Socially Responsible Design in and for the Third World

In modern Western society we have seen shifts in consumer culture and the design process. There has been a shift in society from God and Religion for meaning to the process of consumption. To consume is a help in constructing our identities. Our consumer choices place us in social groups.

Our style of consumption defines our values. Social studies are now formed by research into consumer choices rather than what roles we actually carry out within society. There has been a shift in focus on the process of manufacture to the design process. We now purchase not because we need a product, but rather to construct our societal image.

In Third World countries lies hope held by Westerners that they will avoid our design faults and opt for socially useful products. Three original theorists who in the past have explored the concept of 'Socially Responsible Design' are Nigel Whiteley, Victor Papanek, and E. F. Schumacher.

Nigel Whiteley has written: 'Third World Countries- almost by definition- are characterised by scarcity rather than surplus and merely owning a product ought, therefore, to matter more to people than it's particular make or styling.' (Whiteley. N, 1993, p119)

Most Third World countries are not shut off from Western Values concerning Design. 'The role of products in conferring status and power is daily transmitted on Western television programs, especially soap operas, which are followed avidly in shanty towns from India to Brazil' (Whiteley. N, 1993, p119)

Ashoke Chatterjee of India's National Institute of Design explained that the motive for introducing design to India was to increase quality of life for those living in villages and slums but that these areas remain the same due to the temptation present for the designer to produce 'socially questionable products.' There is a huge gulf in Third World countries between the rich and the poor and there is growing temptation for the designer to choose the wealthier client. '..The designer has the difficult task of conceiving products and processes which are not only socially desirable but culturally appropriate.' (Whiteley. N, 1993, p122)

V.M. Parmar and J.A. Panchal's Electronic Voting Machine is an example of a socially responsible product for India. The product aims at the protection and speeding up of voting procedures by illiterate voters. The product consists of a ballot unit, operated by a voter, and a control unit controlled by an officer monitor voting operations. It was made with ease of mass production and distribution. The machine could accommodate 16 voters total.

Schumacher has written about the relationship between 'AT' (appropriate technology) and design in the Third World. In summary preferences of 'AT' are:

  • that it's low in capital costs
  • it creates jobs
  • it employs local skills and labour
  • it's locally and regionally affordable
  • it can be understood, controlled and maintained by local groups where possible
  • it involves decentralised renewable energy sources
  • products preferably don't involve patents, royalties or consultancy fees
    (This increases Third World dependence on the Western world)
  • Flexible so they can adapt to changing circumstances.

Papanek suggested designers should move to the country to:

'..train designers to train designers. In other words he becomes a 'seed project' helping to form corps of able designers out of the indigenous population of the country. Thus within one generation at most, five years at least, he would be able to create a group of designers firmly committed to their own cultural heritage, their own life-style, and their own needs.'(Whitely. N, 1993, p122)

Papanek suggests the culturally elite in all societies often get the majority of consideration from designers whereas ninety percent of the populations, the lower class who are in need of real aid receive little to no consideration by designers.

Papanek retells his discovery of an obscure Finnish word: '.A word so obscure that many Finns have ever heard of it. The word is kymmenykset . It means the same thing as the medieval church word tithe . A tithe was something one paid: the peasant would set aside ten percent of his crop for the poor, the rich man would give up ten percent of his income at the end of the year to feed those in need...Being designers we can pay ten percent of our crop of ideas and talents to the seventy- five percent of mankind in need.' (Papanek. V, 1972, p59) Papanek goes on to illustrate there are designers who give all their time such as Buckminster Fuller, but we can all afford to give a tenth of our time for those in need.

Papanek suggests there is a need for designer's communes consisting of designers and planners. Papanek quotes Dr Robert Lindner 'Human Beings are enclosed by an iron triangle that forms for their race a veritable prison cell. One side of this triangle is the medium in which they must live; the second is the equipment they have or can fashion, with which to live; the third is the fact of their mortality...What we call progress is nothing more than the small victories every man or every age wins over any or all of the sides of the imprisoning triangle.' (Papanek.V, 1972, p61) Dr Lindner is suggesting that in order to come up with innovative life enhancing designs we need to breakdown the limitations imposed by this 'veritable prison cell.'

Papanek also quotes Jean Tinguely: 'Today, the world is spending over $150 billion per annum on the actual or potential destruction of lives and property, as compared with the capital transfer from rich to poor countries of about $10 billion per year- including a large share for military aid.' (Papanek. V, 1972, p63) Papanek is obviously pointing to a rethink of priorities within governments concerning our aid to poorer countries.

Papanek introduces us to some blocks of creativity: perceptual blocks, emotional and cultural. An example of a cultural block is our thinking that the recycling of body wastes is distasteful. Many people within society would be turned off by the thought. If scientists hadn't investigated the possibilities of waste recycling to tap into energy resources some remote villages in the third world would be left with out their primary source of power.

Villages in Africa have made entire houses out of tin packaging of certain product sent to their villages, this opens up another avenue of possibilities to be socially responsible through clever package design.

Socially Responsible Design doesn't rule out the need for 'beauty' as well as functionality within society. Human beings as well as some animals have shown unique behaviour during studies to suggest so. Bowerbirds of Australia and New Guinea have displayed that they are quite selective in the flowers and colours they use in constructing their nest. Perhaps we can think of beauty in a more natural or creative way. Papanek has designed radios made of tin cans to assist literacy in remote areas of India and Indonesia. Users have taken to decorating their radios with pieces of felt and sea shells.

This also touches on the idea of participatory design by various clients. Papanek, Whiteley and Schumacher suggest some very real solutions to issues facing design for the Third World. Papanek in particular has shown that his methods work. through the creation of countless successful designs for the Third World. These theorists urge readers of EVERY designers need to be socially responsible in one way or another. As designers in our consumer driven world it is obvious that we need to adopt as many positive design habits as possible and always opt for doing the morally responsible thing.

Many designers and architects today have supported the idea of 'Sustainable Design' which often ties in with 'green design'. One or two key theorist do not stand out, however many communes and groups have been set up globally.

In 'Sustainable Architecture, the White Pages' William Mc Donough and Dr Michael Braungart explain their answer to smart design: 'Our answer is eco-effectiveness. Eco- effectiveness is a broad strategy, not just an ecological one. It engages the idea of an effective economy producing profits for companies in the business of making profits, while treating people fairly and well respecting, even celebrating the natural world.

This goes beyond a more conventional single- issue approach, which might focus, for example on social responsibility or energy efficiency.' (Braungart. M & McDonough. W, 2000, exerpt from website)

So what is Eco-efficiency?
'How about designing a building that nourishes and restores living systems?
That engages propitiously with the Industrial system in a way that does not destroy nature?
Imagine a structure that is actually fecund, providing more to the environment than it takes away: that engages with the sun as a tree does with a photosynthetic connection, moisture transpiration, habitation by hundreds of species, transformation of microclimate...' (Braungart. M & McDonough W, 2000, exerpt from website)

Modern theorists it seems are less concerned with helping the needy in particular than with helping to better the whole world's built environment on a general level. It is a nice idea to be able to apply the principles of sustainable design to any design brief world wide and come up with a morally and environmentally sound outcome. I realize it's difficult if not impossible to do design work for third world countries for free all of the time however I believe a modern revival of Pananek's 'tithe' concept would be helpful.

In 'Smart Architecture' Ed van Hinte, Marc Neelson, Jacques Vink and Piet Vollaard share views on their idea of smart architecture, 'it does more with reacts in differing time cycles to changing user extingencies, climatological conditions, changes of function and social developments.' (van Hinte. E, Neelson. M, Vink. J & Vollard. P, 2003, p7)

Smart Architecture has technology as an ally with nature. They predict environmental issues will drastically change architecture. It is outlined in 'Smart Architecture' that when you design specifically for purpose, buildings with changing occupancy quickly stop serving it's occupants needs. Design for temporary use, make it flexible. The future cannot be predicted so designs need to be adaptable for easy modification.

Along with the concept of adaptable buildings is the option of making buildings with specific purpose to be light and removable in order to provide minimum damage to the environment. The modern theorists suggest that countries in the East already practice sustainable design where as the West are only just trying to start it. It was suggested that societies that talk most about sustainability are often least in action. The world is growing in it's anxiety about our environment and it's ability to serve us in future years. It is refreshing to see ideas from the west being formed by some principles from the east; it's obvious that their consumer culture isn't as rampant as ours in the west. There is still need however for life enhancing products in poverty districts in the Third World, obviously something more than just sustainable design is needed. We should be making designs useful to other human beings in need as well as environmentally sound ones.

Rainbow Power Company is a company established to design, manufacture, sell and install renewable energy such as solar, wind, hydro and biomass energy sources. It is situated in Nimbin, NSW. Rainbow Power Company's 'primary objective (is) turning the tide away from environmental destruction and towards environmental harmony.' Rainbow Power Company is concerned with both socially responsible design and environmental sustainability. Its main objectives are to:

  • Manufacture, wholesale, retail and demonstrate by example devices powered by Renewable Energy sources,
  • Trade in high quality, cost effective products and provide updated advice and after sale service,
  • Educate the public in aspects of using energy from renewable sources, and living and developing in a sustainable way,
  • Aid developing countries of the world in improving their living standards by educating and trading with them in renewable energy products.

Rainbow Power Company has exported renewable energy products to Papua New Guinea, Somalia, Ecuador, the Solomon Islands, France and Rabaul. The Rainbow Power Company encourages staff to become share holders, share holders are considered highly for employment, it is more a co-operative atmosphere. The Rainbow Power Company sends out a newsletter every month informing members of the latest developments in the renewable energy field.

Rainbow Power company has taken on board both moral and environmental concerns and works for the 'greater design good' in all aspects. Its success lies not in its ability to make good profits from its sustainable designs as some current firms and designers boast, but rather in the low cost service it provides to the worldwide community. Not only are their products and teaching enhancing the lives of people in the Third World, they are also lifting lives of all clients who are getting involved in the idea of renewable energy.

The renewable energy wave has become popular world wide with the growing awareness of responsible and sustainable design. On the 25 May, 1999 Senator Nick Minchin, the Minister for Industry, Science and Resources announced 'The Federal Government will provide newly formed Sustainable Industry Association Australia (SEIAA) with $100,000 over two years to support a range of industry development activities.'

He went on to say: 'A number of different associations have come together to form this single peak body, representing all aspects of sustainable energy interests in Australia, which is an increasingly important sector of the economy.'

'The government funding will be used for training and accreditation support for sustainable energy service providers and vendors, and the development of the network via newsletter and information exchanges.'

'It will also help further develop the standards for industry equipment and services and assist with establishing mechanisms for engaging mainstream electricity supply.' (Rainbow Power Company e-newsletter #20, Lambert. D, 1999, p2)

The Federal Government has also provided many other grants for the commercialisation and showcasing of renewable energy technologies. 'The mandatory requirement for an increase of two percent in the use of electricity generated from renewable and specified waste sources by 2010 is estimated to require investment between $2 billion and $4 billion in renewable electricity generating capacity' The Senator went on 'This is a very powerful market stimulant...Government will be working with industry on the Emerging and Renewable Energy Action to further develop the industry.' (Rainbow Power co newsletter, Lambert. D, 1999, p2)

Another modern phenomenon is 'Fair Trade'. The Fair Trade Federation offers disadvantaged workers, manufacturers and artisans in the Third World fair income, working and trade opportunity's world wide. Fair Trade Federation in 79% of the cases assists companies in product development. In 68% of the cases they assist with design assistance.

Original Theorists Papanek, Whiteley and Shumacher have shown that their prioities in Design and principles are in the right place. They have provided important education to design students worldwide. Modern theorists are right to be concerned about the environment and the sustainability of designs, but it's concerning that perhaps it's out of selfishness in order to preserve their own environment. Doing work which involves a cut in income seems unquestionable. Not much was written on the help of the Third World who are in dire need.if this was included in theories then, it would perhaps show a more unselfish attitude toward design. Investigation of the Rainbow Company's products and work has reawakened hope that perhaps there is also many other companies in network out there concerned with both sustainability AND social responsibility in their design.


Braungart. M & Mc Donough . W, 2000, Sustainable Architecture: White Papers, Chapter on Eco-Effectiveness: A New Design Strategy, , exerpt from website

Edwards. B , 2001, Green Architecture, Wiley- Academy, London

Lambert. D , 1999, Rainbow Power Company Ltd E Newsletter

Papanek. V , 1972, Design for the Real World, Thames and Hudson, Great Britain

Phillips. C , 2003, Sustainable Place, Wiley- Academy, West Sussex

Smith. P F , 2001, Architecture in a Climate of Change: A guide to Sustainable Design , Reed Educational and Professional Publishing Ltd, Oxford

Whiteley. N , 1993, Design for Society, Reaktion Books, London Sustainable Design , Reed Educational and Professional Publishing Ltd, Oxford

2003, Report on Fair Trade Trends in US, Canada & The Pacific Rim,

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