Monday, January 2, 2012

The 90%

While vacationing in New York last week, I visited an incredible exhibit at the United Nations visitor’s lobby showcasing innovative solutions to problems facing the world’s urban poor: safety, clean water, the spread of disease, and transportation.

The exhibit, called “Design With the Other 90 Percent: Cities,” focuses on the nearly one billion people (the 90%) living in informal settlements throughout the world. The recurrent themes of the exhibit were incremental design, the use of cheap and local materials for construction, and efficient use of waste.

The concept of incremental design was applied to everything from bicycles to buildings. There was a bicycle that could be re-assembled to make a cart. In Chile, architects designed basic houses (including bathrooms and kitchens) that could then be modified and tailored to the needs of future residents by those residents.

In Paraguay, loofah panels were used to build walls and elsewhere, sandbags were utilized for insulation.

There is a “biolatrine” in Kenya that converts human waste to fertilizer and gas for cooking and heating, a communal oven, also in Kenya, that uses trash as fuel, and various systems for recycling and water purification.

On the medicine front, there are public health campaigns waged through text message, HIV self-testing kits with instructions in both pictures and words, and “medikits” that include low-cost medical devices made from locally available inexpensive parts.

Some of the coolest work in my opinion is the drawing of informal settlement maps that identify locations for water and sanitation in addition to schools and clinics. These maps function both as a medium for sharing information between residents and a way to identify priorities for change in the community. It goes to show that data collection is an important first step in community improvement projects.

These projects were collaborations between NGOs, architects, engineers, community members, and sometimes local governments too.

Overall, it was a thoughtful and creative portrayal of ideas for sustainable change. The exhibit ends on January 9th. Check it out if you’re in the area!

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