Social Design | Easier Said Than Done

The design industry’s recent humanitarian fervor is a welcome development, but good intentions alone are hardly enough to effect real change on the ground.

These days it seems as though you can hardly call yourself a designer if you haven’t brought smiles to the faces of children in sub-Saharan Africa or changed the lives of slum dwellers in Latin America. Granted, humanitarian work is not exactly new to the profession (Victor Papanek published Design for the Real World in 1971), but the fever pitch of virtue is a fairly recent phenomenon. The idea gained momentum about ten years ago, as alternative practices such as Architecture for Humanity (launched in 1999) and Designers Without Borders (founded in 2001) started to show real-world results. In 2005, the Danish nonprofit Index: began handing out €100,000 cash awards to “designs that improve life.” A flurry of books, blogs, exhibitions, and awards followed, and by the time the economy collapsed in 2008, designers (many of whom suddenly had extra time on their hands) were convinced that they wanted to save the world.

Of course, having your heart in the right place is no guarantee of success. There have been reasons for optimism, like the Quinta Monroy housing project in Chile—low-cost, expandable residences developed with the families who live in them. But there have also been some spectacular failures. In 2006, then First Lady Laura Bush announced $16.4 million in funding for PlayPump, a merry-go-round water-pump concept for southern Africa. By the end of 2009, the whimsical idea had proved completely inadequate to the reality on the ground, as the pumps broke down with no one around to fix them. And the jury is still out on the much publicized One Laptop Per Child initiative, which has managed to send two million laptops into the world despite stiff criticism from several governments in developing countries.

These mixed results have tempered the first flush of enthusiasm, and the design community is finally asking hard questions about its urge to do good. The upshot from that debate is the same one we hope you’ll take away from the following infographic, which maps the relative success of 11 key projects: realizing a great social-design idea is a long, arduous process, with some necessary lessons in humility along the way. Saving the world may still be a distant dream, but at least we seem to be learning.

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