Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Humanitarian Design

Humanitarian Design or Neocolonialism?
BY: FAST COMPANY STAFF, October 1, 2010

"Fast Company's Bruce Nussbaum raised some controversial questions in a trio of posts -- and readers had a lot to say. We sample the debate.

A few months ago, I went to hear a talk by Idiom Design, one of India's top design consultancies. At the end of a great presentation, a twentysomething woman from the Acumen Fund rushed to the front and said in the proudest, most optimistic, breathless way that Acumen was teaming up with Ideo and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to design better ways of delivering safe drinking water to Indian villagers. To my surprise -- and hers -- Indian businessman Kishore Biyani, the key investor in Idiom, complained that there was a better, Indian way of solving the problem.

So what's going on? Is the new humanitarian design coming out of the U.S. and Europe perceived as colonialism? Are American and European designers presuming too much in their attempts to do good?

I remember the contretemps over One Laptop Per Child, an incredibly ambitious project sponsored by good guys -- the MIT Media Lab, Pentagram, Continuum, and Fuseproject. Yet OLPC failed in its initial plan to drop millions of inexpensive computers into villages, hook kids directly to the Web, and, in effect, get them to educate themselves. The Indian establishment locked out OLPC precisely because it perceived the effort as inappropriate technological colonialism that cut out those responsible for education in the country: policymakers, teachers, curriculum builders, parents.

Young designers want to do humanitarian design globally. But now that the movement is gathering speed, we should take a moment to ask whether 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 these countries. Might Indian, Brazilian, and African designers have important design lessons to teach Western designers?

And finally, why are we doing humanitarian design only in Asia and Africa and not on Native American reservations or in rural areas of the U.S., where standards of education, water, and health match the very worst overseas?

People are doing humanitarian design on Native American reservations in the United States. Heather Fleming and Tyler Valiquette of Catapult Design, for example, are doing phenomenal work with the Navajo Nation.

Sarah Rich | Board Member | Project H

As a Pakistani (currently residing in Canada), I can tell you that the efforts of gen-Y American and European do-gooders are overshadowed by actions of corporations, the military, and politicians of the same nations. To most Asians and Africans, it seems like the Westerners cause destruction at the same time some of them come bearing gifts.

Abdullah Ahmed | Co-owner | Steam Walker

I'm a Brazilian designer working in Europe for a North American design consultancy. If I was going to be really sensitive about this, I'd say any discussion that puts together Indian, Brazilian, and African designers is infused by imperialistic language. India is a country with more than 20 different languages; Brazil is a Western country colonized by European nations with African and Middle Eastern immigrants; and Africa has so many unique problems that it is almost impossible to compare it with anything else.

Fabricio Dore | Designer | Ideo

Post Two

My questions about sensitivity to culture and local elites are based on having seen Asian designers, businesspeople, and officials reacting negatively at conferences to what they perceived as Western intrusion. The question for a Western designer is how to react.

I first learned about the unintended consequences of good intentions as a reading tutor for a Head Start program when I was in high school in the '60s. My supervisor said that some parents and community groups opposed Head Start because it undermined "black English," and, in effect, African-American culture. Later, I heard that some Hispanic community groups on the West Coast felt the same way. In recent years, I have heard that some Native American organizations opposed Head Start too. Do I think we should have ended Head Start? Not at all. But acknowledging and engaging the historic legacy might have improved the programs and helped more kids.

I was surprised again when I taught third-grade science to kids in the Philippines as a Peace Corps volunteer. Indirectly, I heard that some teachers were angry with me. Why was a 20-year-old American with a couple of months' training teaching Filipino children when there were more experienced Filipino teachers available? The real problem was not bad teachers, but politics. You needed good political connections to move ahead, and many young teachers didn't have them. I began using my power as the "outside American" to help advance good Filipino science teachers.

I discovered yet another example of unintended consequences three years ago, at a design conference in India where I got an earful on how anti-Indian One Laptop Per Child was. The intellectuals, designers, businesspeople, and government officials at that meeting didn't think [MIT Media Lab cofounder] Seymour Papert's work applied to India's rural-village culture. As a consequence, few OLPC screens can be found in India (or China) today. Is that a tragedy? Perhaps.

I don't know how to scale the significance of such 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. It may be that we should ignore those voices of protest -- after all, what are they doing for the poor in their own countries? But we should be aware that they are saying something that should influence our work.

Bruce Nussbaum's overgeneralization of the recent revival of the humanitarian-design movement floats somewhere between misguided and ridiculous. Picking just four recent projects we've been working on, the folks involved in the building process are from South Africa, Romania, Germany, Brazil, Colombia, the Navajo community, Kenya, Uganda, and the U.S. Let's not fall into the trap of who's best and who's not when we have BP filling our oceans with oil, large hidden corporations taking major reconstruction contracts, and poor government policy forcing inadequate housing to remain the status quo. If you want to take on an imperialist empire, you're going to have to shoot a little higher than pro bono designers. Admiral Ackbar, it's a trap!

Cameron Sinclair | Cofounder and Chief Eternal Optimist |Architecture for Humanity |

I would not mind involvement of designers from anywhere so long as they come with an open mind, share their learning with/from grassroots learners, and give credit where it is due. The problem arises when some so-called do-gooders raise huge funds, pay fat salaries, and use the partnership with local communities to legitimize their greed.

Anil Gupta | Professor |Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad

In the Peace Corps in Botswana, I learned how to carry water on my head and noticed how heavy the bucket was. I learned how to pound sorghum into flour and felt the ache in my back. As a designer, I came to understand the importance of technologies that can transport water or grind grain. A new generation of designers has learned that "parachuted" solutions don't work. Many of the best products out there are developed in close partnership with the communities that need them. Along the way, the capacity of these communities is built up, as merchants expand their stock, farmers are trained in maintenance and installation, and produce yields are increased.

Does do-gooder design amount to cultural colonialism? I believe the answer is yes and no. Yes, because if OLPC moves ahead after failing to properly research the needs of the market, one must question the motives behind those forces brought to bear upon this project. No, because we can't fault the young, naive, and plain ol' quixotic for going out there and trying to do good. But this does not mean that their motives are not rooted in a certain hubris.

T.J. Thomas | Principal | Studio Murmur

C.K. Prahalad [author of The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid] suggested that there was tremendous opportunity to develop products and services for the world's lowest income earners that would fulfill unmet needs. These consumers at the bottom of the pyramid are also producers, so some of the most beneficial humanitarian designs focus on improving customer productivity.

Lars Hasselblad Torres | Administrator | MIT IDEASGlobal Challenge |

Post Three

Should the Americans and Europeans who do humanitarian design care if they are perceived as neo-imperialists by the elites in whose countries they are working? This 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, whom should you listen to? Whom should you respect, and when should you speak truth to power?

Let's take a clear example where the locals may be the bad guys. CNBC World ran a piece on the Acumen Fund's work helping small-scale merchants in Nairobi's Toi Market get financing. Acumen, working with local microfinance institution Jamii Bora, persuaded banks to come up with capital for these merchants. It was a big undertaking that helped many people raise their standards of living.

Then a contested presidential election led to ethnic rioting. The Toi Market was burned down by thugs of one ethnic group, who killed dozens of people. Acumen then had to decide whether to recapitalize the merchants. It did. Even more important, Jamii Bora integrated the thugs into the market community by financing their efforts to build houses and start businesses. Now the ethnic groups are working together to build a better future -- thanks to Acumen and Jamii Bora.

But what do you do when the locals are good guys who simply don't want you in their country for historic reasons? What do you do if they are highly educated, speak your language, go to the same conferences, belong to the same "global elite culture," and still don't want you proposing solutions to their country's problems -- just because? Do you ignore them, work around them, argue that your mission is of a higher order than nationalism? Do you ask what they are doing to help the poor in their country?

And finally, what do you do when those local elites who question your presence are design elites -- just like you?

If the local elites have issues with outsiders providing solutions to their impoverished, then let them create innovative designs that are cheaper and more efficient than the ones that the Westerners are coming up with. The end goal is to help, and if they think they can do it better, then let's see it.

Todd Warren Qualitative Intern | Mindwave Research

So is it imperialism? The answer is yes, whether we like it or not. It is imperialism because there is a not-so-subtle imposition of an ideological stance that "design can save the world," a claim that really isn't all that robust in the first place. If design really wants to change the world, then design must figure out how to give these people real political power. Until then, it's some very expensive Band-Aids. These are not hammer-and-nail problems. They are political-influence problems. Ignore these questions at your peril. They persist, whether your recycled-materials playground is a success or not.

Gong Szeto | Blogger |

What do you do when the local elites don't want you proposing solutions to their country's problems? To me the answer is simple: Bypass the elite roadblock and go directly to the "consumers" who have the problem. Listen to their needs and design a low-cost solution. If the item designed is successful, the elites tend to jump on board. A beautiful example of this method would be the treadle pump, which is now used by millions of people in Asia.

Paul Ruben Polak | Founder | International Development Enterprises and D-Rev: Design for the Other 90%

Designers often think that since they are in a profession based on empathy, it comes automatically, and so they fail to spend time understanding the people and context they work in. This is not limited to an East-West, North-South debate. It happens all too often with us in the emerging markets as well, where our urban-educated lenses blind us to what happens on the ground.

Jacob Mathew Cofounder | Idiom Design and Consulting

Jacob Mathew hit the nail on the head when he exhorts designers not just to listen to the people they work with, but to live and collaborate with them. It's like an extreme form of team building: Learning to work with absolute strangers is effective only when you take the time to understand where they are coming from -- a LOT of time. If you really believe in your cause, then you must be able to discard your own preconceptions. These are both hard things to do as an outsider. They aren't easy to do for "local design elites" either. But people manage to do it, and shining examples of persevering designers are many in India.

Avinash Rajagopal | Blogger |

Tuesday, September 28, 2010


Resources: The Revolution Begins

Let's talk about your butt--specifically, what it's sitting on.

Chances are, your chair is an unholy medley of polyvinyl chloride and hazardous chemicals that drift into your lungs each time you shift your weight. It was likely produced in a fossil-fuel-swilling factory that in turn spews toxic pollution and effluents. And it's ultimately destined for a landfill or incinerator, where it will emit carcinogenic dioxins and endocrine-disrupting phthalates, the kind of hormone-mimicking nasties that give male fish female genitalia and small children cancer (or is it the other way around?). Now, envision what you might be sitting on in 2016. Actually, never mind: Office-furniture outfit Haworth already built it. It's called the Zody, and it's made without PVC, CFCs, chrome, or any other toxic fixin's. Ninety-eight percent of it can be recycled; some 50% of it already has been. The energy used in the manufacturing process is completely offset by wind-power credits, and when the chair is ready to retire, the company will take it off your hands and reuse its components.

Unsurprisingly, Haworth is motivated by more than woodsy altruism. "Haworth fundamentally believes that by being sustainable, you can be more profitable," says its president and CEO, Franco Bianchi. The lumbar-pampering chair isn't cheap to produce--nor, at $700 to $1,100 each, particularly cheap to buy--but the company believes there's money to be made at the sweet spot where quality meets environmental consciousness.

In isolation, the story of the Zody is a font of warm fuzzies. But if the world is to avoid ecological catastrophe over the coming decade (Sorry, did we say "ecological catastrophe"? We meant "multiple, overlapping, mutually reinforcing ecological catastrophes"), it's going to require more than benign furnishings. What we need is nothing less than another industrial revolution--a wholesale conversion of the familiar model of brute-force resource- and waste-intensive industry to a model that mimics nature in its fecundity, flexibility, and efficiency. And quickly, please.

That Sinking Feeling

Last year, more than 100 citizens of the tiny Pacific island nation of Vanuatu permanently fled their seaside village because a succession of strong waves and storms threatened to swallow it up. These unlucky folks and their counterparts on other low-lying islands and buckling shorelines are involuntary trendsetters, the world's first climate-change refugees. And according to the Institute for Environment and Human Security at the United Nations University, they may be joined by as many as 50 million other environmental refugees by 2010.

If you're under 40, experts say, you're likely to see the end of cheap crude oil in your lifetime.

The same fossil-fuel addiction that drives climate chaos also fouls the air and dangerously distorts foreign policy. And things are only going to get messier: Experts differ on exactly when we're going to run out of cheap crude, but the consensus is that if you're under 40 (and particulate pollution doesn't kill you early), you're likely to see it in your lifetime.

In the meantime, billions more people will be lining up for whatever's left. By 2050, the global population is expected to hit 9.2 billion, up from today's 6.5 billion. That means the world is adding a Dallas a week, and some of the fastest-growing spots on the planet--think China and India--are those most rapidly upping their per-capita demand for natural resources. We're razing rainforests, wiping out thousands of species, slurping up a dwindling supply of fresh water, and contaminating virtually every living creature with a witches' brew of more than 70,000 synthetic chemicals. In fact, because toxic chemicals tend to drift northward and accumulate in Arctic food chains, the breast milk of some mothers in Greenland now technically qualifies as hazardous waste.

Sound grim? Don't just sit there crying into your phthalates. There are options--choose one!

The first option is an old standby: doing nothing. Resource wars will break out, environmental refugees will swarm the globe, people--mostly poor people--will starve from drought and be wiped out by intense storms. The world's rich will survive and probably prosper (they tend to), but wealth disparities will skyrocket, presumably at a significant cost to global political stability.

A second option: Educate the world's population to the point of enlightenment so we all accept that we can live with much less, materially speaking. The rich get poor, the poor stay poor--voluntary simplicity, worldwide. Ahem.

Let's talk about the third option, then: the next industrial revolution.

Reuse, Recycle, Rejoice

For decades, environmentalists have scolded the world's industrialized societies, warning that they must grow less, consume less, slow down, sacrifice. Human nature being what it is, that message found a rather modest audience.

But a group of big thinkers has emerged in the past decade to put a new twist on the green dream--people like William McDonough, Michael Braungart, Amory Lovins, Janine Benyus, and Paul Hawken. Rather than taking ecological principles primarily as moral prohibitions, they suggest, why not see them as design challenges? Why not aim to build a democratic, market-based civilization of prosperity and plenty that puts humanity in a nurturing, rather than omnivorous, relationship with the ecosystems it inhabits? Far from utopian, they say, it's largely achievable in the next decade or so--and would ultimately cost far less than our present trajectory.

Architect McDonough and chemist Braungart, authors of the landmark book Cradle to Cradle, contend that every material used in the manufacturing process should ultimately either biodegrade harmlessly or be reusable with no loss of quality (unlike today's recycling, which is actually downcycling). This radical model entirely eliminates the concept of waste, including pollution; or, as they put it in their book: Waste equals food.

Lovins, a sustainable-energy expert and head of the Rocky Mountain Institute, a green think tank and consulting firm, is similarly fixated on eliminating waste--especially wasted energy. He estimates that preventable energy loss costs the global economy more than $1 trillion a year and argues that efficiency is the most affordable energy source in the United States. In a 2004 book, Winning the Oil Endgame (partly funded by the Pentagon), Lovins and his RMI crew lay out a market-centric strategy for weaning the United States off oil over the next couple of decades through efficiency efforts and the strategic use of existing technology. Net savings to the U.S. economy: $70 billion a year by 2025.

Green Is Green

Lofty and appealing ideas, these, but what's actually happening on the ground?

To begin with perhaps the most ambitious example: As part of the China-U.S. Center for Sustainable Development, McDonough's architectural firm is designing and overseeing construction of entire city districts in China. Some 400 million rural Chinese are expected to migrate to cities over the coming decade, and the government wants urban centers to absorb the influx with minimal ecological impact. The goal is to create dense urban areas that generate more power than they consume through smart building techniques and solar technology--a high-profile demonstration of cradle-to-cradle principles, if it actually happens.

To date, though, McDonough has made more concrete progress with corporate clients, including BASF, Nike, PepsiCo, and Ford Motor Co., which famously commissioned the architect to oversee a top-to-bottom overhaul of its historic River Rouge plant in Dearborn, Michigan.

The past few months have seen blue-chip companies tripping over themselves to go green.

In fact, the past few months have seen blue-chip companies tripping over themselves to go green. General Electric vowed to improve the energy efficiency of its operations by 4% a year and double its revenues from relatively clean products to $20 billion by 2010. Wal-Mart, which has contracted with Lovins and RMI for advice, has unveiled plans to double the fuel efficiency of its new trucks, cut greenhouse-gas emissions from existing stores by 20%, and develop a model green store. Energy giant BP just unveiled a new alternative-energy division, which it says could produce $6 billion in annual revenue by 2015.

Whole Foods announced in January that it would buy enough wind-power credits to offset energy use at all of its U.S. stores, and Starbucks, which said in 2005 that it would buy wind energy to meet 20% of electricity needs at its U.S. stores, is this year adding 10% postconsumer recycled content to its ubiquitous paper cups. That should cut the need for new tree fiber by more than 5 million pounds a year, the company says. Even McDonald's is shooting to get its first green-building certification for a restaurant in Savannah, Georgia.

These heavyweight corporations don't need a windmill to see which way the wind blows. And their sheer size means that even tentative, incremental efforts have the potential to move markets. But the most ambitious, inventive ideas are bubbling out of more agile, adaptable small and midsize companies.

Take outdoor-clothing maker Patagonia. Ten years ago, it led the pack in switching to 100% organic cotton; now it's asking folks to return their old Capilene underwear (yes, they'd like you to wash it) to be recycled into new garments.

In a similar vein, Hartmann & Forbes, which makes handwoven window coverings from sustainably grown grasses and bamboo, just launched a program to take them back at the end of their useful lives. Q Collection, an upscale furniture maker, outflanks competitors by eschewing formaldehyde, polyurethane, and flame retardants. GDiapers are made of reusable cloth with flushable, compostable inserts. IceStone is a glossy countertop material of recycled glass and concrete.

Perhaps no other area is seeing as great a flurry of development as clean energy. Solar cells are shrinking, wind turbines are getting more efficient, and hydrokinetic energy--from the natural movement of water--is being tapped as never before. Energy company Energetech, for example, is teaming up with desalination company H2AU to develop technology that harnesses wave power and uses it to make ocean water drinkable. A prototype in the waters off of Port Kembla, Australia, last year beat expectations; a full-scale version could power 1,400 homes a year, at a competitive cost, or produce 260 million gallons of potable water--with zero emissions.

There are thousands of others, small firms and startups creating nontoxic, modular, recyclable products; modeling more efficient production; reducing their pollution. As in any new wave of innovation, many--perhaps most--of these companies will fail, but each will add to the expanding store of practical wisdom.

Flushable diapers and fancy chairs notwithstanding, we will never recover the thousands of species lost, the old-growth forests and Appalachian mountaintops leveled, or the lives cut short by poisons and pollution. There is already enough carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to guarantee at least some climatic disruption.

The real engine of environmental progress will turn out to be not government action but imagination and entrepreneurial spirit.

The European Union and U.S. states and cities are picking up some of the legislative and regulatory slack, but at the national level here, action to address these problems has been anemic at best and counterproductive at worst--a collective failure of will that could come back to haunt us. But if McDonough and company are right, the real engine of environmental progress will turn out to be not government action but the imagination and entrepreneurial spirit of thousands of market-savvy, environmentally minded innovators.

As GE CEO and newly minted eco-evangelist Jeffrey Immelt is fond of saying, "Green is green."

Chip Giller is founder and editor of, an online environmental magazine. David Roberts is a senior writer.

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Few. . . "are interested in designing at the nexus of racial tension, bureaucratic apathy, confused residents, limited funding, and shoddy infrastructure (yet). . . when you give people good things, good things will come."
~Walter Hood

This Land is Your Land

The daffodils sprouting from raised beds, the bikers speeding down smoothly paved pathways, the metal bollards lining the promenade along Oakland's shimmering Lake Merritt -- all of it just pisses Walter Hood off. "Everything seems like it's dropped out of nowhere," the landscape designer says, pointing out the offenses. The newly renovated lakefront looks pleasant, much in the way most American public spaces -- downtown plazas, suburban libraries, neighborhood playgrounds -- look pleasant. "It's like, okay, we'll put in the grasses and the rocks and let's do the stupid green roof over a garbage-compactor thing," he continues. "That's the playbook of landscape architecture. But this is the centerpiece of our community. It should add up and become something larger."

Hood, obviously, did not design the park around Lake Merritt. To see what "something larger" means to him, you have to go to Lafayette Square Park, about a mile away in a poorer, less verdant part of town, where local kids play catch on a grassy, artificial hill that Hood created to echo the domed observatory it displaced. Or to the towering De Young Museum, in San Francisco, where eucalyptus appear to blossom inside the building, thanks to a series of slits in the walls. ("It feels like we're outside," one visitor remarked while peering at the flora.) Or to any of the half-dozen cities across America -- including Pittsburgh; Buffalo; Jackson, Wyoming -- where Hood is now transforming street corners and highway underpasses into public spaces that are relevant, even meaningful, to the communities they serve: black and white and brown, rich and middle class and poor. "We invest very little in the public realm, and that's sad," he says. "Because when you give people good things, good things will come."

A designer who tackles the mundane things of this world may not seem revolutionary at a time when Michael Graves is making teapots for Target, but in landscape architecture, Hood is very much breaking new ground. For decades, modernists such as George Hargreaves, Michael Van Valkenburgh, and Peter Walker -- all white, all Harvard educated -- reigned over the profession with their clean-cut office parks and pristine college campuses, much in the vein of Lake Merritt. "Then Walter came of age, and nobody knew what to do with him," says Charles Waldheim, chair of Harvard's department of landscape architecture. "He was finding value and producing meaning in places that seemingly had none."

Before Hood started designing Splash Pad Park in 1999, for example, it was a deserted traffic island under Oakland's I-580 freeway. "Some people wanted it to be a dog park, others wanted an underground creek, and a few wanted something completely different," says longtime Oakland resident Ken Katz, 67. Today, it's all of the above -- and then some. Cement tiles blanket the apron in front of an amoeba-shaped fountain, engraved with the names of the donors who made the installation possible. Grassy knolls are dotted with palm trees from the original island, as well as newly planted dogwood, a water-hungry plant that thrives off the underlying swampland. "It's a hybrid space," Hood says. "Everyone can find a way in." And they do. Every Saturday, the park hosts a massively popular farmers' market and concert series.

This is public space as Hood believes it should be: multitasking, respectful of the land, rooted in -- and watered by -- the community. "Think about the history of civilization," Hood tells me, as if I'm one of his architecture students at UC Berkeley. "The agora, the piazza, the theater, the street, the Colosseum -- we define ourselves in the public realm. And in America, our public realm is sad. We have to be told how to act." He deepens his voice. "Sit here, look there, understand this, don't walk here, don't do that. It's crazy."

Take the Oakland Museum gardens, designed by Dan Kiley, which are similar to many parks in that the grassy areas are surrounded by railings or raised concrete edges. "You can never get in them. They're always at an edge," Hood says, criticizing a "functionless aesthetic" that is "just about moving people" past green spaces, not into them. "I can never be in the garden, only on the concrete," he says.

Contrast that with Lafayette Square Park, where a semicircular wedge slopes upward from the walkway, inviting patrons onto its grassy surface. And while Hood does use these kinds of formal elements to affect the human experience, he tries to leave the rest up to the public. "I would rather design for a place that gets worn and messy than try to keep something in a pristine state that doesn't seem lived in," Hood says. Outside the De Young, we notice a museum employee on his back, napping in the middle of a large grass triangle, without anyone (or anything) telling him to keep off. "What a great picture," Hood says, smiling as he snaps one with his iPhone.

It's the ultimate validation -- a use of the space that he always intended yet never planned.

"Being a person of color," Hood says, "people tend to look at what I do, because it's outside the norm, and make special allowances." His voice changes pitch as he mocks those who pigeonhole him: " 'Oh, that's just Walter. He does the art thing, he does the inner-city thing, he does the community thing.' "

The thing is, all of that is true. Hood, 52, grew up during desegregation in Charlotte, North Carolina, and has spent more than 20 years living and working in the heart of Oakland, so he does feel a strong connection to the black community. "You'd have to be pretty dense not to have that experience affect you," he says of his childhood. He has chosen to work almost exclusively in the public realm -- no expensive condo buildings, no corporate complexes. And he has focused his work almost entirely on urban environments.

This is by choice. Hood would love to create art for art's sake -- to, as he puts it, "live on a hill in Italy, with a beautiful cantina and a nice frickin' easel and paints, and just chill." And he's talented enough that he could cash in on corporate gigs and enjoy a cushier life: His long list of accolades includes a Rome Prize and a National Design Award. But he believes he can and should do more. Besides, few others are interested in designing at the nexus of racial tension, bureaucratic apathy, confused residents, limited funding, and shoddy infrastructure.

Hood's success has come largely because he has learned to be a community whisperer, creating spaces that have elements the residents want before they even know it. "Nine times out of 10, the thing they are asking for isn't really what they want," he says, "because they're basing everything on a very particular worldview. It's my job to elevate our conversation, knowing that they're thinking like this" -- he brings his hands together -- "and I'm thinking like this" -- he spreads them apart.

The night before our tour of the Bay Area, Hood was in L.A., meeting with residents of its mostly black, middle-class Crenshaw district about the forthcoming arrival of light rail in the area. He had planned to discuss how to make the various stations more historically significant. Instead, he found himself fielding angry questions about the installation itself, because the city-hired consultants hadn't bothered to explain exactly what light rail was and how it would be built. "These people thought it was going to be just as intrusive as the freeway, because that's all they knew," he tells me, shaking his head.

Had Hood been involved from the start, he would have bussed the Crenshaw residents to San Diego, so they could see an existing system firsthand. Educating the users of his spaces and developing a dialogue with them is part of his process. For instance, in 2006, he took a group from Coliseum Gardens in southern Oakland to two creek-front parks, one a woodsy space in Berkeley and the other a more urban setting in San Jose. He expected his focus group to prefer the Berkeley site, because it was lusher and more stereotypically parklike. But they liked the one that was harder, more developed, deeming the woods "scary," to use Hood's word. "I could do my own thing," he says, "but it wouldn't be as interesting as listening to the people."

Last year, Hood was commissioned to revitalize public spaces in Pittsburgh's historically black Hill District. As soon as he got the twin gigs -- the Garden Passage, a walkway with an art installation at the city's civic arena, and a neighborhood-wide plan called the Green Print -- he hosted a barbecue and did walking tours to get a sense of the community. There were issues aplenty: rising vacancy rates, diminishing foot traffic in stores, long-standing resentment of the new civic arena (its predecessor had displaced local housing in the late '50s), and apathy among residents that stemmed, Hood says, from the belief that they live in a "derelict" community. "Except they don't," he continues. "Ecologically, these communities are the same as the suburbs. They're just suffering from neglect."

With help from a local not-for-profit, Hood collected thousands of color photographs from Hill District residents. When construction begins on the $1.5 million Garden Passage next spring, those images will be embedded in giant glass "curtains" adorning the four terraces along the steps. Hood used a similar technique with historical photos at the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Memorial in San Francisco. "The idea," he says, "is that the community that once existed in this place is brought back through another set of layers, like a great performer taking a final bow." Hence the name of the Pittsburgh piece: Curtain Call.

Hood is putting a greater emphasis on green space, too. He affectionately and euphemistically calls the Hill District "a village in the woods," but he hopes to blur the line between the village part and the woods part with, among other things, a clever deployment of flora. He's also turning the streets and corners of several major avenues into vibrant destinations, instead of mere passageways, by adding more seating and lighting. "These corners and streets are vital gathering places," says resident Celita Hickman, 48. By letting people be where they already want to be and do what they already want to do, Hood hopes to reinvigorate the corridors -- and the businesses that line them.

That Hood has not only this vision but also a notion for how to bring it to life "impressed the stew out of me," Hickman says. "He didn't get quite a blank canvas, but he really did embellish. He's a master of that. Seeing things that we don't see. Bringing out something that's already existing and beautiful, and enhancing it."

Hood is more direct, and his explanation of what he is doing summarizes his life's work well. "People were asking me the other day, 'So when is the Green Print gonna start being implemented?' " he says, flashing a grin. "The beauty of this project is it's already there. We just have to dust off the bookshelf and put the stuff back."

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Mary Parker Follett

A few thoughts from and about an amazing woman, Mary Parker Follett (management consultant, social worker), whose work inspired Peter Drucker and serves as one of many beacons that guide us here at Green Future as we move forward with the IGF project.

Mary Parker Follett Quotes
By Jone Johnson Lewis, Guide

"To free the energies of the human spirit is the high potentiality of all human association."
~Mary Parker Follett

"It seems to me that whereas power usually means power-over, the power of some person or group over some other person or group, it is possible to develop the conception of power-with, a jointly developed power, a co-active, not a coercive power."
~Mary Parker Follett

Every difference that is swept up into a bigger conception feeds and enriches society; every difference which is ignored feeds on society and eventually corrupts it."
~Mary Parker Follett

"This is the problem in business administration: how can a business be so organized that workers, managers, owners feel a collective responsibility?"
~Mary Parker Follett

"We should never allow ourselves to be bullied by "either-or." There is often the possibility of something better than either of two given alternatives."
~Mary Parker Follett

We must remember that most people are not for or against anything; the first object of getting people together is to make them respond somehow, to overcome inertia.
~Mary Parker Follett

Mary Parker Follett (1868-1933)

Mary Parker Follett (1868-1933) was a visionary and pioneering individual in the field of human relations, democratic organization, and management. Born in Massachusetts, in 1892 she entered what would become Radcliffe College, the women's branch of Harvard. She graduated from Radcliffe summa cum laude in 1898. Follett's intensive research into government while at Radcliffe was later published in her first book, The Speaker of the House of Representatives (1909), which was lauded (by, among others, Theodore Roosevelt) as the best study of this office of government ever done.

From 1900 to 1908, Follett devoted herself to social work in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston. In 1908 she became chairperson of the Women's Municipal League's Committee on Extended Use of School Buildings, and in 1911 she helped open the East Boston High School Social Center. She was instrumental in the formation of many other social centers throughout Boston. Her experience in this area helped to transform her view of democracy. Follett later served as a member of the Massachusetts Minimum Wage Board, and in 1917 she became vice-president of the National Community Center Association. By this time, however, she had turned most of her attention to writing for a wider public regarding what the social centers had taught her about democracy. In 1918 she published her second book, The New State, which is concerned with the human nature of government, democracy, and the role of local community.

In 1924, Follett published her third book, Creative Experience. This work addresses more directly the creative interaction of people through an on-going process of circular response. From this point until her death in 1933, Follett found her most enthusiastic audience in the world of business. Admiration and respect for her work grew on both sides of the Atlantic, and she became a leading management consultant. (Peter Drucker, who discovered Follett's work in the 1950's, is said to have referred to Follett as his "guru.") Her various papers and speeches in this context were published in 1942 by Henry Metcalf and Lionel Urwick in a book called Dynamic Administration. Another celebration of her work in this context is Mary Parker Follett: Prophet of Management, which was edited by Pauline Graham and published in 1995. In 1998, The New State was re-issued by Penn State Press, with a preface by Benjamin Barber. A biography of Follett, written by Joan Tonn, a professor at the College of Management, University of Massachusetts, Boston, is expected to be published next year.

Follett is increasingly recognized today as the originator, at least in the 20th century, of ideas that are today commonly accepted as "cutting edge" in organizational theory and public administration. These include the idea of seeking "win-win" solutions, community-based solutions, strength in human diversity, situational leadership, and a focus on process. However, just as her ideas were advanced for her own time, and advanced when people wrote about them decades after her death, they remain too often unrealized. We recognize them as an inspirational and guiding ideal for us today, at the beginning of the 21st century. It is the intention and the design of the Foundation's programs to continue the effort to bridge ideal and practice in a continuous process that gives rise to true freedom.

Solar for All?

Poor Families Can Go Solar Too, In California At Least
by Zachary Shahan September 23, 2010
Clean Technica

"Sustainability" is often thought of as an environmental buzz word, but when you delve into actual sustainability theory, you quickly find the idea that it's really about a proper balance between environmental needs, economic needs, and social equity. A program in San Diego I just found out about looks like it nails this balance.

The program is called MASH, or Multifamily Affordable Solar Housing, and it is using $108 million—a small portion of the $3.2 billion California Solar Initiative—to help put solar panels on low-income homes.

The MASH program's first solar installation was recently completed on Hacienda Townhomes, an affordable downtown housing complex owned and managed by the San Diego Community Housing Corporation. Some residents living there earn only $27,500 a year for a family of four.

This one project's environmental and economic benefits are substantial. The Hacienda Townhomes installation of 96 photovoltaic panels will create 34,726 kilowatt-hours of energy, cut electricity bills and, over 25 years, reduce CO2 emissions by 595 tons, "the equivalent of planting 23,812 trees or driving a small car over 2 million miles." The project created 5 temporary jobs and "justified" 3 permanent jobs.

Up to this point, the California Solar Initiative (CSI) has been taken advantage of primarily by wealthy California residents and has been criticized by those concerned about social equity. In reference to Governor Schwarzenegger's goal of creating 1 million solar homes in California, Mindy Spatt of the Utility Reform Network, a California consumer groups, said that CSI is more like "1 million solar homes for millionaires." MASH helps to address that issue. (Though, it seems to me that the portion of that CSI pie going towards MASH should be a little larger. As it is now, subtracting Hacienda Townhomes' 52 low-income units, that's 999,948 homes for millionaires.)

While solar for the rich may be more viable, the financial savings of solar for the poor are far more meaningful.

Omega Hatch, 23, is one of the residents of Hacienda Townhomes that has benefited from the new solar panels—she saw her August electricity bill fall from an average of $90 to $56. And she is extremely grateful for that. "Thank God," she told Greenwire, "because I could use the money elsewhere. I have a 7-year-old, he's about to go back to school. Any penny helps me get what I need to do for him."

In addition to this being a great boon for the low-income families that live in Hacienda Townhomes, it also happened to be the 10,000th solar installation in the San Diego Gas & Electric service area. Go San Diego!

I don't think I'm the only one who thinks we should have more such programs helping those most in need cut their electricity bills, clean their environments, and protect the global climate (I hope not). If you think a program like MASH should be implemented nationwide, don't forget to let your representatives in government know by signing the petition on the Clean Technica website.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Let's Hear It for the Little Guys

Do Something: Let's Hear It for the Little Guys
April 1, 2010
Fast Company Magazine

We're obsessed with leadership. Bookstores have entire sections devoted to leadership. Corporations spend thousands upon thousands of dollars on leadership retreats. At some universities, you can even major in leadership. Venture-capital money flows like water into the hands of founders who are labeled "visionary" and "at the vanguard." And what's sexier these days than the words "I started my own blah blah blah"?

I think we've got it wrong. We've overdone this whole leadership/founder/entrepreneur thing. And we're not spending nearly enough time crediting the folks who turn all that visionary stuff into tangible reality: the chief operating officers, the midlevel managers, the staffers. If the word didn't have a pejorative tinge to it, I guess you'd call them followers.

We degrade the very idea of followers -- lemmings! -- yet the world needs people who can follow intelligently. I am not talking about mindless armies that march in formation and shoot if their leader points down a dark hallway. The key word is "intelligently." Good followers ask good questions. They probe their leaders. They crunch the numbers to ensure that their visionary boss's gorgeous plan actually works. "But I want to be Han Solo," you say. "Who wants to be a follower?!" Exactly! We don't even have a positive iconic image for someone who isn't a leader.

This isn't just semantics. Our leadership obsession has real, unfortunate effects. For instance, there's a totally unevenly sliced pie when it comes to rewards. In wonkier terms, you'd call that a resource-allocation problem: While CEOs represent the smallest part of our labor pyramid, a disproportionate amount of time and money is spent grooming them, charting who's about to join their ranks, and celebrating "their" achievements (hello, fat pay packages!). I'm not saying we should stop honoring people like Wendy Kopp, who founded Teach for America and has led it all these years. But what about Jerry Hauser? Wait, you've never heard of him? For six years, he was the chief operating officer of Teach for America, and he's the guy whom everyone, including Wendy, credits with bringing top-notch management systems to that organization.

We have too many wannabe leaders. This doesn't sound like a bad thing -- the next generation should have dreams and ambitions. But which ones? The drive to start, grow, be in charge of something -- anything! -- has spawned a generation of people hunched over laptops at Starbucks, yearning for that big idea that will make them the next Larry or Sergey. But not everyone can create the Google of the future, and many of those who don't will think they're failures. In fact, they're just chasing the wrong dream. I recently met someone who said, "I'm the guy who makes sure the bills are paid and the numbers make sense, and I like that. I've got no desire to be the CEO." The working world would be a happier place if more of us aspired to roles that were just right -- if we valued job fit and performance at every level and stopped overemphasizing the very top.

Fundamentally, though, mine is not a touchy-feely, "workers of the world unite" argument. The underappreciation of followers has a major bottom-line consequence: crazy redundancy. You can see it in the not-for-profit sector, which has a gazillion little organizations replicating one another. We all want to run our own thing, so not-for-profits never die. As a result, we have huge inefficiency and ridiculous amounts of overlap in the sector. This is wasteful, and this is fundamentally bad business.

Honoring good followers isn't just a nice thing -- it's necessary. It's the sanest, smartest way to run your company, for-profit or not. We have to recognize that your bright ideas -- and mine -- would go nowhere without the doers. Failing to do so will make us collectively poorer, not just in spirit but in money.

Nancy Lublin, the founder of Dress for Success and CEO of DoSomething, is grateful to her team for making her look so good.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Businessman's tour de force: total philanthropy

"I try to make the poor into capitalists"
~Hal Taussig

Travel company operator gives away $6,000 salary, lives on Social Security

AP Business Writer

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Travel company operator Hal Taussig of Media, Pa., donates all of his company's profits — and his $6,000-a-year salary — to a foundation that loans money to worthy causes.

MEDIA, Pa. — Travel company operator Hal Taussig buys his clothes from thrift shops, resoles his shoes and reads magazines for free at the public library. The 83-year-old founder of Untours also gives away all of his company's profits to help the poor — more than $5 million since 1999. He is content to live on Social Security.

Taussig takes a salary of $6,000 a year from his firm, but doesn't keep it. It goes to a foundation that channels his company's profits to worthy causes in the form of low-interest loans. (About seven years ago, the IRS forced him to take a paycheck, he said, because they thought he was trying to avoid paying taxes by working for free.)

If he has money left at the end of the month in his personal bank account, he donates it. At a time of the year when many people are asked to give to the poor, Taussig provides a model for year-round giving. "I could live a very rich life on very little money. My life is richer than most rich people's lives," said Taussig. "I can really do something for humanity."

A moment of clarity
His decision to give away his wealth stems from a moment of clarity and freedom he felt when he wrote a $20,000 check — all of his money back in the 1980s — to a former landlord to buy the house they were renting. It didn't work out, but the exhilaration of not being encumbered by money stuck with him. "It was kind of an epiphany," he said. "This is where my destiny is. This is what I was meant to be."

He and his wife, Norma, live simply, in a country house in suburban Philadelphia that's nearly a century old, with two bedrooms and 2 1/2 baths. It is neither luxurious nor sparse, but a comfortable home filled with photos and knickknacks with wraparound views of trees and clothes drying on a clothes line. To cut energy use and help the environment, they don't own a dryer.

Norma Taussig uses a wheelchair after suffering a stroke years ago. They have been married for 61 years and have three children, five grandkids and five great-grandchildren.

Taussig said his marriage improved when he and his wife decided in the 1970s to keep separate bank accounts. His wife lives on Social Security and savings from her job as a school district secretary and later as an employee of Untours travel. Her salary never went above $30,000 a year.

Taussig said the house — purchased for $41,000 in 1986 and owned by his wife — is paid for and so is her 12-year-old Toyota Corolla. Taussig has his bike for transportation, which he faithfully rides to and from work every day, three miles round trip.

Quality of life vs. standard of living
He calls consumerism a "social evil" and "corrupting to our humanity" because of what he said is the false notion that having more things leads to a richer life. "Quality of life is not the same as standard of living," he said. "I couldn't afford (to buy) a car but I learned it's more fun and better for your health to ride a bike. I felt I was raising my quality of life while lowering my standard of living."

Ben Cohen, co-founder of Ben & Jerry's ice cream, met Taussig through a network of social-minded businesses and describes him as "a humble guy — not your typical CEO."

While big corporations give away more money than Taussig, Cohen said, the donation could be "one-half of 1 percent of profits while Hal gave away $5 million and that's 100 percent of his profits."

In 1999, Untours won the $250,000 Newman's Own/George Award for corporate philanthropy, given by actor Paul Newman and the late John F. Kennedy Jr., publisher of the now-defunct George magazine. The awards event was held in New York City but Taussig balked at paying the city's high hotel prices. He stayed at a youth hostel while he donated the quarter-million-dollar award to his foundation.

A hostel reaction
Kennedy's reaction to his hostel stay? "He stared at me blankly," Taussig said. The Untours Foundation loans money to groups or businesses at around the inflation rate. The current loan rate is 3.7 percent. The foundation's tax filing shows total assets of $1.8 million in 2005, the latest record available, of which $1.6 million went to 38 groups or firms. Hal Taussig is the president, and his wife is the vice president. They don't get salaries.

"I try to make the poor into capitalists," Taussig said. "They should be self-sustaining. You give them money and they run out and you have to give more. But if you give them a way to make a living, it's like teaching them how to fish rather than giving them fish."

Equal Exchange, a cooperative that buys mainly coffee, tea and cocoa from farmers around the world at "fair trade" prices and conditions, has received $70,000 from Untours. Untours bought preferred shares of the cooperative and gets paid a 5 percent annual dividend, which is put back into the foundation.

Equal Exchange buys crops of poor farmers, such as those growing coffee in the Piuran mountains of Peru, at prices above market rates, said Alistair Williamson, investment coordinator for Equal Exchange in West Bridgewater, Mass. The coffee is roasted and distributed by the co-op.

"Somewhere on the hillsides of Peru, families are inching their way out of desperate, desperate poverty," Williamson said. He said the for-profit co-op's message reflects that of social-minded businesses like Untours: "You can make a buck, and you can be decent."