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Designing Social Change: Sustainable Cities

   /   Oct 19th, 2011Design, News

The “Designing Social Change” series examines the rapidly-growing movement to apply design approaches to social problems.

An informal market in Durban after a design intervention by iTRUMP

Imagine that you and your family have just moved to an informal settlement on the outskirts of a major city – Buenos Aires, or Jakarta – with nothing but the clothes on your backs. You are wage laborers from the countryside, and all that awaits you in the city is a community of people with similar backgrounds who can take you into their network. Houses in such settlements are typically built of the lowest-grade material. And energy and sewage infrastructures in informal settlements are typically D.I.Y. and thus unreliable.

There are currently one billion people living in informal settlements around the world. By the year 2030, that number is predicted to double. A movement under the umbrella of “socially-responsible design” has set out to prove that people living in settlements have as much right to live in well-designed cities as do the rest of us.

The United Nations is hosting the second installment in the Cooper-Hewitt National Museum of Design’s series on socially-conscious design, Design With the Other 90%: CITIES. Whereas the previous installment of the exhibit series, held at the Cooper-Hewitt National Museum of Design in 2007, was called Design For the Other 90%, this edition is switching out “for” and instead saying “with.” The implication of “design with” is clear: collaboration and horizontal learning, rather than paternalism, form the cornerstone of social design.

One of the main ideas behind the Design With exhibit at is that knowledge exchange between formal and informal designers is crucial in making urban development sustainable and intelligent.

Cynthia Smith, the series curator and an industrial designer by training, was overwhelmed by the impact of the first exhibit. Socially-responsible design was picking up speed worldwide, but it wasn’t becoming part of public discourse or design education; the exhibit filled-in this hole.

The array of projects on display at Design With depict a world in which cities are becoming cleaner and better organized, while generating new opportunities for their burgeoning populations. Smith traveled to three continents while researching projects for the second installment, focusing on global cities and innovative solutions to problems in the informal sector. The projects that most caught her attention were done in a way she describes as a “hybrid” of formal and informal aspects of the city.

Working collaboratively and across disciplines is crucial for designers, Smith explained. Furthermore, she added that working alongside people who are from a very different socioeconomic background than yours requires empathy. And as many of the projects exhibited at the UN demonstrate, social design work often involves a kind of scrappy resourcefulness that takes advantage of local knowledge and materials, rather than viewing poor communities in terms of what they lack.


Durban is known to be the most ethnically diverse city in South Africa. Following the end of the Apartheid regime, the local government in Durban began looking for ways to improve public spaces within the inner-city that were dominated by the informal market, which, in South Africa, is a large part of the economy.

The city government formed a department called iTRUMP to take on the renewal of a sprawling market area and transportation hub called Warwick Junction. Each day, about 460,000 commuters and 5,000 traders pass through Warwick Junction. Neglect of non-white neighborhoods by the Apartheid government had allowed the Junction to become crime-ridden and unclean. Meat vendors were cooking cattle heads over open flames on rickety structures, leaving grease runoff all around, and providing ample opportunity for polluting the city’s water system as well as exposing the meat to bacteria.

In 2008, the co-founders of iTRUMP resigned from their role in local government, frustrated by a political agenda that viewed shopping malls as a viable form of development in light of the upcoming World Cup. They formed a local nonprofit called Asiye eTalufeni and continued their work at Warwick Junction, applying a bottom-up approach to the renewal in order to learn the design needs of people who commuted or traded in the Junction. They asked people directly what they needed and generated ideas based on that data.

The improved Warwick Junction boasts neat concrete cooking cubicles and steel tables for the cattle head vendors. The market’s design was also remade with widened pedestrian routes, storage facilities, and new kiosks for traders.

At the Design With exhibit, one representative from Asiye eTalufeni, Tasmi Quazi, looked at the display of before-and-after photos of Warwick Junction and reflected on the challenges her multidisciplinary team of researchers and architects had met during the initiative.

“Working with the design illiterate poor hinges on social facilitation,” she explained. “You have to suck up your designer ego and work with people. You have to forget pure design because they will hybridize what you give them.”


In the exhibit book for Design With the Other 90%, South African urban planner Edgar Pieterse writes about the unique role that socially-conscious design can play in taking on challenges that ongoing urbanization presents.

Poor city-dwellers, he writes, are constantly finding ways to make their environments aesthetically and functionally better. The projects showcased in the Design With exhibit demonstrate that “innovation arises when activists and entrepreneurs respond to very practical needs in ways that allow people to bring their own creativity, cultural ownership, and sweat to the endeavor.”

Viewing the show at the UN, it is clear that each one of the projects on display in the exhibit is entirely specific to the context in which it occurs. There is no blueprint for solving urban problems worldwide, because every city has a distinct cultural history and its problems stem from that history.

It follows that problems have to be tackled by the people who are living in them, because these are the people who have in-depth knowledge about the situation. But designers add other kinds of knowledge, skills, and access to the mix. The result of such a collaborative approach is unending opportunity for generating sustainable solutions that empower poor, marginalized people to work toward a better tomorrow.

8 Responses

  1. Alan B. says:

    I forwarded this to my niece, who is a grad student at the NY School of Interior Design and she forwarded to her classmates and the teacher of her class on design theory.
    I read it first on, which is the first blog I’ve subscribed to. One of the things I like about that blog is the variety of subjects you report on. Now I am going to start reading the Dowser posts. To see, in some detail, the work that is being done by various Civil Society organizations is very inspiring and raises one’s hopes. As little as a year ago I would have thought that our best hope for something like a Well-Ordered (in the Rawlsian sense of “just”) Global Society lay with governments, as coordinated by the UN. Now I think it lies with Civil Society and that communicational links among all the world’s NGO’s will constitute the infrastructure of a viable global order. Given the large number of cell phones even in the poorest of countries (augmented in some poor & isolated communities by community access to media (as is being set up by organizations like the Hungarian TeleCottage Movement), it is already the case that virtually every citizen of the globe is communicationally connected to virtually every other citizen. The next major step in my mind was for programmers to reinforce certain lines of communication (among all the teachers of the world, for example), to facilitate the communication of ideas, the coordination of efforts, and other kinds of mutual support. Now I think that websites like this one and blogs like this one will play an equally important role in creating an essential global social infrastructure.

    • maikwe says:

      Hey Alan! Would you be willing to pass this on to your niece as well? There is an intensive course on ecovillage design principles happening next summer that may be of real interest to her and her companions: The website is still under construction, but the basic info and how to contact us is there. Thanks for considering! Ma’ikwe

      • Alan B. says:

        Hi Ma’ikwe,
        I just forwarded the link to my niece.
        It is so exciting to learn of so many people doing so many great things!! The Arab Spring, European Summer, Occupy Wall Street and all its clones across the country and around the world, NGO’s and other “civil society” groups & communities sprouting like mushrooms around the world, and on and on. One of the more exciting ones to me, related to intentional communities, is the Global Village Construction Set described on It may be that Dancing Rabbit will not get big enough to need the machines it designs, or that you have a differing philosophy of sustainable construction, but part of the beauty of this new era of widespread social consciousness and engagement (a veritable new “Sixties”, of which I was a part) is the emphasis on “diversity” rather than the insistence on agreement (notwithstanding the consensus-orientation of Occupy Wall Street). Like you (I see from your Dancing Rabbit bio), I am averse to conflict and count on a wide-spread rejection of polarized thought patterns to reconcile diversity & unity. (For example, while I may be part of the 99% in socio-economic terms, I see myself as part of (and have feelings of solidarity with) the 100% – the global population.

      • maikwe says:

        Hi Alan,

        Thanks for passing it on. We know the open source ecology folks… their place is not too far from us and we’ve been intrigued by what they are up to. We will likely get large enough to want to engage their package at some point, as we are thinking we’ll end up being 500-1,000 people. Are you familiar with the website and intentional communities directory?

        I actually think the strength of consensus is deeply honoring diversity, within the context of shared goals and values, and would love to have that conversation some day :) Thanks for the positive response and helping spread the word! Ma’ikwe

    • Alan B. says:

      I just registered with FIC and ordered a copy of “A New We”.
      Here’s a continuation of the conversation:
      Maybe we could say that Occupy Wall Street, at least implicitly, started with a philosophy of “honoring diversity within the context of shared values”, and the main shared value was a sense of social justice that was violated by the activities (especially the ones that were illegal or immoral) of large banks & brokerages that is causing millions of people to lose their homes. But it emerges that some protesters have a radical sense of non-violence that would protect the neighborhood and even the police from being harmed, while others see confrontation as a tactical way to provoke police brutality and gain sympathy for the protesters. (And as long as SOME think this way, it matters not that their tactics are counter-productive or that their numbers are inflated with agent provocateurs). What happens next (within philosophies of activist organization)?
      I’m relatively new to social media, so if we continue this conversation, is there a danger that it will take up too much space on this site?

  2. [...] him directing the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York City, which has an exhibit,  “Design with the Other 90%: CITIES,” on display at the United [...]

  3. [...] him directing the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York City, which has an exhibit,  “Design with the Other 90%: CITIES,” on display at the United [...]