The politics of design for the developing world.

Written by Andrew Rens on November 19th, 2013

Wired has put together a list of designs for the developing world. It includes a gravity fed drip system for farming, a passive vaccine cooler and no waste/no spoilage milk jug for dairy farmers.

I like the designs, and I think that you will too. Form actually follows function, there is a relentless paring down of inessentials and they are intended to empower people. Those are all factors of good design. They are also mostly built to last despite tough handling and environmentally friendly, re-using water and sometimes relying on solar power. This is by necessity. If they are too be any good at all in most developing country contexts then there aren’t reliable (or any) power grids, water supplies and sewage systems.

And that suggest that one reason why changing developed country lifestyles to be more enviromentally friendly is the successes of the past, the creation of ccentralised systems for power, water, water and sewage. Without these successes (and vaccines) it simply wouldn’t have been possible to create large cities. But these systems create a great deal of interdependence between components, as a result its hard to change. One lesson from good design for the developing world is that self dependent systems are likely more robust and environmentally sustainable (because self sustaining). Centralised systems have a political logic, the same political logic that seeks to centralise poltical power in the nation state.

While the artefacts of the designs are stand-alone, the production processes are not. Instead they rely on the same centrally controlled systems, complexely inter-dependent systems for capital, production and distribution. While the products tend to escape the political logic of globalisation the production processes do not.

Addition:After writing this post I discovered Jason Kass writing about the same set of concerns in the New York Times Opinion pages.


Opening Legislation: Open By-Laws South Africa and the Madison Project

Written by Andrew Rens on October 21st, 2013

The Open legal information movement dates back (at least) to 1992, with the creation of what became the Legal Information Institute at Cornell. In Africa the Southern African Legal Information Institutes hosts court decisions from most Southern African jurisdictions (Angola to Zimbabwe), while the African Legal Information Institute assists and supports new and existing legal information institutes across Africa. I am fan of these efforts. They do a great job under severe resource constraints. There is quite a range of primary legal sources and its hard for any one project to cover them all. That is why it is encouraging to see the emergence of Open ByLaws South Africa.

The project, pioneered by by Greg Kemp currently hosts Cape Town by-laws. What has Greg excited is the possibilities that making laws digital holds:

“We can show the definitions of specifically defined terms in the context of where they’re used. We can have multiple presentations for each by-law: one for a smartphone, one for a laptop, a PDF, plain-text, a website or even a book. Those forms can evolve and adapt as their demand changes. … We can now use machine or crowd-sourced translation to translate them into the rest of South Africa’s 11 official languages.”

Another set of rather different possibilities is available for legislation before it become legislation. Brazil pioneered this approach with the Marco Civil, an online forum with a mandate from the Brazilian Congress to crowdsource the development of an ‘online Bill of Rights’. Inspired by this approach the Open Government Foundation in the United States has created the Madison project, which makes available Federal Bills for comment and indeed remix. The project doesn’t have the same mandate which the Marco Civil was given but should enable experts and interested people to assist in improving legislation. That is of course dependant on the extent to which popular and expert voices can be heard in the political process. Although a admirable example of best practise in digital co-writing in a multi-stakeholder environment it has been stalled by vested interests. That shouldn’t be read as a defect of such inititiaves, to the extent that they demonstrate the capture of political processes they are successful in creating pressure for change.

There is a third set of possibilities opened up by digitisation of law, the creation of feedback loop for existing laws, I’ve blogged about that here, here, and here.