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Environment Magazine September/October 2008


January-February 2010

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Bytes of Note - Design for the Global Household

Design for sustainability is a confounding concept. On the one hand, there is much good information about how to make the products that we buy and use more environmentally friendly to produce, use, disassemble, and recycle.1 On the other hand, popular design, even of products specifically marketed to simplify our lives2,3 is, in the end, about comfortable households consuming more—not exactly the embodiment of sustainability. Fortunately, there is an area of design practice that has a loftier goal: to meet the needs of the global poor, when possible using non-proprietary technology4 and simple, inexpensive, locally-available materials to make tools that are durable and easy to use, maintain, and repair.

These efforts, often called by the somewhat patronizing appellation “appropriate technology,” lack a central Web clearinghouse. This is unsurprising for two reasons. First, design is contextual. Successful design usually depends on immersion in a problem, often involving or at least consulting the people who will use the end result. As a result it would likely be difficult to centralize. Second, design for development is aimed at many different sorts of tasks and so involves experts in many different fields. These tasks include obtaining and purifying water to drink; growing crops and raising livestock; storing, preparing, and cooking food; safely disposing of human waste; preventing disease and healing the sick and injured; making housing safe from hazards; generating electricity and energy; getting from one place to another; learning and communicating; and maintaining a livelihood.

In 2007, Cooper-Hewitt, the Smithsonian Institution's National Design Museum in New York, mounted an exhibit titled “Design for the Other 90%.” The exhibit, which is now touring North America and will stop in Portland, Oregon, and Washington, D.C., in 2010,5 is a good introduction to the range of designs for the global household, featuring outstanding design achievements in shelter, health, water, education, energy, and transportation. Another good place for initial exploration of the design for development concept is the New York Times blog, “Dot Earth,” by Andrew C. Revkin.6 In the blogroll column of his blog, Revkin lists “Poverty, Development, and Design” links. And in 2005, an Industrial Design Society of America conference brought together IT professionals and designers to learn about and to generate personal goals for serving the global poor.7

One specific example of compelling design for sustainability featured in the Cooper-Hewitt exhibit is the Q Drum, a wheel-shaped water container that allows a water carrier to roll her load along the ground rather than carrying it or balancing it on her head.8 Perhaps the most widely publicized design for sustainability, also featured in the exhibit, is the XO laptop, a computer produced by the One Laptop Per Child Foundation to teach creative thinking and to begin to close the information gap.9

Each of these designs, however, has had problems with cost. A single Q Drum sells for approximately US$63,10 a large amount for the great majority of the global population who live on fewer than $10 dollars per day. (See a 2006 article by Lant Pritchett to learn more about the complex subject of how to measure global poverty.)11 The XO, originally planned as the “hundred dollar laptop,” is relying, among other strategies, on a $199 per laptop donation program.12 This means that the laptop is both expensive for those who need it and perhaps soon to be priced out by the netbook market.13 The XO also has encountered problems with its original distribution model of selling in mass quantities directly to governments.14 Further, neither the XO nor the Q Drum can be made from inexpensive locally available materials, going against another of the ideals of design for sustainability.

University classroom design labs might live up to more of the minimalist ideals of design for the global household, since assignments have to be completed in a brief period of time, on a limited budget, and by relatively inexperienced designers. One such lab is the D-Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT),15 where recent projects have included turning sugarcane waste into charcoal and a more robust mill to grind grain into flour. MIT and other universities also work closely with a nonprofit design firm, Design that Matters,16 that specializes in “minimum resource design” for the global poor. Their projects include a microfilm projector system that allows night-time literacy education in non-electrified places and an accurate manual intravenous drip control.

Another nonprofit, Practical Action,17 has been active in the field for more than four decades, much of that time as the Intermediate Technology Development Group. Founded by E. F. Schumaker,18 Practical Action has run projects including building earthquake-resistant housing in Peru based on traditional architecture and spreading information on low-cost modification of bicycles for cargo. It has also served as a founding supporter of the International Forum for Rural Transport and Development, “a global network of individuals and organizations working together toward improved access, mobility, and economic opportunity for poor communities in developing countries” with sensitivity to project variables such as gender, age, and HIV transmission.19

Design for sustainability is inspired not only by pervasive concerns such as water supply and transportation, but also by issues that are more geographically concentrated, including both “natural” hazards such as tsunamis20 and those hazards created more directly by human activity.21 Energy is also a focus for some designers, as in the very small scale hydroelectric power work at the University of Nottingham.22

Ashoka, a nonprofit organization focused on social entrepreneurship, recognizes promising and accomplished inventors, mostly from Africa, Asia, and Latin America, who work on designs for sustainability. Ashoka lists profiles of these inventors on their Website.23 Those interested in studying for a career in design for the global poor might need to do some research to locate design, engineering, or other degree programs with substantial emphasis on the topic. Several are listed in a 2004 presentation at Baylor University by Walter L. Bradley and Byron P. Newberry.24 The Lemelson Center at Hampshire College offers the opportunity to study socially responsible design in a liberal arts setting.25 Engineers Without Borders lists many opportunities as well, including both education and internships.26

1. See, for example, Thomas M. Parris' previous “Bytes of Note” column: “Internet Resources for Sustainable Product Design,” Environment, March 2006, p. 3., and the work of William McDonough on “cradle to cradle” design at

2. See the magazine

3. See the line of products at















18. These personal archives are indexed online at


20. Harvard's Tsunami Design Initiative,

21. Berkeley Arsenic Alleviation Group,






GEORGE E. CLARK is the environmental research librarian at the Harvard College Library. You can follow him on Twitter at @georgeclark. Thanks to @freegovinfo and @reblakeley for suggestions of a few resources for this column.

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