How design challenges social and economic inequality

An exhibition at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum highlights how design can challenge social and economic inequality in our country. Curator of the exhibit Cynthia Smith conducted more than two years of field research in search of collaborative designs for more equitable inclusive and sustainable counities.


The impact of great design can be seen across the nation.

An exhibition at the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum, 'By the People,' highlights how design can even challenge social and economic inequality in our country.

Curator of the exhibit, Cynthia E. Smith, conducted more than two years of field research in search of collaborative designs for more equitable, inclusive, and sustainable communities, and she's here with me now to discuss the project.

So, what makes good design?

I think it's a combination of innovation addressing -- especially in these particular designs that were included in the exhibition -- address real-world problems, solve issues, and really address complex and systemic issues that are confronting the United States today.

But it seems less about the designer and more about the sort of population or community that is going to interact with it or be served by it, too.


Most of the designs in the exhibition were created in collaboration with communities.

You end up with a much more resilient and sustainable and something that really reflects the needs of the community directly.

And what's interesting about this exhibit is this isn't just about architecture, it's not just about the spaces created, but it's really -- I mean, you have one, the mobile market on wheels in Chicago, and then different type of wheels that almost looks like an Erector Set, but a pedal-powered cultivator, right?

So what was the thinking behind all these different objects and what do they have in common?

I think, across the board, the designers are thinking of ways to share resources more broadly to create more just and equitable communities.

So how does this address that question that you have is how can design address the world's most critical issues with funtionable, affordable solutions?

It takes a range of approaches and strategies.

You have something like the Farm Hack Culticycle, where a group of young farmers decided that they wanted to improve agriculture in the United States.

Agriculture is -- with climate change, extended growing seasons, large industrial farms, and so they came together and said, 'We could share knowledge further,' and so they created an online database, where they have collected and disseminate over 150 machine tools.

The one that we have on display in the exhibition is the cultivator, which -- Actually, they call it the Culticycle, which is a cultivator, but it's essentially a tractor that can be adapted very easily, and then offline, they come together in these Farm Hack events, where young farmers, hackers, makers, engineers, designers get together and build them and add high technology to this very low-tech machine, so it's pedal-powered.

Anybody can use it.

They add a tablet to it, a digital tablet, where they can map the terrain, test the soil, and so it's combining both high-tech and low-tech technology with science to transform agriculture in the United States so it's more resilient and adaptive.

In a way, it's kind of the fundamentals of what the country was built on -- really, almost what any society's built on.

They have a problem, they figure out how to solve it.

They come together, they share the wealth and the result.


And I think you pointed out another one, the one in Chicago.

This was a group of young architects that partnered with community advocates to take old city buses and transform them into one-aisle produce markets that they took into food deserts.

Now, food deserts, for people who don't know, are places where brick-and-mortar stores don't exist, so people have to buy at a local bodega or market, and so they went in and brought these old city buses outfitted with fresh produce, bringing health messages.

The Mayor, the current Mayor right now, is hoping to eradicate all of the food deserts throughout Chicago.

Obviously, full-time stores would be great, but this is a great stop-gap in between, and the idea can scale.

A lot of these ideas are not limited to the spaces that you found them in.


With the mobile markets, the produce markets, they found that there was demand there, so brick-and-mortar stores actually began to move in, so there was real impact using this innovative design.

I would say, also, one of the other designs that's included in the exhibition is text4baby, which has become very popular, and it scaled up very, very quickly.

And for people who don't know what it is, this is for expecting mothers to get information at just the right amount of time as they're progressing through their pregnancy, right?

Yes, timed to whatever month that they are.

Get this checkup, go to this to make sure you're checking in with this doctor or you're having these vitamins, or whatever it was, right?

And what was interesting, I thought, and one of the reasons I included it in the exhibition, the idea came out of Africa and South America, that this designer was working in those places, and he was delivering health messages, and it wasn't happening here in the U.S., and so he brought this idea back to the U.S., partnered with the Centers for Disease Control so we have scientific messages, the Wireless Foundation and mobile carriers so they're delivered free, the White House Office of Science and Technology -- so they came up with a broad strategy, and over a million mothers are receiving them now, and they're very effective.

A recent study found that mothers who were scheduled to have vaccinations, they received a message, they were two times more likely to have the vaccinations.

So it's effective.

And it's great design.

Cynthia Smith from the Cooper Hewitt, thanks for joining us.

Thank you.