November 28, 2012

High Impact Development via Product Design

Satellites and Donkey Carts in Mogadishu Somalia. Sutika Sipus 2012.
My goal as an Urban Planner and entrepreneur is to create opportunities for radical urban social transformation according to the interests of the immediate population and stakeholders.  This is no easy task, but urban planners tend to have quite a few tools to affect this kind of change, such as the use of urban design, infrastructure creation, and the creation of new transportation options.  Urban planning in this fashion,tends to focus on modifying the environment in which we live, thereby transforming the context of our actions.  By transforming the context, urban planners hope to inform our daily activities with new levels of meaning, or perhaps to even inspire behavior change.

This is all well and good.  Yet transforming the context of social activity is limited.  There are just as many urbanists, artists, and community organizers who want to create new activities directly, and thus stage community activities in the form of sporting events, street fairs, and public theatre.  But these activities are exceptions to the daily, mundane actions of urban life.  Most of the day people are going to and from work, eating, walking the dog, socializing, kids play games in the street, and perhaps someone is reading a book on a bench.  In these situations, the context is only partially relavent.  As long as the environment is safe enough and clean enough to not intervene in daily life, it doesn't really matter what it looks like, or how it is constructed.

From another perspective, the most radical changes in human settlements over the last few centuries are driven by architectural or environmental.  Cars, flushing toilets, airplane, telephones, and mobile phones have dramatically redesigned the urban lanscape.  Modern houses have indoor bathrooms and attached garages.  Cities are now dotted with wifi-hotspots and carved by multi-lane highways.  It appears that for one to really change behavior, the solution is not to create modifications to the environment, but to create the right product.

Hassani's Wind-Blown Mine Clearance Device.  Source: BBC
One recent product to shift the patterns of human settlements is a wind blown device for mine clearance.  With over 110 million landmines distributed across approximately 70 countries in the world, there is a clear demand for mine clearance.  But the process is slow and costly.  Individuals must scour the ground with detection equipement, square inch by square inch.  The mines must then be delicately disassembled by hand.  With the design by Massoud Hassani, however, mines could be quickly removed by exploding them using a windblown device.  Eventually to feature an integrated GPS chip, clearance can be mapped to facilitate effective coverage.

Hassani's product will make unusable land suitable for farming and habitation.  Wherever applied, it will dramatically change the lives of those nearby as well as the economic productivity of the host nation.  In this circumstance, his solution will also create new problem relating to land ownership and division.  After all,  he did not create a big elaborate policy reform or need to develop the product through complex social processes.  Rather it was a matter of fitting a need with a solution, and while that solution creates new problems, it is generally agreeable that the new problems of legal battles are significantly better than the old problem of human endangerment.

Can we conclude that visionary product design is the most effective way to yield the greatest results for urban development?  I suppose there are conditions in which this will not apply, but the more I look at the factors that have shaped the world around me, the less I'm convinced it is based on the action of architects.  Global change is the result of those equipped with the vision to supply an unknown or unrecognized demand.  Historic change is the result of those products that invent new markets by solving many of our current problems and effectively create new ones.