Drew Smith: ethnographer, strategist and host of Rising Minds

NGOs, SUVs and a useful student project


I recently commented on the dearth of useful, innovative concepts at student transport design shows, in particular at the Pforzheim winter show I visited in February.

Today I read this blog posting (found via Twitter) from Stephanie over at From Kala. She’s a project manager for an NGO, working in a refugee camp in Zambia and her observations gave me a flash of inspiration for a socially oriented student project.

Stephanie outlined the problems that the use of SUVs present for both those working for NGOs and those being helped by them. In brief they are:

1. SUVs foster an “us and them” or “developer and developee” mentality by elevating and separating the NGO employees from those that they are meant to be protecting and assisting.

2. SUVs have a destructive effect on the minimal transport infrastructure that exists between the refugee camps and town centres. The problem is exacerbated in the rainy season when the combination of the SUVs ability to ride roughshod over already poor roads and the saturation of the roadbed leads to potholes that make it almost impossible for local vehicles, mostly bicycles and regular cars, to pass. Putting the parlous state of the roads and the gap this creates between the outsiders and the locals in perspective, Stephanie says:

“If I hitch a ride in one of these white monsters, it takes us about 25 minutes to drive to the camp. If I hire a taxi… , it takes more than an hour, nearly as long as it takes to bike.”

Clearly SUVs will have some benefits in these environments but the social and infrastructural impacts of their use makes me wonder if there isn’t a smarter solution than using an off-the-shelf SUV product.

To actively encourage transport design students to pursue a project that looks deeply at both social context and appropriate product fit is, in my experience, pretty unusual. In the product design realm, it’s a different story however. Case in point is Play Made Energy, initiated by Dan Sheridan.

A Coventry University MDes (product) student, Dan recently completed his major project with the assistance of Aventure, a charity and volunteer placement enterprise, to develop power-generating play equipment for a community in Uganda. He’s now secured funding from a consortium of investors and a local innovation investment initiative that will allow his company to start implementing the product on a broader scale within Ugandan schools, in partnership the the Build A School charity.

Obviously, designing an SUV replacement is a task of significantly greater complexity, and one that is unlikely to have such an immediate impact, but Dan’s example shows that well-considered work at the student level can have far-reaching effects, not least on the student themselves. Dan himself talks of the difficulties and rewards of having undertaken such a project but his success is testament to his growth as a designer who is increasingly aware of his social responsibilities.

A socially oriented project can only be helpful for the transport designers of the future by requiring them to deeply consider the consequences of their work. It would also help them understand real-world contexts as opposed to those that are created to support the Utopian vision of gran turismos, extreme off-road vehicles and track specials that continue, by and large, to fill the halls of student exhibitions.

So, those of you out there in design education, what do you think? Is this something you’d like to take on, or do you know of university transport design programs already dealing with broader social issues? If so, myself and the NGO community would love to hear from you.

[Image: John & Mel Kots]

Category: Car, Design, Design Education, Design Strategy, Eco

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One Response

  1. […] as the perfect choice for the third-world wealthy looking to crush everything before them on their (unpaved) road to […]

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© Andrew Philip Artois Smith and DownsideUpDesign, 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Andrew/Drew Smith and DownsideUpDesign with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.