It all started with a blog post over at Harvard Business Review by Vijay Govindrajan of Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business and marketing consultant Christian Sarkar on the the idea of designing a “$300-House-for-the-Poor”: a mass-produced, standardized and disaster-resistant structure conceived as a for-profit model that would make the poor owners of their homes, rather than recipients of charity.
As we see ever increasingly in this age of global activism, the initiative struck a chord with the design community at large, and next thing a $300 House Open Design Challenge was up and running and a $25,000 prize up for grabs. As word flew fast across the web, the contest picked up speed, garnering 300 submissions from around the world and enabling the participation of esteemed jury members like Yves Behar and Umair Haque. The challenge chose its winners and now plans to create the first prototypes for a pilot project in the field, specifically for India, Haiti and Indonesia.
Iniatives like these are always positive in the sense that they demonstrate a willingness to put innovation at the service of the greater good. But we must always be careful to not get so caught up in our good intentions that we lose sight of the very complex issues that these challenges face and forget to approach them in a critically constructive manner. Though the $300 House idea may well deserve the praise it has won from the likes of The Economist and Fast Company, it is also important to take a close look at its critics. The debate that these triggered offers valuable insight for designers, architects, and the general public in understanding the very real and often overlooked implications of designing for the poor:
- Hands Off Our Houses – In this NY Times Op-Ed by the co-founders of the Institute of Urbanology, Matias Echanove and Rahul Srivastava argue that “the $300 house responds to our misconceptions more than to real needs,” citing that it would be better suited as a short-term shelter rather than a permanent home.
- The $300 House: A Hands-On Approach to a Wicked Problem – A rebuttal to the NY Times Op-Ed piece by the $300 House creators, defending the for-profit model as both a business and social solution and affirming the inclusion of the poor community in the design process.
- The $300 House: A real solution or a utopic exercise – A great review that analyzes the previous articles and emphasizes the idea’s failure to address the preservation of community and pre-existing commercial and living patterns. They give a great example of a failed case study and offer a array of links to related articles.
- $300 Slum House? Worthy but Worthless – From the UC Berkely Blog, Jason Corburn, associate professor of city and regional planning criticizes the one-size-fits-all notion and its failure “to grapple with the complex relationships in informal settlements between housing, land rights, economic opportunities, gender rights, health and safety”.
- $300 House Might be a Disaster Solution, not a Social Solution – This article also cites previous articles, points out the failure of previous slum removal efforts in Delhi, and draws a parallel to post-Katrina New Orleans.
- This thread on the $300 House Googlegroups forum not only demonstrates an effort on the part of both the initiative and the audience to engage in a discussion about the viability of the $300 House, but also delivers detailed insight into very specific yet crucial details that we often take for granted. As commentor Hugo de Toronja points out, “It’s surprisingly easy for altruistic projects such as yours to have lethal unintended consequences for the world’s most vulnerable populations,” giving examples that address critical technical and cultural nuances.
We hope this brief rundown serves as a useful overview of a (hopefully) ongoing debate on what is just one of a myriad of humanitarian initiatives taking root in the design world today. In an unjust and complex world where philanthropy is the new business model, we need critical debate to keep our good intentions in check, lest they betray us, or worse, those whom our intention it was to help in the first place.