Art & Design

In Conversation with Cooper-Hewitt Curator Cynthia E. Smith

Art & Design

In Conversation with Cooper-Hewitt Curator Cynthia E. Smith


Four years ago, Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum organized Design for the Other 90% which posed the question: Could design address the world’s most critical issues with functional and affordable solutions? The exhibition, organized by the museum’s Curator of Socially Responsible Design, Cynthia E. Smith, aimed to make the concept of ‘design’ accessible and useful to 90%, population of the world. The answer to Cooper Hewitt’s call came in all forms of  Q Drum, the Internet Village Motoman Network and the Big Boda bicycle – items which may not look as good as traditional design(well, hello Barcelona chair), but function a helluva lot more. Encouraged by the first exhibition’s international success, Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum decided to take things one step further: Design with The Other 90%: Cities asks if good design can solve the problems of urban spaces in the world’s most densely populated areas. We met Cynthia E. Smith, the woman who brought 60 projects from 22 countries together for Design with the Other 90% Cities, and talked about urban spaces, new approaches to design, and Keppler-22b.

Back in 2007, you curated another exhibition called Design for the Other 90%, can you tell us  how you came up with the idea to begin with?

Design for the Other 90% was based on the idea that, mainstream design focuses on the 10% of the world’s population. But in the new millennium, that in fact is changing. In 2007, it(the exhibition) was 34 different projects, a kind of survey of this area of design, and it ended up sparking an international conversation around socially responsible design. We found out that the catalogue has been used as a textbook in classes.

How did you move on to 

Upon the success of the first exhibition, the Cooper-Hewitt, (which is part of the Smithsonian) decided to put together an exhibition series and, Design with the Other 90%: Cities is the second in the series. Its thesis is based on an UN-HABITAT statistic that close to 1 billion people live in informal settlements, more commonly known as slums or squatter communities or favelas. And that’s projected to grow to 2 billion over the next 20 years. So we wanted to ask who is working in that arena, looking through the lens of design.

You must have done a lot of fieldwork for this second exhibition.

I travelled to 15 different cities throughout the Global South – South and Central America, Asia and Africa. I met with community members living in the informal settlements and people who are working in the informal settlements. What I discovered is, some of the most successful projects, proposals and initiatives are those that are hybrid solutions: A hybrid between the formal city, the formal city being the city that has infrastructure and proper buildings, and the informal settlements which are characterized by inadequate housing, lack of basic amenities like sanitation and clean water.  So you need to engage the community in the exchange of design ideas.

In 2008, for the first time in the history, the urban population exceeded the rural population. Where does that place all of us in terms of the most basic matters, such as food, space, and environment?

All of us are living with less resources and increased population and it’s going to continue to trend in that direction. The key point is to create resilient cities, cities that can cope with this climbing activity. Many of the solutions in the exhibition encourage a wide range of people and stakeholders to learn about these problems. There is already a South-South exchange in the world, the communities in Brazil are sharing with communities of India. There are also organizations such as Shack/Slum Dwellers International, which use this horizontal peer-to-peer exchange to share their successes and experiences, and re-urbanize their communities. But in addition to that, there is also an exchange, taking place from South to North. Communities that have limited resources are coming up with solutions that those of us who live in the more-industrialized countries can learn from.

The exhibition also emphasizes that by 2050; over the 70% of world population will be living in cities. Given that the ‘desired’ areas are already taken, and the informal settlements are already built around them, where will these new cities geographically be? 

I think it’s hard for anyone to predict that. There is a multitude of reasons why people migrate into cities: The promise of a better life, work, improved social mobility, and, freedom. Or they are pushed, due to conflict or in the recent times, due to climate activity; in certain parts of the world, deserts are growing and people can no longer farm or entire islands are taken over by seawater. Dakar, one of the most dense cities in the world, is on a delta. The water is rising on one end the Himalayas are melting on the other – based on that, it is also projected to lose a substantial amount of land. We’ve looked at a couple of projects where designers and architects are coming up with solutions to that. One example would be the floating community lifeboats: A young architect, Mohammed Rezwan created a fleet of community lifeboats that have health clinics and schools. It helps people remain where they are living, so they don’t have to migrate into the city.

What are your personal favorites in this exhibition?

Both the Map Kibera and the Urban Mining Project in São Paulo. Map Kiberia is in the ‘Reveal’ section of this exhibition. Often, informal settlements show up as a blank spot on official maps, but if you look at a satellite map, they are actually very dense. Kibera is in Nairobi, Kenya and it’s one of the largest informal settlements in Eastern Africa, it’s roughly the size of 2/3 of Central Park, estimated to have up to 1.5 million inhabitants. Map Kibera is an open source community map, it has an hand-atlas which you can carry around and an online map, where the local community uploads information. The security map identifies the dangerous areas, safe spots and some of the problems people in the community experience. There is an education layer, as well as the water and sanitation. So the communities themselves can map the problems and take it to the authorities – which ensure that the local community has the control over the information rather than outsiders.

Urban Mining Project, on the other hand, is in the ‘Exchange’ section of the exhibition. The idea is, if these are self-built homes, how can we provide sustainable and innovative ways to improve them? This particular one came directly from the people in the community of Heliopolis, which is the largest favela in São Paulo. In order to use the materials they collected everyday, they partnered with MAS Urban Design at ETH Zurich, who came up with the prototype house-building material made from the material collected and sorted by the community. So basically, the materials people collect on the street can be used to build these new houses.

When we think of these ideas in relation to Hollywood-like dystopia scenarios, can we say that socially responsible design stands against to that idea of a dilapidated world, where things are disregarded to the point that the planet is falling apart?

A lot of the projects in the exhibition point to this real shift in thinking, where people living in the communities and facing the problems actually want to change the conversation. Organizations such as Shack/Slum Dwellers International, which is made up of the urban poor – not only upgrade their own communities; make the decision to not wait on the governments to take action. They are empowering people who had been once marginalized. The majority of these organizations are made up of women, and they are becoming major players in the international discourse. At every level, this exchange between the formal and informal is changing.

Recently, Keppler-22b, a very earth-like planet was discovered and I have a strong feeling that we will attempt to go live there at some point. If you could give one advice to the first inhabitants who would build the cities, what would that be?

Cities are communities. So I’d say, always allow for public spaces, places for people to come together and share with each other.

Design with the Other 90%: Cities can be seen at UN Visitors Center, New York until Jan 9.