I go to a lot of conferences. Design conferences, tech conferences, media conferences, cross-disciplinary conferences. And the worst of them are always the ones brimming with panels, on which a handful of industry heavy-hitters sit around for an hour, throwing at each other opinions that oscillate between congratulatory and contrarian but inevitably dance around a hermetic subject of collectively predetermined importance. The problem with such panels is that they regurgitate existing viewpoints held within the industry bubble about issues framed by the industry paradigm, often in buzzword-encrusted language that offers little substance beyond the collective fluff-slinging.
Over the past few weeks, the design community has witnessed the virtual version of an industry panel. Ignited by Bruce Nussbaum's controversial, and some may say solely for the sake thereof, contention that humanitarian designers are the new imperialists and followed by a flurry of responses ranging from insightful, fact-grounded retorts to righteous indignation to argumentative defensiveness, the debate has brought up some necessary conversations, but it has also become a platform for near-academic discussion of an issue tragically removed from the actual cultural landscapes where humanitarian design projects live.
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.
Because if designers are the new imperialists, the delusional white-caped superheroes Nussbaum calls them out to be, design writers are their giddy, overeager sidekicks, complicit in disengaging from the very communities in which humanitarian design is meant to be manifest.
The way we talk and write about these issues is incredibly important. As this excellent Wall Street Journal article argues, language shapes culture and cognition in a powerful way. The very vocabulary we use in this debate is incredibly flawed. We can't even come up with a fair way of describing the communities in question. We slide across a spectrum of political quasi-correctness and tragic generalization, from the near-obsolete for reasons of clear condescension "third world" to the hardly better "developing world" to Alex Steffen's alarmingly geo-generalized "Global South" to the depressingly hierarchical "bottom billion." These lump terms not only dehumanize entire classes of people, but they also fail to account for the vast cultural differences between the various microcommunities within these brackets. Political, anthropological, ethnic, religious and sociological differences that would explain why, for instance, the XO-1 laptop from One Laptop Per Child, once hailed as a pinnacle of humanitarian design, was embraced in Paraguay and reviled in India.
We talk about working "in the field" as the ultimate litmus test for true "humanitarian design." But the notion of "the field" flattens out a incredibly rich, layered, multiplane social system in which these design projects and products live. No wonder we consistently fail to design what Emily Pilloton aptly terms "systems, not stuff."
I'd be curious to know how these communities and cultures verbalize their own sense of self and identity. How do you say "bottom billion" in Swahili? How does "the field" describe itself in Aymara?
Even the term "humanitarian design" bespeaks a fundamental limitation — incredibly anthropocentric, it fails to recognize the importance of design that lives in a complex ecosystem of humanity and nature, society and environment, which are always symbiotically linked to one another's well-being. When even our language exudes the kind of cultural conceit that got us in our climate crisis pickle, there's something fundamentally wrong with how we think about our role in the world — as designers and as people.
In a brilliant SEED Magazine article from 2008, authors Maywa Montenegro and Terry Glavin make a convincing argument for the link between biodiversity and cultural diversity. "Pull back from the jargon, " they caution, "and the essence is simple: Homogeneous landscapes — whether linguistic, cultural, biological, or genetic — are brittle and prone to failure." But a key point of failure in today's global design landscape lies precisely in the jargon — we need to invent new ways of writing, talking and thinking about concepts of "humanitarian design"; we need new language that doesn't homogenize entire cultures, new vocabulary that better reflects the intricate lace of the world's biocultural and psychosocial diversity as a drawing board for design.
To borrow from science and resilience theory, the work of Italian anthropologist and linguist Luisa Maffi, founder of biocultural diversity conservancy Terralingua, offers ample evidence that the loss of indigenous languages is followed closely by a loss of biodiversity. Without trying to oversimplify what's clearly a complex issue, this raises an obvious question: Could it be that as soon as we lose our linguistic grasp of a species, we stop talking about it, then thinking about it, then caring about it? When it comes to humanitarian design, we never invented this language in the first place, a language that allows us to properly talk, think and care about indigenous communities and their biocultural landscape. Our jargon has set us up for failure from the get-go.
So what can the design community do? I don't have the answer. And I am certain no one person does. But cross-disciplinary teams of designers, scientists, anthropologists, linguists and writers might. Teams that include what GlobalVoices founder Ethan Zuckerman recently called "bridge figures" — people who have one foot in an expert community, be that technology or design or another discipline, and one in a local community benefiting from this expertise.
For now, let's embrace our responsibility as designers and design writers to honor cultural diversity. Let's stop hiding behind industry jargon. Let's invent a new language that allows us to better think, talk and care about indigenous cultures and microcommunities before we try to retrofit them to our projects and our preconceptions. Language that is just, because this is not just semantics. Above all, let's welcome voices and viewpoints from other disciplines, other parts of the world and other paradigms. Enough with the industry panels already.
For a digest of essays and related content surrounding this debate, go here. — The Editors