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by Allison Arieff, 29 June 2011
Design for the First World: The Rest Saving the West
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With so many problems of its own, why does the First World think it can solve Third World's problems? A new competition asks if it shouldn't be the other way around.

There’s something missing in the conversation around what’s variously called “social design” or “design for impact.” Over drinks with socially engaged friends you might broach the subject, but few would dare articulate in public the uncomfortable aspect of this work, however well-intentioned: Why is the First World solving all of the Third World’s problems?

Carolina Vallejo, a Bogota-born designer, editor, and writer would be the one to bring it up. Wondering if the Third World didn’t have something to teach the First, she launched Design for the First World (or Dx1W), a competition created in response to what she perceived to be a ridiculous assignment in her design class: to create an object on "social design." Vallejo was incredulous. "Why would [anyone] assume that you can design something to solve a problem for the so-called Third World—a world you don’t know—in a week?”

With the tagline, “The Rest Saving the West,” Design for the First World proclaims 2010 International Year of the First World in Need, and has defined four main areas for entrants to address: Food Production and Eating Disorders, Aging Population and Low Birthrate, Immigration and Integration to Society, and Sustainability and Over-consumption.

Ouch. Clearly calling the kettle black, Vallejo wants to draw attention to the fact that we’ve got a lot of problems to solve in our own backyard. Vallejo’s undertaking, which doubles as her NYU thesis project, calls upon designers, artists, scientists, makers, and thinkers in developing countries to provide solutions for First World problems, and she’s received entries from 14 countries so far.

Too often public—and media—attention focuses on what Vallejo calls the “Bono and Brangelina” approach. "The Red campaign and the One Laptop Per Child are on my top list of ‘paternalistic let’s produce unnecessary crap and throw it out there projects,’" she says. "While I give the OLPC project props for understanding that things other than water and medicine are useful for communities in need, the whole project is nothing more than a generalized remedy that ignores particularities…who cares if there's no electricity! Lets give computers to the children! It makes me sick."

Vallejo is a provocateur, but the tone taken on the Design for the First World website is challenging yet playful:

We live in a complex world, one full of inequities and wonderful things. Our fellows in the First World have been concerned for a while with us having the major share of the badness, so we thought, why don’t we pay back? After all, their life isn’t problem-free either. And that’s where this competition starts.

Vallejo is obviously looking for a reaction (though she tells me the response has been “surprisingly good, almost disappointingly so”). The United States has a recession, Detroit, homelessness, BP—and isn’t doing such a great job solving those problems. If it's having such difficulty on its own turf, why should we trust it to fix things elsewhere? Why, she’s asking, is the tacit assumption that the Third World has nothing to offer?

Vallejo isn’t suggesting designers discontinue their efforts to bring clean water, electricity, and similar necessities to the developing world. Rather, she hopes to draw attention to—and dissolve—the dualistic, Us versus Them dynamic that persists in this kind of work...

“This is one planet and the multiplicity of voices should be working together to design a developed world, one that fits us all,” she says. “The present model of the First World is failing the Third World and we [the developing world] are following those steps without having much consideration on what are the mistakes already made and where are the new ones to make. It is not only that over-optimistic naive First World designers should stop thinking that just because they are from the First World they have the solution, it’s that designers from the developing world should wake up and think that what happens in the other hemisphere is our problem as well and that everything has a direct impact on how our life is going to be.”

Vallejo isn’t just picking on well-meaning proponents of design thinking. She’s also pointing fingers at the developing world for seeming too ready to hand over their fate to others unfamiliar with their reality. It is our fault, she explains, “for critiquing 'the system' as if we were not part of it. And this is scalable to planetary magnitudes. It is time that we all take responsibility and agency and become present and aware, and open our hearts and minds.”

Her message to her fellow designers is a positive one. She just wants to do “a little ass-kicking first.”

Originally published in Good June 2010.