Designing in the green, globalized free market

The Walker’s new exhibit shows us the string-pullers of the new design revolution.

For those of us who go to Target to buy eggs and end up grabbing a pack of glitter gel pens and some new sandals, grasping just how tight globalization’s belt is getting can be difficult. The equation of “the poor are getting poorer and the fountains of resources are running dry” is hard to internalize. Luckily, the Smithsonian-created “Design for the Other 90%” exhibit has come to the Walker, offering a selection of new inventions that we should expect to play a larger part in our everyday global consciousness.

Design for the Other 90%

WHEN: May 24 through September 7
WHERE: Walker Art Center

Shelves of organic lettuce are just the slightest sign of the changes that are taking place across the world, but the old American strategy of propelling our consumption in new directions must be reworked when mass consumption is at the heart of too many problems. Instead, designers across the world are stretching the principles of supply and demand as far as they go in order to create energy-efficient products that sell for as little as possible but meet the demands of the 5.8 billion people who wouldn’t even consider buying a pack of glitter gel pens.

Rather than leaning on charity and volunteers, these designers hope to alleviate poverty by providing affordable tools that people can use to increase their income. The vendors make a profit as well, making this strategy coherent with the mutually beneficial and thus autonomous philosophy of free trade. This article is just a beginner’s guide, but hopefully it will explain a few of the key symbols of this new era of the global economy.

Chickens: The new universal value

While a bag of chicken breasts might be $6.99 at Cub, a real live chicken will empty the piggy bank for a family across the globe. But in designing for that particular market of 5.8 billion people, it might be worth it to keep those plump birds in mind.

Martin Fisher from KickStart, a company that focuses on the affordability of its products, offers this advice: “The product needs to sell for not much more than the price of a chicken in the local marketplace,” he explains, “A chicken is a luxury that even the poor can afford from time to time.”

That means, at this point in time, chickens just might be the most easily generalized symbol of something that is both attainable and desired. Think of that next time you order a four-piece McNugget off the value menu at McDonald’s.

Life Straw

Design thinking is now accommodating the fact that most resources are scarce. As more families are losing people due to diseases caught from drinking contaminated water, the systems that provide clean water are becoming responsible for the way it is allocated.

Until a fair system is created, if such a system is possible, tools like the Life Straw must stand in. The Life Straw is a small blue device that you can wear around your neck that turns any water into clean drinking water. Sort of like a Brita water filter mixed with a magic wand.

One laptop per child

This $100 laptop is so cheap that most government education systems can afford to buy one for every student. Painted lime green, it has a voice recorder and a camera, and it can be folded to look like a video game console.

Once these puppies are unleashed, expect to see blogs popping up all over the world, opening up information avenues that will explain just what it’s like to be a 6-year-old farmer kid of parents who are worried about their goat and the next monsoon. Soon, kids who burn a handful of coal a day will be able to look up their carbon footprint.

Chili bombs

Remember, we rose above our primate cousins partly because we figured out how to produce fire. Along with that came simple tools like javelins and sharpened rocks that can yield even more sharpened rocks. We evolved as designers long before there were market analysts and companies that supplied the thread and bobbins.

Returning to this minimalistic thinking are projects like the World Wildlife Fund, which invented two humane ways to deal with the elephants that were eating people’s crops. A fence covered in chili, and small bombs full of chili that are hurled at the elephants. Turns out those animals never forget how much they hate chili. After puckering their lips a bit, they’ll lumber off to some other food field, no violence or weapons necessary.

If anything, “Design for the Other 90%” makes it seem like there’s some hope in a world where glaciers are melting and people who can’t find clean water drink Coca Cola instead. That is, until there’s no water left to make the Coke with. Then we’re really in trouble.