Who is designing for the world's urban poor?

United States

October 5, 2012

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Frank Dimarco for Mercy Corps  </span>
    The exhibit in Mercy Corps' Portland Action Center explores innovative designs that are helping improve lives for those living in the world's crowded slums. Photo: Frank Dimarco for Mercy Corps
  <span class="field-credit">
    Frank Dimarco for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Dynamic photos, videos, music and interactive examples bring places like Colombia and Uganda to life. Design With the Other 90%: CITIES runs through January 5. Photo: Frank Dimarco for Mercy Corps

It was just a few weeks ago that millions were swooning over the new Apple iPhone 5. Larger, faster and lighter than the last model, people in the U.S. had no problem spending $300 for the latest technology.

This iPhone is one of many innovations geared towards wealthier cities where people have enough left over from their last paycheck to splurge on these gadgets.

But what about the other 90% around the world for whom innovative design is not usually available?

Mercy Corps’ Action Center and the nearby Museum of Contemporary Craft are hosting an exhibit that explores how designers are reaching out to those who need creative solutions the most. “Design With the Other 90%: CITIES” showcases 60 ideas, both practical and aesthetic, large and small, that are improving lives in the world’s crowded slums.

“[The exhibit] explores innovative approaches in urban planning, sustainable design, affordable housing, entrepreneurship, nonformal education and public health,” explains curator Cynthia E. Smith of the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum of the Smithsonian Institution.

On display until January 5, this installation is the exhibit’s only West Coast appearance.

VISIT: Design With the Other 90%: CITIES

Crowded urban settlements demand creative solutions

Almost one billion people live in informal settlements — more commonly known as slums — and that number is expected to double by 2030. People are fleeing conflicts or natural disasters and searching for work, but these communities often suffer from over-crowding and limited sanitation and clean water.

These growing urban populations present complex challenges, but also opportunities for new ideas that meet basic needs.

Mercy Corps has a long tradition of bringing innovative solutions to those who need it most. In 2009, we first teamed up with Cooper-Hewitt to highlight inventions used to solve problems in rural developing countries.

The exhibit, called "Design For the Other 90%," was installed at the Mercy Corps Action Center until April 2010 and featured 37 tools such as water pumps, stoves, vegetable preservers, and bike transports that could make real differences in peoples’ day-to-day lives.

Now, the second in the series, "Design With the Other 90%: CITIES," explores larger community initiatives, from rainwater harvesting to inexpensive lighting and transportation networks. Vibrant oversize photos, dynamic maps, videos and music places like Colombia and Jakarta to life.

Mercy Corps is hosting three segments of the exhibit: Access, Prosper and Reveal. These three showcase exciting approaches that not only bring education, health and job opportunities to these communities, but break down barriers that have previously isolated the neighborhoods and raise awareness about the conditions within.

One of the most eye-catching examples is work by the French artist known only as JR. His larger-than-life photo installations feature faces and eyes on the crowded shacks that rise up the hill of Rio de Janeiro’s Morro de Prodidencia favela. Stenciled on the walls and even staircases, they highlight the life hidden within the maze. Some eyes are weary. Some smiles are hopeful. All are impossible to ignore.

There are also examples of bike-powered cell phone chargers, community mapping gizmos fueled by a two-liter and a balloon. Even play with the Digital Drum from Ugansda, a solar-powered computer kiosk made from old oil drums. In a place where only 3% of the population has access to the Internet, these connect people to job opportunities, provide educational games, and raise awareness about public health with videos.

Three segments housed at the Museum of Contemporary Craft, just a few blocks away from our headquarters, focus on Adapt (addressing new challenges that continue to arise), Exchange (trading ideas between informal settlements and formal cities) and Include (specific efforts to include marginalized groups like women and youth).

This exhibit offers a fascinating and inspiring look into how governments, organizations and communities are working to address problems in some of the most populated areas of the world. With new innovative designs, they are creating more inclusive and resilient cities for the future.