Designer Good

Cynthia Smith MPA 2005 curates public service

by Julia Hanna

Originally published in the Spring 2008 issue of the Kennedy School Bulletin

Pronounced aloud, the word “design” has a sleek sound that fits well with its usual associations: the curvy bumper of a sports car, for example, or an elegantly minimal, terrifically expensive chaise lounge. For Cynthia Smith MPA 2005, however, the word has connotations that stretch well beyond the usual notion of a nifty, must-have object. Trained as an industrial designer, Smith, a curator at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York, recently organized “Design for the Other 90%,” an exhibition that explores a growing trend among designers to develop solutions for the approximately 5.8 billion people (90 percent of the world’s population) not traditionally served by the professional design community. This includes more than half the world who live on less than two dollars a day and lack the means to obtain such basics as health, shelter, water, education, energy, and transportation.

“Quite often, the designers involved in these projects don’t have design training,” Smith remarks. “These designers use current technologies, or look to earlier applications to find what is most affordable for any given design, and use emerging technologies to leapfrog communities into this century.”

The bam­boo treadle pump is a piece of equipment that has been around for decades. It works when the user walks in a natural walking motion on two treadles that activate the pistons and enables farmers to reach water below ground during the dry season. The nonprofit organization Inter­national Development Enterprises reengineered the pump out of inexpensive materials, reducing the cost so that farmers in Asia and Africa could afford to purchase one of their own. As a result, many of the farmers doubled their net annual incomes in one year. “That pump and many of the other objects in the show were developed by working directly with the end user to determine exactly what they need to emerge from poverty,” says Smith.

Some of the projects included in the exhibit have been around for years, while others are prototypes. A Day Labor Station designed by Public Architecture (PA) offers sanitation facilities, meeting space, and shelter for the multitude of day laborers who look for work each day in the United States. “Normally architects in the public sector wait for a municipality or some public agency to come to them with a design request,” notes Smith. “In this case, PA went out and spoke to day laborers, treating them as they would any client and creating something that actually meets their needs.” So far, agencies in Texas and California have been in touch with PA about building stations in their states.

Before coming to the Kennedy School, Smith worked for a New York architecture firm with a primary focus on planning for cultural institutions. A longtime political activist, she made an unsuccessful bid for district leader in Manhattan’s District 66. “I have friends who say, thank goodness you lost or you never would have gone to the Kennedy School,” she laughs.

“My studies there and the people I met informed how I curated the show. At the Kennedy School, you get windows into worlds that you might not see otherwise. It’s a broad, cross-disciplinary perspective that mirrors what I saw in my research, where so much of the innovative work is happening across sectors.”

As a result of the exhibit, Smith has been speaking on the topic of socially responsible design at a number of schools and universities. “That’s been quite wonderful because a lot of this work is coming out of universities,” she says. “I really think there’s going to be a shift as students graduate and focus on this area of design.”

For more information visit http://blog.cooperhewitt.org/category/Design-for-the-Other-90/. The exhibit will next open in spring at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.

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Image of boy using the Q-drum, a water transportation device.

Bamboo treadle pump.  Designer: Gunnar Barnes and International Development Enterprises Nepal; manufacturer: small- and medium-sized local woarkshops, Nepal and Bangladesh, 2006; metal, plastic, bamboo; dimensions: 5'h x 2.5'w x 7'd.

“At the Kennedy School, you get windows into worlds that you might not see otherwise. It’s a broad, cross-disciplinary perspective that mirrors what I saw in my research, where so much of the innovative work is happening across sectors.”
—Cynthia Smith MPA 2005

Boy pulling Q-drum, which transports water.

The Q-drum transports water. Designer: P.J. and J.P.S. Hendrikse; manufacturer: Kaymac Rotomoulders and Pioneer Plastics, Pretoria, South Africa, 1993; linear low-density polyethelene (LLDPE); dimensions: 14"h x 19.5" diameter.