objects that can change the world, this show focuses on systems. That makes it a harder story to communicate, but curator Cynthia Smith and the exhibit team have put in a valiant effort to tell these complex and interwoven stories of intervention.  

Community mapping projects and bootstrapped SMS census-taking are initial themes of the exhibit, pointing out that it is exceedingly difficult to intervene among the uncounted and unseen. After this, affordable housing is front and center, from ingeniously inexpensive durable building materials to complex infrastructure plays. “Incremental Housing” from Chile is a prime example of this. This a program of half-built houses – spines of residential infrastructure that include kitchen, bathrooms, basic structure – while residents are responsible for building out the rest in their idiosyncratic ways.  The net value of the property is significantly raised by the sweat equity of the residents.  

After affordable housing are financial and communications services. M-Pesa is another brilliant system that uses the tools people already have (basic cell phones) to give them access to electronic banking. M-Pesa makes it easy and safe to wire money from peer to peer, and has now become a way for people to pay their bills electronically without access to the internet.   

These types of systemic interventions are the only way to address issues as massive in scale as the urbanization explosion of the next 25 years. I did note a lack of focus on cultural expression and identity in these projects. One hopes that if basic needs can be addressed, this critical layer of urban survival can also become a theme of this ingenious and inspired work.

And special thanks to Curt Meissner and our ESI Design team for designing the UN exhibit system utilized in Design With the Other 90%. It was great to see it put to good use in this important show.

ESI Design

NBBJ’s New York experience design studio, ESI Design, transforms places into experiences that seamlessly weave the physical and digital worlds together.

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