Humanitarian Design vs. Design Imperialism: Debate Summary
Bruce Nussbaum started a firestorm with the question "Is humanitarian design the new imperialism?" — and the conversation has spread through the blogosphere. Here, a digest of essays and related posts on this subject.
THE CONVERSATIONBruce Nussbaum
, "Is Humanitarian Design the New Imperialism? Does Our Desire to Help Do More Harm Than Good?"
(Fast Company, July 7, 2010)
"....So where are we with humanitarian design? I know almost all of my Gen Y students want to do it because their value system is into doing good globally. Young designers in consultancies and corporations want to do humanitarian design for the same reason."
"But should we take a moment now that the movement is gathering speed to ask whether or not American and European designers are collaborating with the right partners, learning from the best local people, and being as sensitive as they might to the colonial legacies of the countries they want to do good in. Do designers need to better see themselves through the eyes of the local professional and business classes who believe their countries are rising as the U.S. and Europe fall and wonder who, in the end, has the right answers? Might Indian, Brazilian and African designers have important design lessons to teach Western designers?..."Cameron Sinclair
, "'Admiral Ackbar, It's a Trap!' How Over-simplification Creates a Distorted Vision of Humanitarian Design"
(The Department of Small Works, July 8, 2010)
"....Having been involved in this work for almost half my life I've seen a transformation for the 'western intervention' view played out by Bruce into a complex global network of multi-disciplinary, multi-cultural and diverse teams working locally hand in hand with communities on the ground. This new movement has striven to collaborate and partner with local designers and in our organization it is a requirement...."Emily Pilloton, "Are Humanitarian Designers Imperialists? Project H Responds: Not All Americans Are Leaving the Country to Do Good"
(Fast Company, July 12, 2010)
"....It is only through this local engagement and shared investment that the humanitarian design process shines. It is through this personal connection to place and people that the human qualities of design rise to the top of the priority list, through which our clients are no longer beneficiaries, but experts and co-designers right there with us...."Susan Szenasy
, "Why Bruce Nussbaum Needs Emily Pilloton"
(Metropolis, July 12, 2010)
"....While Nussbaum plays into the design community’s (and their followers’) paralyzing cynicism, Pilloton opens up new doors, finds friendships, makes things happen, and uses design as a conversation about place, object, life, usefulness, and human worth...."Jon Kolko
, "The Puzzle of Bruce's Zeitgeist"
(Austin Center for Design blog, July 12, 2010)
"It came as some surprise to me to read Bruce Nussbaum’s reflective piece "Is Humanitarian Design the New Imperialism?” which attempts to cast humanitarian design as some form of genius-based exportation of value structures. Bruce is as seasoned in history of design academia and practice as any expert in the new “design thinking”, so I was surprised that he overlooked such critical historic positions as Wittgenstein, who positions language as a unifying equalizer for communicating values (in this case, between “designer” and “consumer”).Avinash Rajagopal
, "Eat Pudding, Bruce Nussbaum!"
(Little Design Book, July 13, 2010)
".... Design for social change is a pudding that takes a long, long, long time to bake. Inexperienced Western bakers trying to cook their first pudding in an Indian or African oven are unlikely to be successful, and will probably leave a bitter aftertaste. But there are those who are tenacious and sincere, who spend years learning how to do it right...."Bruce Nussbaum
, "Do-Gooder Design and Imperialism, Round 3: Nussbaum Responds"
(Fast Company, July 13, 2010)
"....Emily, I really don't know how to scale the significance of the negative reactions to humanitarian design. I do know that as a journalist, educator and fellow-traveling humanitarian designer, I am sensitive to what happens on the periphery and I was channeling that response in my post. That's why the post was structured in the form of questions, not answers...."Robert Fabricant
, "In Defense of Design Imperialism"
(Change Observer, July 15, 2010)
"....Is the local model the only way to meaningfully engage in social-impact initiatives, as Nussbaum suggests? Are American designers who want to have an impact on global issues in emerging markets kidding themselves? And what about designers at larger firms like frog? Do we need to give up our jobs and move to a southern state to have an impact?
"This is a question that I have wrestled with personally and professionally in helping shape frog's investments in social impact. Do I stand by our work in South Africa for Project Masiluleke
? Am I looking for other global partners to work with? The answer is, yes! But here is how we try to avoid the pitfalls that Nussbaum referred to in his original post...."Alex Steffen
, "The Problem with Design: Imperialism or Thinking Too Small?"
(Worldchanging, July 15, 2010)
"....It's a harsh reality that the vast bulk of the world's ability to solve system-scale problems is concentrated in wealthy countries. If a bright green model of prosperity is going to be invented... big chunks of it will have to come from the Global North and be spread through partnerships between the North and South...."Patrick James
, "The Debate: Is Humanitarian Design a New Kind of Imperialism?"
Blog, July 15, 2010).
"....Pilloton says humanitarian designers' biggest obstacle isn't geography; it's commitment. And that sounds about right. As to Nussbaum's question of whether the West might have something to learn from the rest — and surely it does — I suggest taking a look at Carolina Vallejo's Design for the First World competition
, "Post-Colonial Design Blowback: The Challenge Facing the Global Design Industry"
(Perspective, July 16, 2010)
"....What’s missing in all of this rhetoric on humanitarian design emerging from the OECD world? For starters, no acknowledgment of any of the following issues:
1. A sense of mutual respect – which in turn leads to the perception of arrogance and patronizing good works
2. No sense of give and take – that you may have something to learn from us
3. Lack of awareness of the global political realities or ignorance of history...."Infini
, "The Storm in A Design Teacup"
(MetaFilter, July 17, 2010)
"Bruce Nussbaum kicked off a minor hubbub in design circles this week with his provocative article... But the question still remains unanswered." Maria Popova
, "The Language of Design Imperialism"
(Change Observer, July 29, 2010)
"....What's most worrisome and ironic about the debate is the almost complete lack — with the exception of a few blog comments here and there — of voices of designers who work in the very regions and communities in question, those loosely defined as the "developing world" and the "Western poor." Worse yet, entirely missing are the much-needed multidisciplinary voices whose work is the cultural glue between design and its social implementation — anthropologists, scientists, educators, writers. "Yes, writers...."Bruce Nussbaum
, "Should Humanitarians Press On, If Locals Resist?"
(Fast Company, August 2, 2010)
"Should American and European designers who do humanitarian design care if they are perceived as "neo-imperialists" by elites in the countries they are working in to alleviate poverty? After the conversation about my previous posts
, I'd like to throw that question out for discussion because it gets to the heart of a key issue for many designers who are trying to help the poor in Asia, Africa and Latin America. When you're far from home, in other people’s cultures, who do you listen to? Whom do you respect? When do you speak truth to power?..."Quilian Riano
, "Humanitarianism and Humility"
(DSGN AGNC, August 8, 2010)
"....Design becomes imperialist when it preempts the voices of those it seeks to help, or compresses them into happy soundbites to convince curators, clients and donors of the design's success. And — most importantly — designers, like humanitarians, should never try to be more native than the natives themselves."David Stairs
, "An Open Letter to Bruce Nussbaum"
(Design-Altruism-Project, August 30, 2010)
"Following your much-discussed July 7th 'reasoned but misinformed volley'
about design imperialism on the Fast Company blog, you were practically cut off at the knees for your viewpoint. The folks at Fast Company were probably happy about this, but it surprised me largely because I considered your piece not only uncontroversial, but mildly anachronistic...."
Collection of posts on design and development.
"....The most powerful lesson for me, after 20 years working as a visitor on projects in India and South Asia, is that we have more to learn from smart poor people on things like ecology, connectivity, devices and infrastructures, than they have to learn from us...."
Valerie Casey and David Stairs
, "The Kindness of Strangers"
(Change Observer, October 1, 2009)It's getting mighty crowded in this social design space. Designers David Stairs and Valerie Casey debate the value of so many players vying to help the world.
Timothy Ogden, "U.S. Lagging, Not Leading, Social Entrepreneurship"
(Harvard Business Review, June 29, 2010)
.Don't get me wrong: Innovations for
the two-thirds world, coming from
the two-thirds world are a great thing. But it's time the U.S. social entrepreneurship community recognized that it's following, not leading. Spend less time and money training entrepreneurs and funding contests domestically; invest more in social entrepreneurs globally.
The community should be more "venture capital firm" than "incubator." It should be bringing innovations from the two-thirds world back to the United States, rather than trying to export ideas...."
, "Confessions of a Development Practitioner"
(Forum/The Daily Star [Dhaka, Bangladesh], July 2010)
An entire industry has grown out of poverty in Bangladesh, and with that, a cadre of development practitioners who have made a career out of it. I am very much a part of that cadre."
"All too often, I stare at many of such soap-box preaching program officers and wonder about their paths that brought us to yet another time wasting meeting...."