Many thanks for this guest post just in from Ashley Thorfinnson and Sahar Ghaheri.
Undergrads passionately conversing on leaf-littered lawns between rows of red brick buildings set an almost overly iconic stage for the learning and discovery at this weekend's A Better World by Design Conference in Providence, RI. There was a laidback optimism in the air as we wandered between events at RISD and Brown, where students and professionals with lofty dreams of saving the world came together to gain advice from those who have already begun creating a better world by design. A few highlights are below:
Cameron Sinclair, Keynote Speaker
Despite showing up late, we were psyched to kick off our weekend by catching Cameron Sinclair's spectacular keynote speech. We laughed, we were moved, and we were beyond-inspired to follow his lead. Declaring the need for an absolute systemic change in the design world, Cameron spoke about creating economic engines for reconstruction in disaster-stricken areas, and of the importance of treating communities and clients as equal partners in the design process. Quoting another, Cameron likened his organization, Architecture for Humanity, to an "Al Qaeda for good...with sleeper cells all over the world, ready to activate." By establishing this worldwide network, he illustrated the power of creating a highly responsive design community that effectively matches skills with needs--or as he put in yet another colorful analogy, "match.com for the humanitarian design world."
Following Cameron, Sheila Kennedy asked what we can do right now with what we already have. She gave an enlightening speech on utilizing and transforming existing materials to create "anti-tech" solutions for people in nearly inaccessible, underdeveloped areas. We were impressed by the rigor of her design process and her portable light project--a simple design solution that makes a tremendous impact.
A morning panel on Social Design in the Workplace (Panelists: Joe Haskett, Emily Pilloton, Aidan Petrie)
And if we hadn't yet managed to get our fill of design discussions, the conference offered plenty of panels interspersed between rounds of speakers. We came away in part wishing that the panels could have been longer or better programmed for more in-depth responses and dialogue, but perhaps we simply picked the wrong panels to attend. In any case, amidst some small organizational flaws, the panelists were impressive. Emily Pilloton, founder of Proect H, struck us as particularly inspiring. She takes a refreshing approach to design work by using product design as a vehicle for economic empowerment. This approach is exemplified by Project H's work with products like the Lifestraw and Hipporoller.
Ross Evans speaking on Appropriate Technologies Panel
Initially we were bummed to have only caught the tail end of what seemed to be a great speech from Ross Evans on the first day of the conference, but thankfully we got another chance to see him on Saturday (squeezing into an already-overcrowded classroom and finding the last available seats on the brown carpet in the front of the class.) Fittingly, we heard Ross re-make his point about "sitting on the floor," emphasizing the importance of truly living the culture you design for and not trying to solve problems you don't understand. Also on the panel was Ryan Roberge from KickStart, making important points about affordability, ownership and marketing products for the developing world. Unfortunately due to a shipping snafu, we didn't get to see his Treadle pump in action, but we've got our fingers crossed for the next conference.
Erik Hersman presents Afrigadget
On Saturday, Paul Polack fired up the morning by starting off on a "choose your own adventure" note, letting the audience select his speech topic by popular vote. Polack took on the notion of a design revolution, asking "what might work when traditional approaches fail in eradicating poverty?" Stating that low-tech innovations are only a small portion of the battle, Paul emphasized the importance of creative business models, and examined approaches that aim to move towards more successful design for the other 90 percent of the world's population.
Next up in the morning line-up was The White African and Afrigadget founder, Erik Hersman, who took us through an interactive tour of everyday images from Africa in a segment he entitled "What do you see?" It was a revelatory experience, viewing our surroundings with new eyes to witness problems and the attendant recycling, ingenuity, and tool-creation involved in their solutions. We were particularly excited by his mention of Ushahidi (a website created to map reported incidents of violence during the post-election crisis in Kenya) and its new offspring project aimed at creating a free and open-source engine that facilitates the gathering of crisis information and visual data. Great embodiments on both the low and high-tech end of the spectrum.
Other highlights from the conference were Ecolect's Material Petting Zoo; the Solar Cooker workshop led by Virginio Mendonca & Eric Fedus. (Eric collected potato chip bags from our lunches to use in his workshop.); Bamboo: Structural Grass, led by Miya Buxton; and Design for Social Entrepreneurship, led by Sami Nerenberg, Brittany Kleinman, James Minola, & Chelsea Green.