A growing movement among designers interested in creating low-cost solutions for this other ninety per cent is explored in the exhibition Design for the Other 90%. Designers, engineers, students and academics, architects and social entrepreneurs from all over the world are coming up with cost-effective ways to increase access to food and water, energy, education, healthcare, revenue-generating activities and affordable transportation for those who are most in need.

The curator of the Design for the Other 90% exhibition is Cynthia Smith, whose background is in industrial design. “A lot of the products and projects in the Design for the Other 90% exhibit show how designers are beginning to address the underpinnings of poverty by providing better access to education, water, transport or healthcare,” says Smith.

“Generally designers only focus on ten per cent of the world’s population,” she says. “But there is a growing movement that looks to the other ninety per cent, or 5.8 billion. This figure encompasses the 1.1 billion people who live in extreme poverty, on less than a dollar a day.”

Indeed the poor and marginalised may well be close to home, wherever you live in the world. “They can all benefit from good design,” says Smith.

Smith cites three examples of simple designs from the exhibition that are incredibly effective in helping people in need of shelter, water or food.

The availability of housing, for example, which reaches crisis point after natural disasters and during wars and conflict, is being given a boost by the low-cost Global Village Shelter.

The first prototypes were sent to Afghanistan and Grenada and it was later used in tsunami-hit countries in Asia, in Pakistan’s earthquake-riden Azad Kashmir province and in Gulfport, Mississippi, after hurricane Katrina.

“This emergency shelter is made out of biodegradable material and is easy to deploy,” says Smith. “It can be packed flat, which means you can send it to remote areas hit by natural disaster, and no tools are required to erect it. It shows an innovative use of materials – the designers worked closely with a manufacturer to develop it.”

Designed by Ferrera Design, with Architecture for Humanity and the Weyerhaeuser Company, in the US in 2004, the Global Village Shelter is made from triple wall-laminated corrugated cardboard treated with a fire-resistant and waterproof coating and thermoformed general purpose ABS. The shelters are low cost and can last up to eighteen months.

About half of the world’s poor are at risk from water-borne diseases, and more than 6000 people, mainly children, die each day after consuming unsafe drinking water. LifeStraw, a personal mobile water-purification tool, turns surface water into drinking water and has proven effective against typhoid, cholera, dysentery and diarrhoea.

“LifeStraw is an example of a design that saves lives,” says Smith. “It’s designed and manufactured by a for-profit company (Vestergaard Frandsen) and distributed through international aid agencies to refugee camps.”

“We tried to find examples from many different locations around the world,” says Smith. For example, the Pot-in-Pot cooler was designed by engineer Mohammed Bah Abba from Nigeria and is manufactured by local potters in Nigeria. The Pot-in-Pot enables fresher produce to be sold at the market, generating more income for farmers.

“Tomatoes that would only last for three days can last up to three weeks,” says Smith. “The other impact is on the women and young girls whose task it is to take food to market. They now have more time to do other things like get an education.”

The Pot-in-Pot system (used in Cameroon, Chad, Niger, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Burkina Faso) consists of two pots – a smaller earthenware pot nestled within another pot, with sand and water filling the space between. When the water evaporates, it pulls heat from the interior of the smaller pot, in which vegetables and fruits can be stored, creating a refrigeration unit.

Hearing problems are also widespread, and eighty per cent of people with a disabling hearing impairment live in developing countries. The most expensive part of a hearing aid is the battery, which needs to be continually replaced.

The Solar Aid, designed and engineered in Botswana, is a solar-powered hearing-aid battery recharger which helps those with hearing disabilities continue in school and at work. Because batteries are expensive everywhere, the manufacturer intends to make this affordable technology widely available in the United States and Europe, as well as in developing countries.

The travelling exhibition will be on view in Toronto at the Ontario College of Art and Design later this year, before moving on to the Centre for Disease Control in Atlanta, Georgia. The tour may then go international. 

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