How Designers Can Really Help the Third World

28Jun08

Doors of Perception’s John Thackara just published a guest article on Design Observer that raises some insightful points on designers trying to help solve issues in the third world. I am always inspired by the way Thackara can examine issues that tend to always be portrayed in a positive light and pin point the contrarian’s perspective while making a convincing case in its favour

The vast majority of designers go somewhere different, are inspired and stimulated and maybe even humbled by the experience — but leave without turning their insights into value that local people can use. The exchange ends up being one-way in favor of the visitor.

The most exciting opportunity for innovation lies in combining the knowledge systems, tools, and social and territorial assets of South and North. In a light and sustainable economy, we will share resources such as time, skill, software or food using socially embedded systems, enabled by networked communications, that are a hybrid of assets from North and South.

Thackara makes an excellent case for this new form of hybrid innovation between the North and South. However an earlier line in the piece proposes another approach that isn’t a new solution but an integral intermediate step in Thackara’s vision. “we can do more good at home than abroad”. Before we begin this cross-cultural trade perhaps there is something the North can do to help. As Thackara explains, “Poverty is a real enough challenge for half of the world’s population, but in many cases it’s caused by patterns of development exported from and imposed by, the North.”

What would happen if we tried to identify issues in our living patterns which negatively impact those of others? I would image small changes in ourselves and our lifestyle could have a huge impact on the entire global community. Is something standing in the way of this kind of radical change? Are we too set in our ways? Perhaps.

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