Aspen Report: The TED-Types Roll Up Their Sleeves for Social Design

Two years ago, the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in New York displayed 30 humanitarian design and engineering projects, including a biodegradable shelter, a low-tech food cooler, and a straw that helps prevent the spread of cholera and typhoid. They were exhibited, incongruously enough, on the back lawn of the museum's headquarters, the former Carnegie mansion on Fifth Avenue. The show, called "Design For the Other 90%," was a reminder that only a tenth of the world's population benefits from the services of designers.

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"Design For the Other 90%" marked the unofficial beginning of social design, a movement that coalesced and found new urgency during the financial crisis as the design community started to rethink its role in a culture less fixated on consumption.

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The latest chapter in social design occurred earlier this month in Aspen, where the latest iteration of the 50+-year-old Aspen Design Summit (PDF file) teamed up designers including Tim Brown of IDEO, our own design blogger Robert Fabricant of Frog Design, and Carnegie Mellon faculty Renna Al-Yassini. The designers assembled in studio groups to come up with real-world solutions to global problems as well as a plausible plan for funding and implementation within two years. You might think of it as the TED Conference with homework. "This isn't a conference where people meet and agree to have another conference," said William Drenttel, a graphic designer and a founder of the Winterhouse Institute, which organized the event with the AIGA. "We ended up with six projects and all have people committed to working on them."

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The 64 participants broke up into five groups to develop solutions to real problems: a box containing toys, games, and other early development tools that can be dropped from an airplane into refugee camps and other disaster areas; a low-cost sanitary pad made of local materials for East African girls so they don't miss school when they menstruate; medical clinics for rural areas; and a campaign to encourage Americans over 50 to undergo screenings and other preventive treatments.

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One assignment was radically reframed. A proposed national designer center to help alleviate rural poverty—to be located in Hale County, Alabama, one of the poorest areas in the country—was rejected as a case of design imposed from on high. Instead the group focused on how to establish an apparatus that would help coordinate existing grassroots programs.

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In addition to the designers, officials from UNICEF, the Mayo Clinic, and the CDC, as well as other non-government organizations, sent participants. While none of the projects are funded, these groups have expressed interest in developing four of the projects germinated at Aspen. "This is not a weekend effort," Drenttel said. "This is about sustained engagement over a decade or so."

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