By Design

How should designers respond to disaster?

As well as doing the usual groundwork – such as reading up on the geography and politics of the desolate region of central Afghanistan he was planning to visit, and assembling the kit required to live and work there for several months – the Dutch architect Jan Willem Petersen prepared for his latest design research project by learning the local language. He also grew rather a long beard in the hope of looking less conspicuous.

Petersen’s destination was Uruzgan, which had suffered severely from decades of warfare, most recently as a battleground in the US-led conflict against the Taliban. After NATO’s International Security Assistance Force took control of the area in 2006, the Dutch government embarked upon Task Force Uruzgan, a four-year programme to design and build homes, schools, hospitals, roads, bridges, mosques, factories, prisons and an airport. Petersen’s objective was to study those projects to assess their impact on the region and whether they were fulfilling their intended functions efficiently. His research revealed that only 20 percent of them were effective, while 30 percent were badly flawed and 50 percent were barely functional. A common cause of failure was that the Western designers of these projects hadn’t taken account of the local context. One Uruzgan village, for instance, had abandoned their own plans to construct a school after hearing that the Task Force (unaware of  the villagers’ scheme) had decided to build one. However, the construction quality of the Dutch-funded building turned out to be so poor that it was unusable, leaving the village without a school. Other countries had blundered, too. In his 300-page report, published last year, Petersen describes how the designers of an Australian-funded police station constructed it with a pitched roof, ignoring the advice of the local chief of police that a flat roof would be required as an observation platform. A flat roof subsequently had to be built at considerable expense.


Since 2010, Better Shelters has provided solid modular units to house displaced people. Courtesy: Better Shelter, UNHCR and the IKEA Foundation.

Since 2010, Better Shelters has provided solid modular units to house displaced people. Courtesy: Better Shelter, UNHCR and the IKEA Foundation.


By preparing so rigorously for his mission, Petersen behaved less like a stereotypical designer than the anthropologists who live among their subjects in order to study them, or the war reporters embedded within armed forces in order to give eyewitness accounts from the frontline. Another way in which Petersen deviated from stereotype was by applying his design skills not to develop new infrastructures, but to analyze the efficacy of other designers’ work and identify how the design of similar projects might be improved. Government investment in post-conflict reconstruction is immensely costly, yet the results are seldom seen within the countries responsible. Moreover, most analyses of such projects are conducted by development economists or auditors, who are admirably equipped to identify errors in their own fields, but may miss those design flaws that can cause serious problems, as Petersen’s study demonstrates.

Doleful though they are, Petersen’s findings are timely given the current surge of design activity in disaster-related projects: from colossal, publicly funded reconstruction programmes, such as Task Force Uruzgan, to the efforts of NGOs and individual design activists to address social, environmental and humanitarian challenges. Well-intentioned though these endeavours are – and many of the gutsiest, most dynamic designers of our time are working on them – it is essential that they are planned and executed to the highest possible standards, given the political sensitivity of working in volatile, often perilous situations where the consequences of failure can be calamitous for the intended beneficiaries.

Not that all of design’s attempts to deal with disasters have flopped: many of the greatest feats in design history have sprung from them. Most early experiments in standardized design for mass manufacturing were conducted in the arsenals of ambitious warlords, who realized that the more efficiently designed their weapons were, the deadlier they would be in combat. Florence Nightingale’s campaign in the 1850s to improve the design of the military clinics for British casualties of the Crimean War revolutionized public health care in late-19th-century Britain and still influences hospital design today. The template of the geodesic dome – an emergency shelter made from chunks of wood, plastic and other found materials, devised by the maverick US designer R. Buckminster Fuller in the late 1940s to address the postwar housing shortage – has provided sorely needed refuges for millions of people. And when Hurricane Mitch devastated large areas of Central and South America in 1998, severely disrupting water supplies, a Puerto Rican design activist, Ron Rivera, who worked in that region for the non-profit group Potters for Peace, set up workshops to make a ceramic water filter, designed by the Guatemalan chemist Fernando Mazariegos. Over the next ten years, Rivera established 30 filter factories in areas of Latin America, Asia and Africa where clean water was scarce, as well as training hundreds of local potters to make his ‘weapons of biological mass destruction’.


Old Malalai Girls’ school, Tarin Kowt, 2015, one of the environments in Uruzgan studied by Specialist Operations: a development, research and design office, led by Jan Willem Petersen, devoted to urban planning and rebuilding in areas affected by conflict. Courtesy Specialist Operations.

Old Malalai Girls’ school, Tarin Kowt, 2015, one of the environments in Uruzgan studied by Specialist Operations: a development, research and design office, led by Jan Willem Petersen, devoted to urban planning and rebuilding in areas affected by conflict. Courtesy Specialist Operations.

Yet, these coups have had little impact on popular perceptions of design, which was stereotyped as a tool of commerce and consum­erism throughout the 20th century. The design establishment unwittingly colluded in this by striking an optimistic tone in government-funded initiatives that championed design’s role as an economic catalyst, enabling manufacturers to enhance the quality of their products, thereby boosting exports, job creation and profitability. These official cheerleaders were not only mindful of where their funding came from, but many of them believed that design, as a relatively new discipline, would be likelier to win popular and political support by being associated with seemingly uncomplicated qualities such as productivity, innovation, pleasure and efficiency. Now that public understanding of design is becoming more sophisticated, such boosterism risks being counterproductive. Moreover, a new generation of politically engaged designers has emerged, who are determined to apply their skills to social, humanitarian and environmental causes, in the manner of Fuller, Mazariegos, Nightingale and Rivera. Critically, today’s design activists are able to do so thanks to the digital tools that have transformed the practice and possibilities of design, enabling them to work independently in pursuit of their own objectives. They can raise capital from crowdfunding campaigns and the growing number of charitable foundations that support social and humanitarian design projects, such as Acumen and The Kendeda Fund. Logistically, designers can now manage huge quantities of complex data and use social media to attract funding, as well as to flush out collaborators and promote their work. Developing design responses to disasters in their own countries and others – from environmental and man-made catastrophes, to the refugee crisis – is a defining theme of their practices.

There have, of course, been problems. The politics of design activism are as complex and challenging as those of economic development, sociology and any other fields seeking solutions to acute problems for vulnerable people with scant resources. Architecture for Humanity established a global network of designers working on disaster relief projects in the early 2000s only to fall prey to financial difficulties. Other ventures have been haunted by their own hype, including One Laptop Per Child (OLPC), which sought to enable millions of disadvantaged children to fulfil their potential by producing an educational laptop for less than US$100. OLPC has shipped more than 2.5 million laptops, most of which now belong to children who would not otherwise own a computer. No mean feat, except that its initial forecasts were so much higher that the project is seen as a flop. Other schemes were misconceived from the outset, such as PlayPumps International, which aimed to supply clean water to arid areas of Africa by designing water pumps in the form of roundabouts. The vision of children cheerfully pumping water while playing enabled PlayPumps to secure funding from sympathetic donors. The problem was that its designers had overestimated the amount of time that kids would be able – or willing – to spend on the roundabouts, and the pumps did not produce enough water to meet local needs. The original PlayPumps failed, but another charity, Roundabout Water Solutions, has taken over – and improved – its design.

All of these ventures suffered to differing degrees from the same problem – operating in unfamiliar conditions – which Petersen identified as having proved so damaging to Task Force Uruzgan. Tellingly, many of the most successful projects operating in developing countries are the work of local designers. Wecyclers was co-founded in 2012 by the Nigerian design entrepreneur Bilikiss Adebiyi-Abiola to clear recyclable waste from the Lagos slums, using cargo bikes specially devised to navigate the congested streets. In Uganda, Eco-Fuel Africa has established a network of 3,500 farmers, who convert their agricultural waste into clean, inexpensive cooking fuel to be sold to people living in deforested, rural areas, such as the village where its co-founder Sanga Moses grew up.

A new generation of politically engaged designers is determined to apply its skills to social, humanitarian and environmental causes.

Some Western designers have prevailed, including the British architects Jane Harrison and David Turnbull, co-founders of PITCHAfrica, who have designed schools in rural Kenya with roofs and sports pitches that capture rainwater during the rainy season and store and purify it for use during lengthy droughts. Even so, some of the most compelling recent Western experiments in design activism have been on familiar turf. Assemble’s Turner Prize-winning collaboration with the residents of the Granby Four Streets area of Liverpool to regenerate that community, for instance, or the work of the social designer Hilary Cottam in prototyping new ways of caring for the elderly and delivering other social services, which have been adopted by local councils throughout Britain.

Other politically committed designers have focused on global issues, like the environmental and refugee crises, where the designer’s geography is arguably less relevant. Among the most ambitious environmental design projects is The Ocean Cleanup conceived by Boyan Slat, a 22-year-old Dutch design engineer. As a student, Slat created the blueprint for a gigantic floating structure intended to provide a fast, safe and inexpensive way of clearing the plastic that congregates in giant garbage patches in the oceans. After leaving university to focus on the project, he raised over €2 million in a crowdfunding campaign to develop the prototype, then a further €1.5 million, including €500,000 from the Dutch government, to start a year-long test in the North Sea last June. If all goes well, Slat hopes to construct a 100 km structure in the Pacific Ocean in 2020.

Equally compelling are design responses to the refugee crisis. Better Shelter, a Swedish social enterprise funded by the IKEA Foundation, has designed clean, secure shelters that can be assembled by four people in four hours. After testing prototypes in Ethiopia and Iraq, the United Nations ordered 30,000 shelters for its refugee camps. Meanwhile, the Finnish information design group Lucify is helping to raise awareness of the gravity of the crisis by illustrating its speed and scale in clear, accurate data visualizations of the flow of asylum seekers from country to country.


Florence Nightingale, Diagram of the Causes of Mortality in the Army in the East, 1. April 1854 – March 1855. 2. April 1855 – March 1856. Courtesy: King’s College London, Foyle Special Collections Library.

Florence Nightingale, Diagram of the Causes of Mortality in the Army in the East, 1. April 1854 – March 1855. 2. April 1855 – March 1856. Courtesy: King’s College London, Foyle Special Collections Library.

Arguably the greatest contribution design could make to address both crises is to participate in policy making, as Cottam does in her field. Take the refugee crisis, which could be eased significantly by speeding up the process whereby refugees can seek asylum in countries that need their particular knowledge and skills, and by eliminating the barbarous smuggling of people. One possibility is to use data management to identify the optimal destinations for individual refugees. Another is to introduce humanitarian visas with which they could travel legally to the countries where they plan to seek asylum, thereby ending their dependence on human traffickers. National legislation also needs to be reformed to give asylum seekers faster access to local capital and labour markets, as has successfully been achieved in Nigeria. Such complex changes will require the expertise of specialists from diverse fields, but design could play a constructive role in helping to anticipate problems, identify possible solutions and plan the process sensitively and efficiently, as it might in the environmental sphere.

It has no hope of doing so, however, unless it earns the public confidence and political support required to be accepted as a worthwhile part of critically important reforms. Just as every thoughtfully designed social and humanitarian project represents a step forward, each sloppily designed flop is a setback – whether a gigantic, publicly funded programme like Task Force Uruzgan or the work of a design activist, such as Slat, whose plans for The Ocean Cleanup have been fiercely criticized as misconceived by environmentalists and scientists alike. If their misgivings prove justified and The Ocean Cleanup fails, it will become considerably harder – not only for Slat but for other digitally empowered design activists – to secure financial and political support in future. Conversely, their credibility will soar if Slat’s project succeeds in completing what the home page of its website describes as ‘the largest cleanup in history’. Either way, Slat and every other altruistic designer planning to grapple with disaster would benefit immensely from as rigorous a critique as Petersen’s immersive research in Afghanistan.

Main image: The Ocean Cleanup, 2013-ongoing, designed by Boyan Slat to help rid the Pacific Ocean of pollution. Courtesy: Erwin Zwart/ The Ocean Cleanup 

Alice Rawsthorn writes about design in the International New York Times and is the author of Hello World: Where Design Meets Life (2013). She lives in London, UK. 

Issue 184

First published in Issue 184

Jan - Feb 2017

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