Steal This Design: The Power of Sharing Best Practices in Moments of Disaster
January 28, 2010
How the open-source movement in design is helping in places like Haiti.
The issues of the design world seem both too big and too small to tackle in an essay since last week's earthquake in Haiti. As I pored over the heart-wrenching photos it was impossible not to feel the frustrations of my job: Here I am, writing every day about so many intelligent products designed for this very situation but they all seemed so far away from where they were actually needed. How could design really help right now?
A few of those intelligent products will be in the Airstream of Emily Pilloton (one of our GOOD 100 who had a recent star turn on the Colbert Report) as she embarks upon a 25-school traveling exhibition tour featuring products from her book, Design Revolution. But after lecturing for the past few months, Pilloton realized just showing the designed products wouldn't be enough. So Pilloton worked with her team to create a Design Revolution Toolkit which brings to life many of the methodologies employed both in the work of her non-profit-Project H Design-and in the products she's showcasing. It's the perfect example of increasing impact through a culture of sharing: She could simply talk about the products in her trailer, or she could pass along the tools to young designers who could improve upon them.
Offering up proprietary information seems like a radical departure for companies involved in research and development, but it's becoming standard for many creative and technology firms to share. Designers, with a flair for making complex information visible and understandable, are especially skilled in this area. Transparency is one of the key tenets of the Designers Accord, which is the biggest global community of creatives focused on creating positive impact (and another of the GOOD 100). The Designers Accord mission instructs adopters to "codify best practices to achieve the greatest impact," which includes publishing their tools and materials. After the group's first summit last year (with GOOD's Casey Caplowe above), founder Valerie Casey is planning on making their findings public with an educators toolkit. Another conference, the Aspen Design Summit, which convened in November, has gone to special lengths to make the outcome of the summit widely available, and publishes updates on Change Observer. Paul Polak's bookOut of Poverty is essentially a guidebook for designers and entrepreneurs who want to bring social change to economically-depressed communities.
One of the most widely-used tools in the design world is the Human-Centered Design Toolkit published by IDEO (yet another GOOD 100 winner), which I wrote a case study about over on Fast Company. IDEO took their decade of expertise in research and product development and partnered with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, IDE, ICRW, and Heifer International to create a process guide which can be purchased as a print-on-demand book or offered for free as a PDF. Since it debuted last November, it has been downloaded more than 23,000 times and its track record so far-having been used on projects like VisionSpring and water sanitation projects-makes it a must-read for designers working on social issues. Making the project free and public helps it disseminate faster and it also ensures that the toolkit will improve: Users have already suggested changes and additions which will be incorporated into future versions, and now some designers have also begun translating the toolkit into other languages.Sharing also means having to show the parts of your design process you might not be the proudest of, which may turn out to be the most valuable to those around you. This year at PopTech, their social innovation group decided to buck the traditional swag bag and debuted a solar-powered bag FLAP, which was developed in partnership between Timbuk2 and the Portable Light Project. The team documented all of its development and manufacturing. They had a hunch that the product could be helpful for rural or developing communities. But it wasn't until Erik Hersman documented the testing of the bags in Africa for AfriGadget that they were able to hear some of the very candid thoughts-and awesome ideas for improvement-from African students and business owners. The team was able to wonder aloud (and publicly) if and how what they were creating could actually be of value, and those moments where they're seen questioning their efforts are the most insightful.
As an open-source design organization there is perhaps no better example than Architecture for Humanity, which has been diligent in documenting and disseminating its work for years. Just searching "earthquake" on AFN's Open Architecture Network, a free, open-source resource for architects, delivers dozens of solutions for earthquake prevention and recovery from all over the globe. This includes not just structures but manuals and toolkits, like the one for rebuilding rural housing in Kashmir, where a massive earthquake happened in 2005. AFN is so globally successful because its focus is not about rebuilding a house, but handing over the tools and knowledge to a larger group of people, who can be trained to become advocates for safer, more affordable construction. AFN had already been working in Haiti last year with Wyclef Jean's foundation Yele Haiti, and last week, director Cameron Sinclair penned a plan for reconstruction in Haiti. At the end, he delivers perhaps his most salient piece of advice. "It sickens me when I hear agencies say their processes are proprietary," he writes. "If you like what we are doing, either support us or steal this plan."We all know that right now what the people in Haiti need most is water, food, and medical supplies. And we know that every disaster is different. But Sinclair's words rang in my ears for the next week as I realized it's really these relief efforts themselves-operating extremely independently, often duplicating efforts-which could benefit from this kind of open-source thinking cultivated by designers. Why, in the United States's first major disaster relief operation since Katrina, where we supposedly should have learned massive lessons, do we keep hearing that the response was once again too slow? If relief agencies are not required to standardize or disclose their specific processes for these efforts then how can we ever hope to learn from-and improve-them?The systems surrounding the response to a humanitarian crisis should be the most transparent, universal processes on our planet-both for those providing the relief so they can coordinate efforts and for potential victims who will know what to expect. Designers can certainly offer their services to the recovery efforts, but maybe their greatest gift would be to teach teach these groups how to share.Designers Accord photo by Christian Ericksen.