Developed countries can get away with a certain amount of bad design, believes Amy Smith, a teacher at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. If something breaks, we can go out and buy a new one. But when you’re designing products to be used by communities in developing countries you have an obligation to make them last.
Smith founded MIT’s D-Lab, a programme that devises appropriate technologies within the framework of international development. For the past eight years, she has been teaching the three cornerstones of D-Lab – development, design and dissemination – to help communities in the developing world. Smith believes that the design process for products for developing countries is not that different, although constraints such as budgets naturally differ. It ‘teaches really good principles of design’, she adds. ‘The design process is an iterative one – simplify, simplify, simplify, and you end up with something really beautiful.’
In addition to its main foundations of ‘discovery and dialogue’, D-Lab focuses on encouraging design capabilities within local communities. ‘We want to operate with respect, humility and understanding, and develop the creative capacity within the community,’ stresses Smith.
Recent D-Lab projects range from a cellphone-enabled set of baby scales to a portable, hydro-powered lantern for the Peruvian highlands and an affordable solar-powered water heater for high-altitude deserts.
Researching the needs of communities is vital. ‘It is all about identifying what our technology can have an impact on,’ says Smith. ‘There is a skill in recognising where there is a problem and understanding the landscape of technology or how something from an entirely different sector might solve it.’ Empowerment and co-creation are other key aspects, and those go beyond technology. ‘We have an impact on social structures. We are now seeing people make things to solve their own problems,’ says Smith. ‘It’s been an epiphany.’
Designs that benefit developing countries are not always created under the umbrella of major institutions such as MIT, however. When Dutch designer Nina Tolstrup of Studio Mama embarked on her Pallet project in 2006, it was to address questions of sustainability. This furniture range is constructed from readily available wood pallets, and Tolstrup started selling the assembly instructions on her website. The project has now taken on a life of its own, with people sending in pictures of their personalised Pallet chairs.
Last year, Tolstrup was approached by photographer Cecelia Glik for a charity project in Buenos Aires. This led to the Pallet chair being produced in workshops in Lugano – one of that city’s poorest areas – and then marketed through Glik’s contacts, creating employment and income. Tolstrup believes the Pallet project has become ‘quite a bipolar situation’. ‘I’ve sold Pallet chairs to collectors in France and they’re exhibited in galleries,’ she explains, ‘but you can just buy the instructions and make them yourself.’ Tolstrup says similar opportunities that chime with her sustainable approach are always welcome.
London-based South African product designer Ryan Frank has taken on just such an opportunity. He is developing an African-inspired range of furniture for Spanish retailer Sabi Sand, and will return to South Africa next year to work with a community specialising in decorative bead work. ‘If you want to capture [the idea of] Africa, the things that stand out are wire and beads,’ believes Frank. ‘I’m taking that as the main inspiration for the range.’ It is not the first time he has used indigenous craft – Frank’s Inkuku chair is inspired by a hand-crafted South African chicken ornament, made from recycled plastic bags.
Frank is also involved in community projects closer to his UK home. He has just completed products and furniture for Cookie, a new concept eatery by Domenico Del Priore and Melanie McCallum, which opened in Glasgow last week. It aims to bring the city’s South Side area together in a community resource centre for cookery, healthy eating and art.
Whatever the project, Frank is realistic about balancing the commercial imperative with the urge to produce sustainable products. ‘If you try to tick all the boxes, you end up with a product that can hardly exist,’ he says. ‘You have to balance sustainability and fair trade. It all comes down to being responsible and doing what you can. As long as the end result is a product and process that’s better than a regular high street product, that’s a result.’