Decoding Design

Cooper-Hewitt show presents slums as innovation hotbeds

Posting in Architecture

A new exhibition organized by the Smithsonian's Cooper-Hewitt museum illustrates how designers work with resource-challenged urban communities around the globe to improve life quickly with inexpensive, easy-to-use health, housing, and communication solutions

NEW YORK--To enter the new exhibition presented by the Smithsonian Institution's Cooper-Hewitt museum, titled "Design with the Other 90%: Cities," it's necessary to go through an unusually strict security screening. It's nearly identical to that of an American airport; visitors must place personal bags, electronics, and coats on conveyor belts and have them X-rayed before they're allowed in.

That's because the show, which addresses how urban slums can serve as innovation hotbeds, is located in an unusual setting for a Cooper-Hewitt exhibition: the United Nations. It's there because the museum is undergoing a renovation. But the airport-like security and the bustling venue all add to the experience of "Design with the Other 90%: Cities." It's an inspiring and thought-provoking exhibition, opening to the public free of charge on October 15. It will remain on view through January 9, 2012.

Once visitors pass through security and enter the U.N., they can choose to enter the world of "Design with the Other 90%," which offers a glimpse at how designers are currently working with communities in informal urban settlements in Latin America, Africa, and Asia to improve life in slums--and the cities they're part of.

In slums, the need to innovate isn't just about creating cool new products, business opportunities, or sales. It's about urgency and survival. Close to 1 billion people live in informal settlements around the world today, and this number is predicted to grow a full 100% by 2030.

ONE BILLION SOLUTIONS

"Now, some could see a statistic of 1 billion-plus people as a problem, or see the potential to engage with those people and find 1 billion solutions. That is the attitude of the designers whose work is in this exhibition," Cynthia E. Smith, Cooper-Hewitt's Curator of Socially Responsible Design and the show's organizer, said. "And [when curating this show] I tried to find successful, scalable solutions."

The show documents more than 60 real-world projects from 22 nations, via architect's models, videos, colorful large photographs, cross-sections of building materials, and everyday objects such as duct tape or empty water bottles. (The latter were used to map out an informal settlement in Lima, Peru, so that it could be easily seen and photographed from the sky.) These objects are presented in elegant displays on walls, in sculpture-like configurations, or in museum-quality vitrines.

The architectural models, of initiatives such as the Yerwada slum upgrade design in Pune, India, or the re-vamped hillsides of Medellin, Colombia, which were transformed from a violent area to a destination for beautiful public spaces, have the soaring feel of bird's eye views, as if looking at them from the clouds.

Nearby are many large photographs of initiatives such as Floating Community Lifeboats--schools, clinics, and libraries set afloat in flood-ravaged Bangladesh--or the Favela Painting Project--in which local youths in a Rio de Janeiro slum painted the buildings where they lived and socialized in eye-popping hues.

As lovely and inspiring as such giant photos are, having videos in the exhibition for each of the designers and their everyday co-collaborators at work making their ideas real (especially for the two projects just mentioned) would make the stories come even more to life. Yes, there are many effective videos on display on crisp Apple monitors mounted on temporary walls, including one presentation on a mapping project in the Kibera slum in Nairobi, Kenya. Perhaps exhibition-quality clips weren't available for each program featured. But in the age of YouTube, a lack of video in a show with such stunning visuals and design narratives can feel like something's missing.

The show thankfully offers some actual objects in use today, such as the Digital Drum. It's a used steel oil drum refashioned to encase a laptop computer and weatherproof keyboard. There's a solar panel included to keep it running. At the U.N., the Digital Drum is placed near a large window to ensure it gets sun rays, so that exhibition-goers can try it out.

Ideally, those exhibition-goers will also include the many diplomats, international tourists, and school groups who pass through the U.N.'s visitor lobby daily, and who could spread the word of such inventive designs to their own governments, NGOs, neighborhoods, and fellow students. In many ways, the U.N. setting might offer much more practical impact than if the show were on view at the Cooper-Hewitt, just by the make-up of the U.N.'s everyday traffic.

EASILY TRANSFERABLE INNOVATION

Smith points out that many of the projects on view will likely resonate with audiences from all parts of the globe and at all economic levels who might wonder, "can local and regional municipalities keep up with this rapid growth?"

One way to address the challenges that the increasing global slum population faces is to encourage an exchange of information between different cities on how to effectively cope with scarce space, insufficient infrastructure, and other issues, Smith said.

Smith pointed out that many projects on view in "Design with the Other 90%: Cities" could be adopted in other parts of the world outside of Asia,  Africa, and Latin America--including in city settings within Western Europe, the Middle East, and the United States.

One is the Vertical Gym, a gymnasium "kit of parts" that can be assembled inexpensively from prefabricated architectural pieces, first designed to transform a rundown, crime-ridden sports field in a Caracas, Venezuela slum into a welcoming public space.

"The designers of the Vertical Gym already have proposals out in the Netherlands and in Jordan, as well as in New York City as a solution for public schools," Smith said. "The idea is very transferrable."

Other projects in the show that are also gaining real-world traction outside of their initial use in resource-challenged areas include the well-known Kenyan M-PESA money-transfer system, which allows users to send money to others via mobile-phones. It has currently has 13 million users, including many urban workers who in the past sent money to their relatives through the mail or even by hand-delivery, which could pose logistical and safety issues (because of long, inefficient travel routes and the dangers of potential robbery). The project provides a convincing model that companies are paying attention to around the globe via articles in business magazines and other media.

While such a project stretches the concepts of "design" and "city," M-PESA is an intriguing inclusion in the exhibition, as it illustrates how powerful new communities with metropolis-like user bases are being developed via communication-media innovation. After all, M-PESA's 13 million users are a group that's larger than the population of many of the world's cities  themselves.

DESIGN THAT HITS A NERVE

The predecessor to "Design with the Other 90%: Cities" opened at the Cooper-Hewitt in 2007. Titled "Design for the Other 90%," the 2007 show was smaller, featuring 34 projects from around the world, ranging from One Laptop Per Child, an often-debated initiative to create inexpensive computers for kids in resource-challenged regions, to LifeStraw, a straw designed to filter and purify water immediately as a user sips through it.

The initial show's thesis, as well as that of the on-going series, is that designers have traditionally focused on creating products and services to sell to the wealthiest 10% of the world's population, but architects, engineers, graphic and industrial designers, as well as design-savvy entrepreneurs, are increasingly addressing the needs of the majority of the globe's residents--namely those who live in poverty.

"The first show hit a nerve. It started to spark an international conversation on what role design could play in solving critical global issues," Smith said, pointing out that the first show traveled to six different venues and the catalog has been reprinted seven times, including Japanese and Korean editions.

"We saw there was dearth of information on this type of design," Smith added. "So we decided to create a series."

While it's still early to talk about what the Cooper-Hewitt has planned for its next show--Smith said there will be others--the series has a permanent home online as individual exhibitions open and close, with the Design Other 90 Network. The site offers a database that will kick off with 100 projects from both of the shows in the series to date. There's room for more as worldwide conversations--and debates--on how to best design for, and with, the 90 percent of the world's citizens are sure to continue.

Images: Favela painting, Haas&Hahn; Digital Drum: UNICEF Uganda/2010/Jean-Marc Lefebure; floating community lifeboats: Abir Abdullah/Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha

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Reena Jana

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Reena Jana has written for the New York Times, Wired, Harvard Business Review online, Fast Company, Architectural Record, Artforum, Time Out New York, Harper's Bazaar, and GQ. Previously, she was the innovation department editor at BusinessWeek. She holds degrees from Columbia University and Barnard College. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure