Metro Cable in Caracas, Venezuela, featured in the MoMA exhibit “Small Scale, Big Change“. Image credit: Iwaan Ban.
I co-wrote this article with Avinash Rajagopal as part of the second issue of the “New City Reader — A Newspaper of Public Space,” October 22, 2010. This was a newspaper edited by Joseph Grima and Kazys Varnelis, as part of the New Museum’s “The Last Newspaper” exhibition, which ran from October 2010 till January 2011.
Elizabeth Scharpf reached into a tote bag, and with all the flair of a Vegas conjuror, pulled out strand after white candy floss strand of banana fibers. “This is the local material we chose to work with,” she announced. The rabbit Scharpf was pulling out of the hat was her miraculous sanitary pad innovation for Rwandan village women. The occasion—her acceptance speech for the Curry Stone Design Prize 2010, which she won for the “social venture SHE which launches businesses to address some of the world’s most pressing problems.”
As ever, the world seems extraordinarily pressed with problems. The ice caps are melting, ducks are covered with crude oil, children are starving somewhere in Africa, and we’re losing our jobs. If the multitude of conferences, awards and exhibitions in New York are anything to go by, architects and designers are all over it. The Cooper Hewitt’s Why Design Now? symposium—where Scharpf’s banana fibers were first greeted by appreciative titters—answered its titular question with the rather ambitious title “Solving Global Challenges.” A new show at MoMA, Small Scale, Big Change, is advocating social engagement in architecture, through eleven projects from around the world. And the Curry Stone Design Prize 2010 puts a $100,000 price tag to addressing “critical issues such as access to clean air, food and water, shelter, health care, energy, education, social justice and the promotion of peace.”
It’s clear to any designer listening—big problems are the only problems worth solving. The first of which, of course, was the inconvenient truth. But with its emphasis on reducing materials and cutting back on wasteful consumption, sustainability could only offer so much fuel for the design machine. Design has since moved from protecting the ozone layer to saving underprivileged people. At the Why Design Now? conference, the panel on green design was just a pit stop on the way to the biggest goal of them all—Design for Social Change.