By Frank Spillers

wooden blocks laying in semi-formation

Summary: Sustainable design

Why Sustainable Design?

The world is in dire need of innovations that address real economic,  social and environmental crises. Consider the implications of the 'design problem':

  • Half the world — nearly three billion people — live on less than two US dollars a day [2007 United Nations Human Development Report]
  • One in two of the world's child population live in poverty [UNICEF 2005]
  • For every $1 in aid a developing country receives, over $25 is spent on debt repayment. [World Bank, accessed March 2008]
  • Annually, more than 60 percent of global industrial carbon dioxide emissions originate in industrialized countries, where only about 20 percent of the world’s population resides. [World Resources Institute 2007]

The division between developed and developing, rich and poor nations is only growing. China and India's emerging middle class are modeling Western consumption patterns, a trend that can have serious implications on environmental, social and economic standards inside these countries and the larger eco-system. At the same time, interaction and industrial designers, architects and innovators are largely focused on creating user experiences that support the design problems of the privileged lifestyles we lead in North America, European and certain Asian economies.



Design Like You Give a Damn is the name of a really great book on architectural responses to humanitarian crises. The book details design projects around the world from the ecologically dry toilet to the hippo water roller.  

Gaviotas, (see Alan Weisman's book Gaviotas: A Village to Reinvent the world), located in a remote area in eastern Columbia (Vichada in Los LLanos region), is one of the world's most fascinating case studies in sustainable and renewable design technologies. For 40 years, this experimental community has pioneered sustainable technologies now used in over half of the developing world.   

"Built from scratch in a treeless corner of the country, this community of scientists, tinkerers, and refugees - now numbering more than 200 - has created a verdant rainforest where once there was nothing but scrub grass. It has also devised and deployed dozens of inventions with a frequency and success rate that puts some of America's most storied technology companies to shame.

Its products include a hydroelectric microturbine that generates 30 kilowatts and thousands of RPMs from a mere 1-meter drop in a low-fall dam; a system of solar panels, spherical boilers, and tanks that can provide hot water for housing projects as large as 30,000 units; and a remote-controlled zeppelin that uses videocameras to spot forest fires.

Unlike the startups that dot Silicon Valley, Gaviotas has done all this and more with virtually no funding, no well-endowed university backing, no incubators or venture capitalists, and no access to a national power grid, airport, or freeway system. In fact, Gaviotas lies 15 hours east of Bogotá, the nearest city of note, by a two-lane road that traverses the estates of narcotics traffickers and disappears occasionally into sloughs of mud..."

Source: CNN Money / Business 2.0 The Village that could save the Planet (Sept. 27 2007)

In 2007, the founder of Gaviotas, Paulo Lugari, was awarded an honorary PhD in Science in Technology from Carnegie Melon University for his commitment to sustainability. Also last year the United Nations named the village a model of sustainable development. Gabriel Garcia Marquez has called Paolo Lugari the "inventor of the world."

What Gaviotas teaches us about Sustainable Design

  • It is possible to design and maintain complex technology with almost no resources (no capital investment) in an inhospitable environment with low environmental impact.

  • There is no failure, only feedback: Around 58 types of windmill were tried and tested before Gaviotans determined that the distinctive ‘sunflower’ design functioned best in the arid plains of Los Llanos.
  • A user interface can be created to positively conceal the underlying intention of a device: a sleeve pump designed in Gaviotas incorporated school children's suggestions to add a sea-saw, hence providing an interface to power the pump seamlessly.
  • Poverty reduction and 'green' technology go hand in hand: Gaviotas developed their own fully solar-powered hospital (solar kitchen and solar kettle inventions using heated cottonseed oil); the hospital serves anyone in the area in need. The solar technology developed in Gaviotas also powers a number of Bogata's buildings including the US Embassy and the Government Palace.
  • Designs do not always have to be tethered to electricity (e.g. Gaviotan hand-pumps for micro-aqueducts or hand-cranking radios originally developed for remote areas of Africa). "Power-free" is a valid design constraint when you consider 1.6 billion people — a quarter of earth's population — live without electricity.  [Millennium Development Goals Report 2007]


Design Innovation in high demand

Bridging the gap between design innovation for Western/Northern hemisphere audiences and the estimated untapped market potential among the 4 billion people who make less than $2 a day is one of the key challenges in the 21st century. The challenge should be approached with the same imagination, creativity, boldness and humanity that Lugari used to establish a working protoype in Gaviotas... and recently with Gaviotas II - the megaproject that is poised to put Gaviotas on the world stage.

Considering that nearly a billion people entered the 21st century unable to read a book or sign their names, [UNICEF 1999] what does this mean for manufacturers who's products currently reach global audiences? Nokia is blazing the trail in this area, lead by Jan Chipchase (Nokia Research Center) who conducts field studies in 'emerging markets' in order to discover the mobile phone needs of non-literate users (see Jan's Illiteracy research PPT).

As the economy is "greening" (marketers seem to be wearing their green hats like it's Saint Patrick's Day), and Web 2.0 realizing it's social computing potential (eg. 'the Social Web', 'Social Media' etc), so too are organizations gaining ground called Social Capitalists or Social Entrepreneurs. The popular magazine Fast Company even holds an annual award for the earned title. Let's face it: no auto manufacturer would be caught dead without alternative green engineering in their design rooms, and industry as a whole is beginning to catch on driven by necessity and consumer demand.

Social venture capital firms like The Acumen Fund seed initiatives around the world connecting ideas and social needs to capital and fruition. Several of their projects are featured in the book Design Like You Give a Damn.

"It's all about innovation," says CEO Tim Brown of IDEO, who advises Acumen. "The money is there, but the solutions aren't. Designers can contribute. We're pretty good at taking a bunch of disparate components and figuring out the solution."

Source: Business Week Designing Change March 12 2007

Efforts like the non-profit $100 laptop (One Laptop Per Child) project are a huge step in the direction of extending humanitarian "aid" into areas of low literacy and cognitive development. The laptop embodies sustainable design by providing a water/sand proof keyboard and screen; a built in wireless and mesh-network (forms ad-hoc peer to peer connections across geography to strengthen the wi-fi cloud); a hand-crank for energy; a full sunlight back light screen and more. MIT's Nicholas Negroponte started the project as a humanitarian effort, but later ran into the politics of distribution and market turf-battles from Intel in 2007. (Intel ran a competing product against the project; tried to strangle the project then partnered with OLPC; were kicked off the project and finally went back to competing with the project in a for-profit capacity).

Changing how we think about audiences we don't design for

Jakob Nielsen recently took fire (as well he should) from bloggers for blasting the OLPC project, with his main criticism that the $100 laptop was not user tested (though the laptop has been in field use in Cambodia and elsewhere for several years). Nielsen also criticized the operating system- a new user interface paradigm called Sugar OS (see a demo of Sugar OS). Did Jakob Nielsen completely miss the point???

The guru of usable technology should be supporting the humanitarian effort behind the interface. This CBS video piece called "What if Every Child Had a Laptop?" illustrates the social, emotional and community transformation the laptop "beta" had in its Cambodian village trials (children started loving school, families were delighted to use the lighting emitted from the laptops screen in their electricity-lacking home etc) and provides more inspiration than Nielsen was able to offer in his shameful nitpicking comments for Business Week.

If the $100 laptop with it's lack of usability testing and non-standard interface can give a poor child hope in the future and an interest in education, then it's achieved it's goal as far as I'm concerned.  However, it's clear that as we expand our conversations in sustainable design, the armchair analyzing (read: lack of empathy; lack of context; lack of awareness) mindset will need a new design solution as well. It's too easy to sit and judge a Gaviotas or a $100 laptop for Third World kids from the comfort of a North American interface, running water, electricity etc. context without realizing that whatever you give a child in the South (having personally grown up in Africa) will be deeply appreciated and may even have a lasting impact on their life.

Guidelines for Sustainable Design

So as sustainable design becomes more important in our lives and how we think about our future, here are some guidelines that capture the best practice of Gaviotas (though you'll want to refer to Weisman's book to get the depth of technique applied by Lugari). Also many of these links on these sites are broken, ironically.

Best Wishes,

Frank Spillers, MS