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Designing Technology From Dust to Dust (Not Cradle to Cradle)

Tech companies might take responsibility for the workers who manufacture their goods, but do they ever think about the guy in Ghana who will buy a used mobile phone from his cousin in Canada?  What about the person inhaling toxic vapors melting down a disposed laptop 10 years after its release to sell the raw aluminum in Lagos? There are also thousands of entrepreneurs throughout the world who make a living by repairing small electronics, are they part of the equation when deciding how to lodge a battery in a tablet?

It is rare among designers to have deeper knowledge and connection to the places and people who extract raw materials for the earth and process them into materials for design.  Yet when I talk to designers about the desire to better understand the supply chains and life-cycle of their products, they are enthusiastic and want to know about these human interactions, but lack much information.  Certainly there is much to research in this area, but much work has already been done, at least enough to expand the way designers think.
Among social anthropologists, there is deep familiarity and research in the cultures around mining for resources, their collection, local marketing and distribution. An obvious "go-to" is the zabalyn community of Cairo scavenging, repairing, and reselling consumer goods.  But throughout the world, newer models of this practice have arisen that are strongly tied to technology rather than basic consumerism. A good example can be found in the Agbogbloshie dumps of Accra Ghana. Some of the more interesting research has uncovered relationships between this method of economic survival and local mysticism. From the collision of technology and local tradition is the emergence of email scamming that is locally conceptualized as experiments in magic .

Looking at this particular case study as a designer, it is suddenly clear that the objects we craft and send into the world do not only live in the hands and homes of a single buyer - typically predetermined via persona creation.  Rather my work might have multiple lives, resurrected anew by different actors in different geographies, than ever intended.  
Unfortunately, the knowledge these emerging cultures and practices in relation to technology creation and depletion remains ignored by corporations, design schools, and even the scientific community dedicated to scientific knowledge generated within low-income nations - as evidenced by DevNet. And in darker corners of the world, there are now places - such as in Batou Mongolia - where the death of technology does not even facilitate the creation of new social and economic activity, but can only poison the people and land. Designers do not directly contribute to such environmental atrocities, but are they not somewhat accountable?
Global Witness
It is challenging to design for the afterlife of a product, but it is certainly more doable to design according to the inputs. In the last ten years, there have been efforts to make companies more responsible for supply chains and material sourcing. John Pennderghast founded the Enough Project with the intent to end crimes against humanity with a focus on conflict minerals.  Other organizations have also risen to the task, including Verite, Global Witness, and Moabi. 
The Enough Project successfully lobbied for the creation and implementation corporate responsibility relating to supply chains within the Dodd Frank Act. By law, corporations have been responsible to regularly report and make public the communities, locations, and suppliers that create and allocate the goods for production. 
But like any law, there are no clear standards on the implementation of this law, and consequently, the degree of depth and general level of responsibility enacted by corporations has varied. In best case scenarios attention has been drawn to the quality of life for workers  and in the worse case, nothing has changed at the actual sourcing or economic processing of raw materials.
It seems that we cannot rely exclusively upon law, or NGOs, to facilitate the responsible design of technology to reduce harm. That responsibility rests on the shoulders of designers. The knowledge is out there, but we need to make the connections so as not to just design for the person who buys a new phone or a new watch, but to design for the people that took part in bringing that piece of technology to life and who will again breath life into it, or harvest its organs, upon its first death. As designers we might not be able to design away all the bad systems of our world, but at least we can design the world so as to change them.

Development Makes A Strange Bedfellow

"Bengali Friends" in  Bangladesh  by David Lazar.
Guest Post by Thomas Lasseau

There is an old Bangladeshi saying that goes, "you can't take out the trash without getting your hands dirty." On a previous visit to Bangladesh to work in microfinance in 2009, my fellow interns and I found ourselves staring into the twin barrels of a sawed-off shotgun, wielded by a man with a police badge, blue jeans and flip flops. We had rented ATVs to explore Cox's Bazar, the longest beach in the world, and this man was claiming, in screamed Bengali, that for this infraction we owed him a "fine."

After paying him off and returning from our adventure, an argument ensued with the owners of the ATVs about who should internalize the cost of the bribe. After much haggling, it was divided between our cost of rental and the owner's cost of doing business, but we still left suspicious of an even bigger con. Needless to say, on a national level, the World Bank recently declined to loan Bangladesh $2 billion to build a bridge on account of a $17 million dollar "fine" required to grease the gears of construction.

Although it's dangerous to generalize about poverty, conflict zones and authoritarian regimes, a delicately stated common theme appears to be the mismanagement and misappropriation of national assets. Counterproductive resource allocations are visible in the global struggles between squatters, landowners and developers, in the violent seizing and reseizing of Africa's diamond territories, and in the pilfering of aid money by corrupt bureaucracies.

I believe the Bangladeshi proverb rings true insofar as we have to make the initial assumption that the governance of communal resources in extreme economic and political conditions has "fallen into the wrong hands." The tragic result of this grand misallocation of capital is that the majority stakeholders on the other side of the table (or the sawed-off shotgun as the case may be) have every reason to hold on fast, unless we can change their incentives.

The success of any process of disarmament, reconstruction, regime change or wealth redistribution hinges on the incentives of its participants who have the most to lose (whether inherited or acquired). Consequently, unless forcing new incentives through revolution or armed intervention (neither the province of the planner), the war criminals and corrupt officials of the world are our necessary allies in the philanthropic cause. The obvious risk of this acknowledgement is that in forging these alliances we become partners in corruption and crime.

So if successful development work is necessarily transactional, this means that we, as development workers, must learn to trade in trade-offs. How can we structure the deal to keep our hands as clean as possible while still actually helping people? The collateral damage can be measured by the degree of opportunity for taking back what's being given away. The trick is to somehow work against, while working with, but not working for the kleptocrat or militia on the other side of the deal. The sensitivity of this balance is why so many development projects merely perpetuate the crippling inequities they set out to fix.

Extreme conditions are tough on the stomach in more ways than one. Working in them is fundamentally a question of amplitude. In my legal training, I'm being taught to represent my client's interests against hostile forces with friendly professionalism. This training in civility has been invaluable. Cultivating the level of clarity and compassion necessary to negotiate amiably, no matter the stakes, is a lofty goal. I'm still a long way away, but I approach it like a kind of yoga. It may take years to finally touch your toes, but every inch counts.

In building the multidisciplinary toolkit required for improving urban living, I've studied and worked in architectural design, green building, development economics, finance, governance, real estate and contract law. While I believe that each of these is an essential piece of the puzzle, the secret sauce that ultimately coheres these ingredients is the human element that isn't taught in school.

Good analogies for trying to improve the distribution of resources are at worst piratical parleys, and are at best legal representation in settlement negotiations. At best, your clients get damages and injunctions and the guilty party gets off the hook. At worst, you have to somehow pay the dictator more to go away than they can make by staying and oppressing (e.g. fire sale privatizations only benefitting the former regime and multinational capital).

The practical balance lies somewhere between these poles. The necessary alliances must be built on common ground. Building the common ground is where our work begins. The most violent and oppressive people in the world, whether acting from greed, hate, fear or desperation, are also human. We should start there, no matter how reluctant we may be to do so. We need to be able to make friends with the warlord before we can convince him to build sewers and hospitals instead of buying more guns.

Thomas Lasseau is currently a law student at the UCLA School of Law.   He previously worked with Grameen Bank in Bangladesh and studied economics and art at Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design.