Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Industrial Designer about "Design for the Other 90% Paradigm"

Like many design students in the U.S. I fell in love with the idea of using design to help developing countries. This career path seemed to align with my two chief interests: designing stuff and helping others. I soon found a small project I could sink my teeth into, and with the support of my professors I began working tirelessly, with the passion and vivaciousness that comes from working with a purpose.

The goal was to design a low tech dirt mixer for use with Dr Moses Musaazi's (our colleague at Technology for Tomorrow) interlocking soil-stabilized block (ISSB) press. This ISSB machine is a simple, lever-operated tool which compresses a mixture of soil and concrete into an interlocking brick shape. As I used the machine on a mission trip I found most of my energy went into mixing the elements of soil and concrete(which was done by hand with shovels), whereas the compressing phase was quite easy. Hence my training in design dictated this mixing process needed improving upon. The first design that I sent over was a goliath of a machine, which was designed to never break and mix a very large quantity of soil as fast as possible, via hand cranks and gears. This mixer was doomed from the beginning. It was a product of the wrong approach to aid: ambitious people going to a foreign country and trying to crank out a "life-changing difference" as fast as possible. Needless to say, this project failed. The people who received it didn't understand how to use it, they had no respect for it as it was simply dropped upon their feet so it fell into the disrepair that I so desperately wanted to avoid. Despite the simple design, fixing the device was understandably more trouble than it was worth. Utter failure. Ouch.

On my second trip to Uganda, I had the privilege of working within Dr. Musaazi's company, Technology for Tomorrow Ltd, as an intern. No making the same mistakes twice, I told myself. This time, the mixer would be designed from local materials alongside local craftsman to ensure we created a machine that was easier to use, easier to fix and cheaper to make. The resulting design was an eclectic hodgepodge of parts found in nearby markets: car parts, an oil drum, scrap steel, among numerous other repurposed components. Despite being far more affordable and user friendly, this project also became an unused piece of the landscape as well and it certainly wasn't built for aesthetics! Though it addressed numerous failures of its predecessor, it fell to scrap for the same fundamental reason. It was not driven and invested-in by Ugandans so after the foreigner's work was done, it stagnated. Finally I truly understood that I was my own worst enemy.

My passion for design and for improving lives blinded me from the true situation. I saw problems that I wanted to fix, and I wanted to see that fix as soon as possible. What I missed was that Ugandans don't just need designs, they need to start designing. Abigail Mechtenberg once spoke of design as bread; design has the ability to tangibly improve peoples lives, but to dedicate a career to designing for the other 90% is just as unsustainable as spending a lifetime donating food. Certainly there are times when relief work is absolutely needed, in times of emergency and crisis. But spending a lifetime donating food to people that have the ability to farm, is no worse than designing for people that have the ability to design. Should foreigners design to fix problems or should we instead empower design?

- Blog Written by Daniel Morgan, an amazingly talented industrial designer whose humility in this blog is to a level which at times is not completely accurate. He co-designed many devices in Uganda and left a legacy and friendships in Uganda which will continue throughout his lifetime. As he goes back to school, he has dreams of co-founding a Design School at Makerere University. He shared what few ever learn... globally, we need to move beyond aid or the perfect imported technology/idea and into Ugandan research and development (R&D). An imperfect device with the backing of Ugandans is MUCH better than a supposedly perfect device with no backing. Note: a device will be backed-up by Ugandans IF it is affordable and most importantly repairable!

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