This past May 3rd I was selected to audition for the TEDxSMU conference. This gave me the opportunity to present for the first time a collection of design ideas that I think are a very cost effective way to address the problem of housing and living conditions of the poor. For this problem I tested my philosophy that solutions to problems can many times be found by connecting things together in a new way.
Now just imagine... 80% of humanity lives on less than $10/day. If you are part of the world's lowest socioeconomic level you may live on a house that can barely be called that. It's a collection of sticks, cardboard, plastic sheet. A dirt floor, no water, electricity or sewage.
In 2009 I had the fortune to travel to Tulancingo, Mexico to visit one of the work sites of the organization Un Techo Para Mi Pais (A roof for my country). This is an organization that provides housing for families in Latin America that live like this. In one weekend they can build a sturdy plywood one-room house using what I call American-style construction methods.
These houses are spartan: 4 walls, a floor and a roof. But they completely change the lives of the families that live in them. I still remember the faces of the families that had just received their new houses and the pride they had when they showed them to us.
In 2010 I learned of a challenge to the world's design community to present a design for a house that would cost less than $300 to build. Many very interesting designs were proposed, but I could not help noticing that one of the winning designs was very similar to the houses that Un Techo Para Mi Pais has already made a reality.
Now, I am an engineer, and I tend to focus on the details. While the challenge is now over, I believe that there were shortcomings in the designs in that they only took into account the structural aspects of the house and not the entire quality of life. So I asked myself some questions: Where will they cook? Where will they go to the bathroom? Where can they store milk, meat? For many of these questions the answer was a hole in the ground outside. Thus, while these families have solved a basic need of shelter, but they still have other basic needs to have a minimum quality of life. You know what happens that once you become aware of something you start seeing a lot more of it. Thus I started a search for solutions everywhere. An one by one they started to appear.
An organization called Helps international has designed a cinder block stove called the ONIL stove that is used extensively in Guatemala. It is an incredibly efficient stove that requires 70% less wood to cook, it is relatively easy to build and low cost. The materials used are simple construction materials. What is unique is the design, specifically the simplicity of the design. The families that have this stove can have it inside their house and the need to collect or buy wood or coal is significantly reduced.
Now to the problem of food storage. Turns out that in India an inventor designed a refrigerator that works with no electricity. It is made of ceramic and cools via water evaporation. It will extend the shelf life of perishable foods 1 or 2 days. Now you may say that does not sound very much. But when you have to walk one hour each way to go to the store and this may allow you to cut back trips to the store from every day to every other day your life is changed. And again, the solution was simple design. No fancy technology, solar panels that can break and cannot be replaced.
Then to the last piece of the puzzle. During the recent screening of TEDxChange a designer from IDEO told the story of the creation of the "easy latrine", a simple solution to the challenge of how to manage human waste. This is a product now used in Cambodia and it is a great story on how to do product design that truly involves the communities that will use it. It is again simple, easy to build and low cost.
Now think of this as a package: House design from Mexico, stove from Guatemala, refrigerator from India, latrine from Cambodia. Simple, low cost, effective and proven global design solutions that do not require exotic technology but that combined can dramatically improve the quality of life of people around the world.