Anupam Mishra: The ancient ingenuity of water harvesting

“With wisdom and wit, Anupam Mishra talks about the amazing feats of engineering built centuries ago by the people of India’s Golden Desert to harvest water. These structures are still used today — and are often superior to modern water megaprojects.

“To promote smart water management, Anupam Mishra works to preserve rural India’s traditional rainwater harvesting techniques.”  (TED)

Peter Haas: Haiti’s disaster of engineering

“‘Haiti was not a natural disaster,’ says TED Fellow Peter Haas, ‘It was a disaster of engineering.’ As the country rebuilds after January’s deadly quake, are bad old building practices creating another ticking time bomb? Haas’s group, AIDG, is helping Haiti’s builders learn modern building and engineering practices, to assemble a strong country brick by brick.

“Inveterate tinkerer Peter Haas is the co-founder of AIDG, the Appropriate Infrastructure Development Group, which connect people to electricity, sanitation and clean water through a combination of business incubation, education, and outreach.” (TED)

Amy Smith shares simple lifesaving design

(the sound is very low, but the video is well worth it)

“Fumes from indoor cooking fires kill more than 2 million children a year in the developing world. MIT engineer Amy Smith details an exciting but simple solution: a tool for turning farm waste into clean-burning charcoal.

“Amy Smith designs cheap, practical fixes for tough problems in developing countries. Among her many accomplishments, the MIT engineer received a MacArthur “genius” grant in 2004 and was the first woman to win the Lemelson-MIT Prize for turning her ideas into inventions.” (TED)

Amy Smith is an inventor and educator.  She founded MIT’s D-Lab in 2002.  In 2010, she was named one of TIME Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World.

Research vs. Journalism

In this thought-provoking presentation at TEDxBoulder, Leslie Dodson, a researcher and journalist discusses the shared traits and objectives of researchers and journalists and how they inherently clash, and she challenges us to be more discerning in how we represent other people in any field.

I really enjoyed her point about researchers and journalists and I hadn’t thought about that before.  They both seek out information in the form of data, observations, interviews, and photographic evidence.  And they both collect, compile and present that information.  Both seek to tell a story through collected data, but the journalist needs that information to be personal and to sate the appetites of readers and viewers consuming a story, sometimes as entertainment, sometimes as an appeal for support.  The researchers want anonymity, to remove the personal and keep it objective.  As a researcher and a journalist, Dodson must compartmentalize each and make sure she doesn’t corrupt the research while keeping the journalistic storytelling interesting.

As designers, we also have both tasks.  Research must be objective in order to inform us accurately, so that we can then work to create solutions that succeed.  But we also need to tell a compelling story in pitching our designs to clients, funders, and even back to the people and communities we researched.  There is a challenge in not over-simplifying or reducing people or whole populations to caricatures or cartoons and taking away their power by taking away their complexity.  We do have to generalize based on samples of populations and collections of personal stories, and in selling, creating characters is often a useful tool.  But we must remember to be careful riding that line, so that we continue to help the people and communities we serve, not undermine them by representing them in over-simplified ways.

In addition, Dodson points to the popularity of oversimplification in NGO communication materials, especially graphic representation, catchy names and slogans.  As iconic as the shape of the continent has become, it might even feel like just one country with one people and a few major issues we can tackle quite simply if we all just pitch in a few bucks.  But Africa is a continent with over 50 countries, over 2,000 languages, and a whole spectrum of issues, from disaster to prosperity.  Oversimplification is misleading, and may work against the needs of the people on that continent.

The tough part is that we see examples where simplification helps donors feel like there is hope in a manageable situation succeed.  So the question remains for each designer to continue asking themselves through every stage of their work, whether applied to Africa, development around the world or to any community we’re trying to serve: “in this case, does simplification help or hurt the cause?”