Design, Technology, and Development

There is a collection of ideas with a lot of currency in modern debates on a range of issues, international development not the least of them, that see new technology and design as the solution to longstanding problems. They can be generally described as Technological Utopianism, with a notable subset that I will call Design Utopianism, because it relies on design thinking, which often utilizes new technologies, rather than the technologies themselves being the focus. For brevity’s sake, Technological and Design Utopianism will be referred to as TDU.

It is unquestionable that our world is being transformed by new technologies. This is referred to by various writer in many ways; the digital revolution, or the third industrial revolution. Thomas Friedman calls it “Globalization 3.0” in The World is Flat. We see evidence of this through changes in our daily lives, and a steady stream of innovations promising to make our lives better.

In a report for the Atlantic Council, Sherif Kamel and Chris Schroeder discuss the potential of new technologies, particularly the internet, in the context of refugee camps; “Displaced Syrians, or indeed anyone displaced in the world, can find the means to education and the pathways to self-actualization and economic opportunity with the proper access to technology.” They also point to the many efforts to design better housing and provide lighting through solar technology. It is true that many concrete problems for the poor can be addressed with new technology.

Despite this, a more critical discussion of the mechanisms driving those changes is needed, as highlighted by a series of failures in specifically those problems that seem to have a clear design or technology solution. The laissez-faire approach that sees technology as the only necessary ingredient is overly simplistic. Kamel and Schroeder point to this when discussing education in the same report, “‘New’ initiatives cannot be be well implemented by simply spending money and purchasing technology without training or clear and measurable objectives. A bad teacher with a tablet is still a bad teacher.”

A massive example of this is the failure (or at least great underperformance) of the clean water movement. Many private organizations, rightly outraged at the high disease burden and suffering caused by a lack of clean water, built wells throughout the majority world. Many others developed new pumps and filters specifically for poor areas lacking infrastructure. Often, these wells were not maintained, leading to the majority to fall out of working order. These abysmal maintenance rates show that the solution was not to simply build wells or put in filters. They were necessary, but insufficient.

A specific example from the world of clean water is PlayPumps, a much hyped design for playground equipment that would clean water for a village through the motion of children playing. It promised to relieve women and girls of the work of hand pumping water, while providing an amenity for children. It was innovative, easily understood, and drew lots of funding. Once in place, though, it became a poster-child for development failure due to requiring “play” for 27 hours a day to pump enough water for a typical village, according to The Guardian. The innovation did not solve the problem, just changed the mechanism the women and girls had to use to manually pump water. As an important note, PlayPumps has responded to this failure, and changed in constructive ways. You can follow their story further here.

Better Shelter, an IKEA funded project to build a better refugee tent using IKEA’s easy to assemble and efficient to ship approach is another example of technology and design thinking being applied to humanitarian problems. It is presented as a rational, efficient solution to the housing needs of refugees and the displaced. The features list includes solar powered lighting, durable modern materials, and tested prototypes. The focus on the the object, and how it, as an object solves a humanitarian problem fits with the tech and design utopian approach.

Mitchell Sipus, an urban planner focused on conflict areas and technology critiques this approach, and points to the weaknesses of the IKEA TDU approach:

“Architects and designers focus too much on building technology rather than social systems. A good example is a recent IKEA solution to refugee shelter. I’m sure its fine. Except it costs more to manufacture, import, and construct than any local solution. Consequently the folks who really do the work in the field have zero interest in a slick pre-packaged technology for import. It is just too expensive and will require complex logistics to procure and implement. In the meanwhile clever designers churn out sexy new refugee shelter technologies every year. This is a waste of time and money when you consider that an imported solution is impractical and the dominant socio-cultural/political/legal systems demand low-standard and cheap but scaleable solutions.”

The insufficiency in all of these cases is a lack of consideration for the patterns of behavior and context in which the objects will exist. I propose that the fundamental flaw in TDU is that it focuses on technology and design as objects and “pure” technology, rather than systems and institutions. The proper place for new technology and design is to facilitate beneficial pre-existing processes and institutions. It is a modifier that must be treated as being embedded within a system, rather than being treated as an altogether separate object.

Keller Easterling discusses this topic at length in her book, Extrastatecraft: The Power of Infrastructure Space. In brief, she argues that technologies have a disposition, or tendency to act in certain ways, which is often not the dominant or chosen narrative for that technology. While they always have that certain disposition, it is the active form which enacts that disposition. She often likens the active form to the software form of the technology, which governs the physical manifestation which we normally identify as the technology. As phrased in the preceding paragraph, it is technology as system, rather than object.

Easterling, while not using the term, identifies the key failure of TDU, with its focus on objects and products, rather than systems and active forms:

“Most urban and architectural designers — perhaps reflecting sentiments of the broader culture — are trained to work on the object forms or master plans rather than the active forms in interplay. When summoned to create an active form, designers naturally rely on what they are best trained to create — a formal object representing action or dynamic process…Or, reflecting a modernist faith in the succession of technologies, the form might be considered active only if it is coated with the newest responsive digital media.”

Active forms and the analysis used by Easterling can be difficult to grasp, largely because of how it subverts traditional thinking about technology and design, but is a powerful tool for describing why outcomes of new technology fails to match the designer’s expectations.

A non-spatial example of disposition, and the attempt to design an active form can be seen in the story of Wael Ghonim and the role of social media in the 2011 Egyptian revolution. Ghonim ran an influential Facebook page during the revolution. At first he believed that the internet would lead to freedom, but found that it instead became destructive due to the way it amplified radical, partisan voices. The disposition of the technology leads to hyperbole and polarisation, which is very different from the promises of internet based utopia.

Ghonim now is working on designing a social media platform with a different disposition, the success of which has yet to be seen, but is promising because he is focused on the active form.

TDU’s failure is that it treats all technology as positive, rather than seeing the various dispositions that can lead to either beneficial or negative outcomes. By focusing on systems and active forms, designers and technologists would become more aware of the effects of technology. Easterling sums up this potential:

“Active form is not a modernist proposition; it does not replace or succeed object form but rather augments it with additional powers and artistic pleasures. The potential for both kinds of form is always present in any design. Using either is an artistic choice…A design idea for suburbia becomes more powerful when it is positioned as a multiplier that effects a population of houses. An urban scheme designed as a governor has a greater likelihood of remaining in place to influence growth.”

Originally published at on February 24, 2016.