For a long time in the West there has been a common misgiving that aid is about patronage. The Cooper Hewitt’s latest exhibition, Design with the Other 90% : Cities, which opened this weekend at the United Nations Visitor’s Center, rebukes this notion by spotlighting communities in the southern hemisphere who are taking the initiative, harnessing local resources to solve their own problems. In the show, designers and architects are tapping into existing currents of change.
The clue is in the title, which follows on from the 2007 show Design for the Other 90%, which charted products and work that has been imported into impoverished communities. This latest exhibition—focusing on cities—presents a broad spectrum of solutions to critical issues of sanitation, space, communications, and infrastructure. Sixty featured projects were divided into six sections—Exchange, Reveal, Adapt, Include, Prosper, and Access. The projects were selected primarily for their success, which curator Cynthia Smith puts down to qualities of scalability, transferability, applicability in other locations as well as their positive impact.
“What’s interesting about so many of these projects is there’s real application to what’s currently happening,” said Smith. She cites Urban Think Tank‘s Vertical Gym as one example. Intended to mark out a safe public space in a dense urban location, the gym has been designed as a kit of parts so it can be programmed and adapted to the site. The Venezuela-based project has been transformed into proposals for New York City public schools, as well as areas in the Netherlands and the Middle East.
While all the ideas are site-specific and responsive to local geography, culture, and scale among other factors, the exhibition also features organizations such as Shack/Slum Dwellers International, which is practicing a horizontal exchange and offering a set of design tools that can be applied to problems in various countries, climates, and situations. “The scale of these problems is growing so rapidly that regional and local municipalities can’t keep up with the growth, so you get cross-collaborations,” said Smith. “The most interesting designs are the hybrid solutions, where the informal settlements and the formal city meet.”
Because there has been a dearth of information about this kind of design, Smith says that professors were using the last show’s catalogue as a text book, so for this next installment, Cooper Hewitt has developed what they consider to be a tool for the next generation of designers. “We are looking at who is addressing these issues,” she said. The Design for the Other 90% now has a social network where designers can upload projects and exchange ideas.
The statistics are staggering: one billion people are living in informal settlements around the world, and it’s projected that this number will increase to two billion by 2030. These facts are much more powerful when one is exposed to the physical artifacts that are the design solutions: bio-latrines that transform human waste into fertilizer and gas for cooking in Nairobi, floating schools and health clinics in flood-prone Bangladesh; favelas painted with women’s faces in Rio, and plastic formwork systems that allow the unskilled to build houses in a day in South Africa. The innovations are astonishing. It is easy to produce a self-congratulatory exhibition about how design can help poorer communities around the world, but Cooper Hewitt’s new exhibition demonstrates that approach is moot: these communities are already in the process of redesigning themselves.