|With Bruce Nussbaum|
My twitter feed informed me this morning about the storm in the designer teacup raging around Bruce Nussbaum’s post last week “Is Humanitarian Design the New Imperialism?” and I followed through religiously by catching up on “In Defense of Design Imperialism” – the rebuttal by Robert Fabricant, creative head of design consultancy Frogdesign as well as the far more thoughtful piece – “The Problem with Design: Imperialism or Thinking Too Small?” by Alex Steffen on Worldchanging. Though it has been 3 years since I’ve actively thought about, analyzed and written on the actors and the global design industry, once I digested all that I’d read here, I knew that the time had come for me to speak forth on this issue.
Unlike the others involved, I have roots in both the “Global North” and “Global South” per Steffen’s terminology and consider myself a member of the global design industry. I have also studied design at the graduate level in India, at the National Institute of Design as well as in the United States, at the Institute of Design, IIT Chicago where I was simultaneously the Director of Admissions. I give this background as context for my thoughts on this topic – since they will be based on my observations and conversations with most of the players involved as well my own wanderings around the rich and the poor world. I have the experience of consulting with leading Bay Area design studios such as MetaDesign, NewDealDesign, Method as well as working in the BoP markets of Africa, India and the ASEAN and finally, I am neither male nor native to the “Global North” (to be politically correct). I am also concurrently a legal resident of the United States, Singapore, India and Finland. All of these factors, I believe, when taken together, allow me to bring a certain global perspective to this issue.
So, to begin at the beginning, what seems to be the bone of contention here?
Bruce began by pointing to two instances of barely suppressed resentment that he observed – once in Singapore, at the ICSID conference late last year and once back in New York, but by Kishore Biyani – probably one of India’s best known design investors and successful mass market entrepreneurs. In both instances, it was a young woman’s enthusiastic embrace of human centered design’s potential and ability to save the world’s huddled masses – and in both instances the grumbling was along the lines of “Who are you to come and solve our problems? What about our local solutions?”. Note that both speakers had been from the “Global North”, or rather, to be accurate, from the United States and the grumblers from the “Global South”.
These datapoints led Nussbaum to wonder whether the whole movement of humanitarian design (also known variously as design to do good, design for social impact, design for the other 90% etc etc) was being considered yet another form of imperialism. To quote:
So what’s going on? Did what I see in these two occasions represent something wider and deeper? Is the new humanitarian design coming out of the U.S. and Europe being perceived through post-colonial eyes as colonialism? Are the American and European designers presuming too much in their attempt to do good?
And I took this thought to talk it over with some of the young Finnish designers here in the Design Factory community – after all, as Mikko pointed out to me, you can’t get any further up the “Global North” and still be part of the design community than Helsinki ;p Their responses floored me – ranging from an observation that Fabricant’s response was identified simply as “Well, they are a for profit design studio, their agenda is to continue projects in this space not actually save the world is it, but to make money from such projects.” to the fact that nothing I’d said about this issue sounded fair or balanced to them. These very words, or at least the fact that there’s an imbalance, have been used by Steffen in his response to the conversation.
But back to looking at Fabricant’s essay on ChangeObserver – it seems to me that he has not addressed the issues that Bruce raised but instead defended Emily Pilloton (a mere detail in this situation, imho) and then defended Frogdesign’s approach to social design or design for impact – primarily since their focus is now on the mobile phone as a platform for social and economic development at the base of the pyramid. In fact, he continues to use the semantically laden verbiage in the title of his essay “In the defense of design imperialism” – come now, you can defend design and its role as a change agent but if you are going to stand there and defend imperialism, you are only underscoring the challenge posed to the future of the global design industry’s attempts to find solutions for a better world by organizations such as yours. The irony inherent in that essay title is in itself extremely illuminating and informative, and sadly weakens his case immensely regardless of the quality of any points he may have made in the body of his essay.
On the other hand, Alex Steffen acknowledges the greater complexity of this situation and the questions that Bruce has posed. While I find it endearingly outdated to be referred to as a designer or engineer from the “Global South” (hence my own use of quotes around it) he does point out two key issues which will not go away and as we’ve seen from Fabricant’s essay, are not being addressed by the world’s largest design studios either. These are:
1. The imbalance of access to knowledge, and
2. Lack of access by many in the “Global South” to the means or media to spread ideas or have their voice heard.
Steffen ends his piece with these thoughts:
So, perhaps it’s worth shifting the debate a little to discuss the obligations of not just humanitarian designers, but all designers to design responsibly? Maybe presumption is less the problem than a lack of planetary thinking.
Yes, there is certainly a lack of vision and one that takes a big picture perspective into account. That is food for a post for another day. Back to the question that Nussbaum posed and my response.
Bruce, you hit the nail on the head with this one, and naturally it hurts. Hence the squealing you hear from everyone.
What’s missing in all of this rhetoric on humanitarian design emerging from the OECD world? For starters, no acknowledgment of any of the following issues:
1. A sense of mutual respect – which in turn leads to the perception of arrogance and patronizing good works
2. No sense of give and take – that you may have something to learn from us
3. Lack of awareness of the global political realities or ignorance of history – that your average Indian, Chinese, Filipino or even Finnish designer is far more politically aware and thus doesn’t see you simply as a designer but as an American designer (or British or white or whatever etc), with all the political ideology and history that your nationality entails. This will and does influence their receptivity to your idealistic rhetoric so it behooves you in turn to be aware of the history and politics and perhaps tread a humbler, more respectful path? Bruce has already touched upon this.
The young Finnish designers were even more forthcoming to me – an ethnically Indian woman in her forties – that none of these approaches to design for emerging markets or the BoP or for social impact etc sounded fair to them. They said,
Look, we’re going in there to find out more about them and how to design stuff for them right? But what are offering them in return? Are we simply going to take this knowledge or learn from them with nothing in return? They have more to teach us than we them, so what can we do to balance this transaction? And it doesn’t just stop there, we aren’t there to make a quick buck but to make friends and alliances. To listen to people and to understand them not simply observe for unmet needs that our high tech stuff can fulfill. If we are going to make money, then they should too. There need to be answers that are somewhere in between.
Who are we to tell them how to live or what to do? We need to listen to them and find out how can we best work together to solve the problems in a mutually beneficial manner
(ed’s note: Finland has never been a colonizer nor an Imperial anything and a neutral meritorious society with women as president and as prime minister right now)
There’s certainly more going here than immediately meets the eye, its simply that now these issues are beginning to impact the design field as well. And no matter what, as Alex Steffen pointed out as well, we need a middle path – a vision for the future that the rich and the poor, the first and the third or the North and the South can all aspire towards, together, on this planet we call home. Pragmatic, realistic solutions that are co-created jointly – a balanced fair approach to problem solving.
And, it is these thoughts that I leave you with for the moment.