A Call For Proposals Or A Call For Action?



While flipping through some recent posts on the Impact Design Hub (impactdesignhub.org) I came across a call for proposals for qualified design teams "to design, develop and pilot test innovative on-site technology sanitation solutions for Syrian refugee population living in the 'informal settlements' in Bekaa Valley of Lebanon." This call by the international humanitarian aid organization Mercy Corps was in direct response to the plight of over 750,000 Syrian refugees in camps spread throughout the region.

As an architect and designer, I was reminded once again of the plight of millions of people less fortunate and the profound responsibility the design community has for making the lives of underserved people around the world a bit better.

The notion that designers using their unique skills could and should impact the lives of the needy is a relatively new one. Since it began with the advent of the Industrial Revolution, the design profession has been largely at the service of the world's consumer class - not its underclass but, that situation thankfully is rapidly changing. 

Ironically, the tsunami of three hundred years of worldwide social, economic, and environmental change that the design profession presided over is now arguably a root contributor to the countless design problems he is faced with resolving today. And as the Industrial Revolution needed a new kind of creative thinker to meet the demands of consumerism, so now, we need a similar visionary thinker to address the intricate web of social, economic, and environmental challenges of our post-industrial world.

But, is the design profession ready with a comprehensive understanding of the magnitude of the challenge and equipped with the multiplicity of skills that will be required to find solutions? Is the design profession prepared to assume a world view that no longer caters primarily to our consumer desires but rather to our human needs?

The answer is a definitive yes, and examples abound. Industrial designers, architects, systems designers, UX designers, and engineers are beginning to coalesce, collaborate, and share innovations under the banner of Design Thinking and a fundamental understanding that no single discipline has all of the answers. I see established product-centric design firms, start-ups and especially design schools dedicating part or all of their resources toward solving the big problems of the world. Today's designers understand the benefits of collaborative thinking and seeing big problems as complex networks of smaller problems that most times are better solved with smaller incremental interventions rather than grand brush strokes. 

The design profession has developed a new design lexicon well suited to the mission: design thinking, human-centered design, compassionate design, empathetic design, and impact design to name a few. These are all terms infused with value and optimism.  We are beginning to see the fruits of this optimism around the world. Armed with a collaborative spirit, an inclusive human-centric design methodology, and a renewed moral imperative, I believe the design profession is poised like no other time in history to take on the world's biggest design challenges and profoundly change the quality of life for hundreds of millions of people while reversing the environmental impact of centuries of industrial excess.

Two faces of Design today - low-cost sensor technology aiding a farmer in Myanmar. And, design-led creation of Diva Centers in Zambia and Kenya where girls and their peers learn to ‘connect aspirations for their futures to contraceptives.’
— impactdesignhub.org

So, back to the "informal settlements" of the Bekaa Valley. We all know the plight of the Syrian refugees - streaming in real time if we choose. Because of the Internet, we now know that our unique problem solving skills are needed in this part of the world and elsewhere. To me, this call is loud and clear. As 21st century designers we know in our hearts that we have much more to offer the world other than satisfying the insatiable appetite of our consumer culture. We also see the world as a smaller interdependent organism in a way our predecessors did not. The call for proposals above is but one example of our profession being called into service to aid in the healing of that organism. Governments and NGO's around the world know perhaps better than we do, how the design community can and should be helping them solve the complex problems that confront them. By reaching out to us, they have illustrated their understanding that we have the unique skills to make sense of their problems. 

I believe we need to do three things as enlightened design professionals starting right now:

  • Respond immediately to the urgent plight of the millions of displaced people in the Bekaa Valleys of the world with the confidence that we can help change their lives for the better.
  • Develop the scalable services, delivery systems, and economic models required to better serve the disadvantaged people of the world as we have demonstrated so proficiently in service of the consumer class.
  • Adopt a 21st century definition of what it means to Design and what it means to be a Designer that is founded on a vision of sustainable living systems, that serves all of humanity equally, and that embraces the core principles of Human-Centered Design.

Yes, it is a call for action.


B. Kelly AIA, IDSA