The second session of Metropolis's Design Entrepreneurs Presentations brought with it a fresh crop of idealists and thinkers. With a wide range of humanitarian agencies presenting, the only universal seemed to be that design-based aid is still done on a shoestring budget. After presenting several successful efforts from Project H, Emily Pilloton admitted that she "was operating a non-profit with an empty bank account and living with her parents," yet her slides amply demonstrated that she was getting things done. So there do seem to be costs to humanitarian design, but they seem largely borne by organizational managers rather than donors. Cameron Sinclair, founder of the well established Architecture for Humanity, ominously summed up the state of affairs in international aid with his thoughts after receiving a request from the UN regarding recent crises in China: "When you call someone with seven people in their office and you ask them to help five million, well ... the world is f***ed." Nervous laughter ensued.
And yet, Sinclair then proceeded to virtually overwhelm the audience with a succession of well-executed projects that were doing a great deal of good in the developing world (and the not so developing parts of the US). Meanwhile organizations like the New York Industrial Retention Network, represented by Tanu Kumar and Tzipora Lubarr showed the hard work they had done in establishing the networks needed to make sure that manufacturing in the US stays vibrant, while Rug Mark's Nina Smith ensures that children in the developing world aren't toiling away to make cheap products for overindulged Americans. All in all, it was very clear that there was no shortage of desire to make for a better world among the design community. The deeper question was how, and while it wasn't exactly stated explicitly by any one of the presenters, listening to them as a whole made the solutions pretty clear ... In a word, the answer seemed to be involvement. Whether in an established (though still small) organization like Architecture for Humanity, or a young startup like Project H, the efforts that worked not only gave to the community, but educated and involved it as well. While it may be trite to begin with "teach a man to fish," there does seem to be some truth in that maxim. At the same time that thinkers like William Easterly offer some rather bleak assessments of what western "aid" to Africa has done so far, it's a wonderful counterpoint to hear people like Cameron Sinclair explain how he took funding from the Smithsonian intended for the creation of a small model for display in their museum to: "Create a 1:1 scale model called a building" in the place that actually needed it. This approach wouldn't work if it was just a one time bequest, but instead his organization trains and teaches the people on the ground to do it again and again. Part of the secret of the success of the United States (at least in the business sense) has been serial entrepreneurship, where a experienced business person funnels the money from one completed project into the next new effort. The ultimate form of giving, then, seems to be teaching serial constructive creation rather than simply giving. Giving things away only teaches people how to recieve, but getting them involved teaches them how to build, and that's the sort of act of design the developing world needs.
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