My 2 cents on ‘Responsible’ Design:

Is it possible to make exceptions in sustainability and still consider our efforts to be responsible and conscientious? It is a question we must all ask, as it is not always in-line with our primary goal as designers. For SWC, we are designing to improve the quality of life for those living in the slums of Chile, and possibly, to even reduce illness and save lives. This is an extraordinary cause and not an easy task to say the least. Beyond the design challenge with the limited materials and resources, there are also family dynamics, economic challenges, and political struggles to also be addressed. If after 12 weeks, we are able to develop a product and system to address some these issues successfully, are we to reconsider their implementation if they are not ecologically sound? Who is to decide whether a child in the slums should sacrifice his or her health because it may impact a rare species of birds in Patagonia? Which is a more pressing issue? Which deserves priority over the other?

The answers to these questions will differ from designer to designer, and the answer is just that: a personal decision. This is why sustainability must be implemented into our design phase from the very beginning, to avoid such situations. If one designs with sustainability in mind, then the design process should answer this great dilemma all on its own. Though, it is easy where such a dilemma can arise.

My personal  experience: Fall 2008 I was part of  a team designing potable water solutions for Pasaquim, Guatemala. The team included two mechanical engineer students, one grad chemist, an industrial designer from Guatemala, and myself, the product designer. Through our research and our various sources in Guatemala, we realized how limited our access to sustainable materials were, especially with our design specifications. More importantly, the citizens of Pasaquim were limited by these materials and supplies, both by availability and financially. So, we were faced with a dilemma: start the design process again and find another solution since we were unable to find a sustainable that met our specifications, or take keep our clever approach towards this problem and use PVC as the housing material. PVC is extremely affordable, accessible in every hardware store in Guatemala, and easy to work with. On the flip side, it is one of the worst man made materials when it comes to environmental and human health (in production).

Awa Water Filter, 2008

Though the debate went on, the majority of the team made the decision to go with PVC because it satisfied our primary goal and could potentially make a huge dent in the 54% of child deaths caused by malnutrition and lack of potable water. I was not a supporter of the decision to accept this iteration of the design as our final prototype, but at the same time, I stayed on the team, and was in full support of its cause. We presented our design, prototype, bacteria test results from the prototype, and our business model at the end of the term, and tied for the grand prize. This summer several prototypes have been taken down to Guatemala for testing in the environment before being taken into limited production and allowed for the business model to be tested. This would normally be great news and an amazing reward for someone who is a big supporter of design for social causes, but I can’t help thinking about the toxic industry and market potential i’ve helped introduce to this remote region of Guatemala. Was our design a success? Was our design responsible? Only we, the designers and answer that question. Perhaps this is not a question of responsibility, but a question of morality.


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