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IDEO, or “I, thee owe.”

"D"esign or "d"esign?

Zack Jacobson-Weaver is the Materials Fabrication Studio Coordinator at A&D.

On Thursday representatives of IDEO, the venerated design consultancy company gave a presentation to a standing-room-only crowd in the Pierpont Commons, North Campus.  I attended as one interested in the direction of a multi-national design firm specifically addressing what they referred to as sustainable "Social Impact" projects.  What does a think-tank like IDEO do to help humanity?  I left thinking the answer to that question is...work part-time.  

Part of what they showed is genuinely progressive, powerfully humanistic, and what I feel is the real potential of "big D" Design.  The rest was typical, status quo, profit-driven faux-altruism dressed up in a sweatshop t-shirt that say's "I'm Soooo Sustainable, Yo! © "  I'm sorry, I like making money too, but the poster didn't read "Shareholders Meeting", and anyone with any global sensibility could see holes in the "bad project" right away.

THE GOOD PROJECT:  IDEO bids education non-profits in India to redesign elementary schools for low-income families.  They organize an "Open Architecture Network" for would-be and established designers to contribute design solutions to a given project and foster competition where the only payoff is making life better for the target "client".  Need I say more?  In the case of the schools, the winning design team used IDEO's "Open Architecture" to put the pieces together.  They took ramshackle schools in ghetto-like neighborhoods, provided an environment and resources which fostered education, attracted teachers and in turn gave students and their communities something to be proud and take ownership of.  It is classic grass-roots style change á la micro-economics.  Profitable in the short-term?  Not so much.  But a project the wealthiest 10 percent of the world could likely fund 1000's of times over.  Awesome and inspiring design, IDEO.

THE BAD: It is really more fair to call the "bad" project, "half-good", in that it does address a real problem.  It is, however, a half-measure that shouldn't be wasting the time of such talented designers (Like the iPad: the GIANT iPod touch/ GIANT! iPhone-sans-phone.)  What was good about it was that it sought to eliminate the rampant disposal of plastic water bottles.  That's a good goal.  So what do you do about it?  IDEO's solution was to re-design the public water fountain in a way that encouraged people to use reusable containers and take advantage of the fact that, in the US, tap water is generally just as good as bottled water....in the US.  And of course the entire US is loaded with adequate aquifer levels for any population density, no matter how great, right? Sorry, IDEO, you didn't answer in the form of a question, at least not the right one.  The real water problem, is the supply itself.  And water "ownership" is increasingly privatized, i.e. profit driven.  I waited to let the rep explain IDEO's position on this assuming they would have one, and they did.  To paraphrase, 'Concern on the level of "social impact" such as "whether global water supplies may or may not become a problem" are considered "lofty long-term issues" TO BE addressed.'  These concerns simply do not fit into IDEO's viability model (profit driven).  In other words if it doesn't make money, for IDEO, it isn't a first order design issue.  Hmph.  Far cry from non-profit, low-income school building.  Nice try IDEO, but FAIL! on that one.

So....who is IDEO and what are they doing in the realm of "social impact".  The answer to that may be, keeping themselves in business.

If anyone wants to check out why plastic bottles are only the beginning of the problem, read, or watch Blue Gold: World Water Wars



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