The project Design for the First World: the Rest Saving the West is a sarcastic take on the countless efforts of the rich to “save” the not-so-rich. (…but we know it’s actually the other way around, right? Right?!)
But there is something else: Design for the First World, witty as it is, shouldn’t be funny. “We don’t even think things can be both ways,” says Carolina Vallejo, the project’s author. On behalf of the competition, she pronounced 2010 as the International Year of the First World in Need. How bravely sarcastic is that?
And so I was eager to talk to the mind behind this beautiful idea.
This conversation was long due. I had my eye on Carolina since this spring, when she launched the competition, but it’s only now that we met. I'm already a fan.
Just like that.
Now, as for the competition’s title – I have an issue with numeric worlds, but sarcasm is forgiven. “No-one likes the phrase “first world” but everybody understands it. We are cave people in that sense – that’s the mentality we’re living in,” Carolina explains. She speaks in a soft, quiet voice, and yet it feels so powerful. “A good way to grow is to be confronted,” she says. I shall write that down.
Of the rich world’s problems to be addressed in the competition (obesity, aging population, wild consumerism, integration of immigrants), obesity was the most popular. Entries varied from high-tech devices to funny, in-your-face concepts. How about some neem on your next McBurger?
Now, with the winners finally announced, Carolina is moving on. But in the meantime, she talks about design and development, dependant relationships, moral superiority and Bono.
Getting involved in development… To an extent I had no choice: growing up in Colombia, an “underdeveloped” country, as it was called at the time, leaves little space to think of something other than development. You don’t need to be a “development expert” to be aware of the lumpy road to become a “good country” in the eyes of others. You read the newspaper, see families displaced by violence in the streets, witness how relatives of friends get kidnapped or killed and you are pretty much aware. I’m not involved in development in the sense that I don’t belong to an NGO, so this ideas competition is my first step to get hands-on.
Development, such a complex issue – what’s design’s role in it? Also very complex! The obvious thing to say is that a designer’s role is to improve people’s life by creating tools or inventing ways to enable communication. But most of the time, if you carefully look into the processes involved in creating something, their economical, ecological and human impact, you will conclude it isn’t worth it. The first thing designers should do is stop producing garbage; but if they do that, they might not be designing anything at all. As Victor Papanek wrote in the ‘70s, industrial design is one of the most dangerous professions in the world: we produce so much waste! People design and produce all this crap the world will die from. So perhaps we should try to think on how to produce less garbage and start looking into disciplines that seem so apart from design: politics and economics. To get through reforms, designers are crucial for them. We forget that we have that responsibility, that design does change the world, in good and bad ways.
The competition’s title challenges the self-proclaimed superiority of the “First World” over “the Rest”. How do we get rid of this paternalistic thinking? There’s no easy way out. I think developing countries – wait, developing is not the right word – emerging economies are quite used to behaving like spoiled children, in a way. So a very difficult change of culture has to happen on all sides. But even in these emerging economies, there’s the “first world” and the “third world”, in which these paternalistic approaches replicate themselves. So, let’s say, Colombia’s upper class would have some very nice initiatives to save the poor, and the poor are OK with it. Lots of organizations are created to get the money in, but they are not providing real solutions. The other part of paternalistic thinking is people who feel they are better just because they are from industrialized countries. If you were born in a peaceful country, where you can have an education, and you know just one way of life, you feel that you can show others how to do things. But the experience of being born in a country that has all these benefits doesn’t mean that you have the knowledge of what others need. The understanding of others, respect and acceptance of that “otherness” is really complex, and it’s blurring in this hyper-globalized world.
That sort of thing.
So what’s to be done? I don’t know the best way. But it’s crucial to educate people in the industrialized countries more thoroughly, because the level of ignorance in certain matters here is outstanding. I was surprised sometimes by many of my classmates at NYU, all of them were brilliant, but some were quite ignorant in certain things. Geniuses at coding and computing, but had serious blind spots in areas that I thought were commonplace. World affairs – no idea! Most of them were clueless! I'd lost count of the number of times I was asked if winter was very bad in Colombia – Colombia is in the tropics! I even heard a well-respected artist saying that Scandinavia was a country. The problem with this is not the ignorance per se, but the fact that these are the people who have the power to elect leaders of countries that take the most important decisions for the globe. What a congressman in the US votes can directly affect a Latin American economy, or can cost thousands of civilians lives in Afganistan. Few people in the US realize the global power of their vote.
Well, Sarah Palin believes Africa is a country, too. People are well educated, but they have these blind spots related to current affairs, to the world itself. But because they’re educated in other areas, they think they know, and so they have the courage to address issues in a certain way, or come up with campaigns like “Let’s donate our used underwear to Africa!” which go against any dignity. That’s one side. On the other, emerging economies should stop being lazy! We’re so used to things not happening, to see that nothing changes. Yes, we achieve something, but then somebody comes and robs it, corruption after corruption. The society is so cynical: you just don’t believe anymore, so you stop being engaged. If you’re involved politically, you are not so sure you want to go all the way through once you see what it takes to get there. Stop being dependant, stop receiving money from the US, start running economy on your own… it’s hard, and it’s tricky. Also, once you achieve a certain living standard, what would you risk? It just gets trickier.
And how about this blame-game, “You are bad. No, you are bad!” style? With this competition, I was trying to say, hey! Let’s wake up! There are enough of us tired of the way the world is working, pushing for changes, refusing to believe this bullshit any longer. We just have to shake it up and reject the future that has been traced for us by the rich world. We know the problems that come with it. Yes, industrialized countries are better in some ways – they have more resources, and they’ve been defending their democracies and their economies… by attacking, invading others, living off national treasures of others, so they’ve been smarter in that sense. But of course there are things to learn, like social security. Hmm, I keep talking about the two of them, but that is a contradiction to what I really want: we should think of this as one fucking world! Stop this dualism – the same problems exist everywhere, only on different scales.
(Is it getting better, Bono? Or do you feel the same?) In the complexity of development, a common solution is not possible. Even though everyone is inter-connected by globalization, we need to address individual cases. And that’s the problem with development approaches: treating development as uniform development. Of course there are experts who know better, but from the general public’s point of view, you go and donate $10 for whatever campaign Bono is promoting that year. “Buy this Gap shirt – you will help a kid in Africa” – that’s the idea most people have of charity.
(She tells a story of one guy’s thesis project, in which he compared charity to a casino machine, a gaming system. It appeared that the psychology of people who gamble is the same as the psychology of people who give – you just want the adrenaline of the moment, to feel good about yourself.)
You don’t really care about the poor, because if you did, first of all you would be much better informed and then do something about it, possibly travel there (or not, if you care about the carbon footprint). It’s like a quick cure – oh, I did so well today! That’s what charities are full of – the need to feel good. Buy our water and someone else is gonna drink clean water, that sort of thing. “But we don’t need your shoes! They’re ugly!” Of course, some NGOs are doing well, but most of them – who are they accountable for? If they’ve been doing so well for 50 years, why is the world not that much better?
"But we don't want your shoes! They're ugly!"
And here come… the famous MDGs. (But Carolina is not convinced.) Well-intentioned 10 years ago, as a communication tool for spreading the message they were very good, but in practice? First of all, they’re unachievable, and second, goals from whom? The rich look good, they show they care. Oh, we haven’t met the deadline? Well, let’s have another one! When you see things postponed all the time, they get less and less relevant. Some people in Africa die, but they were dying anyway. No-one is accountable. And that’s the problem with good intentions: if they’re good, how can you blame me [if they fail]? It’s really hard to hold accountability and keep responsibilities.
Good intentions are not enough… So how about design saving the world? We are all designers: we design our rooms, where we put things; everyone has that sense of space, a visual feeling. So if you take design in that way, it will save the world. That means living more intuitively, seeing what really makes sense.
What really makes sense.
Photos: Design for the other 90% by James Emery aka hoyasmeg, Design is... by anikki6, Bono by Robert Hensley aka r w h, all via flickr on Creative Commons licence, Shoes for Africa via Matt Fonda, Competition logo via competition website.