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Practical Design for the Urban Poor
The 'Q Drum,' a durable container to transfer 75 liters of clean water is one of the design solutions exhibited by "Design for the other 90%: Cities." Photo by AIDG

The "Q Drum," a durable container that can transfer 75 liters of clean water, is one of the design solutions of "Design for the other 90%." Photo by AIDG.

The United Nations will be hosting an exhibition on design solutions to improve the quality of life for the urban poor. Titled, “Design for the Other 90%: CITIES,” the exhibition is by Cooper-Hewitt, the Smithsonian National Design Museum, and it is part of an ongoing series originally started in 2007 to focus the attention of the professional design community to the problems of the other 90 percent of the world’s population. “The majority of the world’s designers focus all their efforts on developing products and services exclusively for the richest 10% of the world’s customers,” says Dr. Paul Polak, the founder of International Development Enterprises, a nonprofit organization that creates income opportunities for poor rural households. “Nothing less than a revolution in design is needed to reach the other 90%.”

The exhibition will explore design solutions to the problems of rapid urbanization in developing countries and the marginalization of the urban poor. “Close to 1 billion people live in informal settlements, and that population is projected to swell to 2 billion people by 2030,” Dexigner’s Levent Ozler says, further emphasizing the rapid growth and concentration of an under-served population in urban areas.

The exhibition will consist of six themes, each one highlighting an important aspect design solutions must follow in order to create useful remedies. Below are the theme areas with short descriptions, as summarized from the press release:

Exchange showcases design solutions that emerged out of knowledge exchange and collaboration between informal and formal sectors of a city. One example of the theme is the Incremental Housing Project in Chile and Mexico, where residents complete their half-built homes that contain only the very basics, like a kitchen, bathroom and roof.

Besides providing resources to the urban poor, the exhibition also aspires to bring attention to people’s struggles and quality of life.  The Visibility theme raises awareness about the scope and scale of the urban poor’s living conditions, in addition to improving the figurative visibility of the urban poor on maps and in the census. An open-source mapping project  in Nairobi, Kenya is one example of the theme. For Map Kibera, local youth map informal settlements in an effort to locate and count the population living in these areas. The mapping project also documents the lack of basic services in the settlements.

The Adapt theme works to acclimate design solutions to climate- and terrain-related realities in the urban environment. One example of this theme is the Integral Urban Project in Venezuela, which upgraded a network of stairs in the vertical settlements of Caracas.

Include highlights efforts to close the divide between the established city and the marginalized. A project that falls under this category is the large-scale, trash-fueled community cooker in Kibera Nairobi, called “Jiko ya jamii.”

Livelihood focuses on the very core reason behind the formation of urban informal settlements: the migration of rural communities to urban areas in search of employment and a better life. A project under this theme is Babajob.com, a social networking site in Bangalore that connects job seekers with employers by identifying personal connections, a service mimicking the real-life system by which Indians hire employees.

And lastly, Access focuses on design solutions that work to resolve issues of access to water, sanitation, food, electricity, health, education and transportation. One project that fits in this category is the bus rapid transit system in Guangzhou, China, which carries close to one million people per day and costs only a fraction of the metro.

Among the upcoming projects to be exhibited in the fall, some of the previous design projects also looked at transportation solutions for the urban and rural poor, focusing on simple, efficient, and inexpensive methods of individual travel and cargo transfer. The “Big Boda Load-Carrying Bicycle” is one of these solutions. The Big-Boda can help riders carry hundreds of pounds of cargo, including two additional passengers.

The “Q Drum” is another solution presented on the project’s website. It was designed to provide an easy method of transferring clean water to those who live miles away from a reliable source of clean water, especially in rural Africa. The tool carries 75 liters of clean water, an amount that would be very difficult to carry otherwise.

Most of the projects rely on human-powered and inexpensive design tactics, both to cut the cost of manufacturing, but also to enable easy maintenance. “While motorized vehicles are more efficient, they are too costly for the poorest communities,” the project’s website states. “Non-motorized modes of transportation, such as bicycles, tricycles, rickshaws, handcarts, and wheelbarrow, serve as a critical role for those living in on the peripheries of cities and in remote rural locations.”

The exhibition is sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation with additional support from Procter & Gamble, Deutsche Bank and Smithsonian Institution’s Research Opportunity Fund. The exhibition will be free of charge and open to the public from October 15, 2011 to January 9, 2012 at the United Nations Headquarters in New York City.

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