At the same time, we were once again made aware of how difficult it is for us to deliver these tools – products and services, where and when they are most urgently and desperately needed.

Some hundred thousand people were suddenly left without the most basic amenities – shelter, water, food and without the simplest means of delivering these amenities – transportation and containers.

Never in history has industry produced such a large variety of products. Almost everything is available, almost anywhere, at almost any price. The global market is overflowing with things badly designed or well designed, useful or useless. We are drowning in things.

And yet, never did it seem that the supply of appropriate goods to a stricken population, as in Goma, were further away. It was not within reach where it was most needed.

There is a strange paradox in our situation. Designers contribute impressively and globally to the quality of goods and services. The research that goes into the improvement of products and the creativity invested in their unstoppable reshaping and refashioning is increasingly locked up into a specialised and vulnerable system of production, transportation, distribution, marketing and sale.

We know today that whichever product we want, the best is available to us, mostly within the day, from almost any spot in the industrialised world. We will get it if we want it, order it and pay for it.

When I was a child, we would order whatever we needed from the local craftsman or shop, or order from the next village or town. Now, I order similar things from somewhere in Asia, through some incomprehensible internet connection or some network of agents, and it is probably both better and cheaper than what I used to get locally.

But I suspect my order would never be delivered to Goma or to a flood stricken village of Bangladesh or to a refugee camp on the border of Afghanistan or to the site of a landslide in Nicaragua or to a village hit by a forest fire in Java.

Somehow the more clever we become, the more advanced our design analysis is and the more we are able to produce with staggering technological finesse, the more unable we also are at delivering the most basic of human needs.

This is a paradox. Because we have become so proficient and advanced as designers, we may have removed ourselves from the needs that actually confront a major part of the world population.

We have become part of a system of close-knit interdependence that assumes well-functioning finances, marketing and infrastructure, a system that is simply not relevant in Goma or on the mountain plateau of Afghanistan.

For this reason, it is more important than ever that designers boldly confront that ‘other’ situation, the situation facing us  beyond the shop shelf and the stuffed wallet.

This is, I believe, what we are trying to do with DW – Design for the World, our joint organisation based in Barcelona. This is what some Norwegian designers, to use a small example at hand, are trying to do, co-operating in Guatemala and Mozambique over the issues of land mines, tent constructions, latrines and refuse handling.

Here, we are dealing with users who are not buyers, we are dealing with intermediaries in the shape of governments and international and local organisations, with communities on the spot, and we are dealing with a cultural context that is more demanding and sensitive than anything we ever face as we work with brand builders and marketing analysts.

It should make us thoughtful when we see how little research and development work actually is put into products for crisis and development. The technology of the land mine seekers has been basically unaltered since 1914: it was perhaps never very ‘hot’ for us as a profession, even though the industry for artificial limbs has made considerable progress with our help.

Products for inexpensively purifying water are rare, as are other methods for transporting water. Never much professional prestige to be found there. We are very good at designing refrigerators that tell us when something is missing inside, even notifying the local shop of this miserable fact, but not very good at the cooling of foodstuffs with solar power.

Or then the solutions are probably there, but the motivation to put it to use is not really present, because our incentives seem so closely tied up with a system of production and purchase that is sadly missing or irrelevant for this category of product.

Neither, and this is a problem, does ICSID have it’s membership located out there, near the Gomas of this world. This is not where we find our network. To be effective there, we need to build co-operation with international aid organisations, with UN bodies and with governments.

This is not what we are good at. We need to place our competence as designers and problem solvers, in a very broad sense, rather than humbly on the table of people who understand this situation better than we do. 

It will not do anyone any good, if we designers come up with some new gadgets or some new clever solutions to some problem as we define it if we do not understand the context of its use. Working with design for crisis and development is not just another job, it requires a whole different attitude.

Our work through Design for the World and through some of our member organisations may therefore be slower than we anticipated, because we also need to reorient our competence and delete some of our business pride in the process.

This article was first published in ICSID news 1/2002 the newsletter of the International Council of the Societies of Industrial Design.

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