Light graffiti made with Little Sun at Tate Modern, London, 2012 Photograph: Olafur Eliasson
Light graffiti made with Little Sun at Tate Modern, London, 2012

The more you think about it, the sillier and crueller it seems. There are seven billion people on this planet, fewer than 10% of whom can afford basic products and services. Half of the others, more than three billion people, do not have regular access to shelter, food or clean water, and the rest are struggling to get by. Their circumstances are so tenuous that one problem often spawns another: someone living without electricity not only faces the difficulty of finding alternative sources of light, heat and cooking fuel, but may have to take time off from paid work or school to do so, thereby plunging them and their dependents deeper into poverty.

Yet the bulk of the world’s resources, not only in the material sense, but in terms of industrial and technological innovation, is focussed on enhancing the wellbeing of the richest minority, rather than the tragically underprivileged majority, “the other ninety per cent”, whose needs are so much greater. One of the most heartening developments within the creative community in recent years has been a growing desire to redress this imbalance among designers, artists, architects, engineers and technologists in developed and developing economies alike.

Not that their predecessors neglected the needy entirely. The geodesic dome devised by the maverick American designer, Richard Buckminster Fuller, in the late 1940s at a Black Mountain College summer school has since provided sorely needed shelter for hundreds of thousands of people. While Marie Neurath and her fellow information designers at the Isotype Institute played an important part in helping to educate the people of Western Nigeria about their new electoral rights and access to health care and education during the 1950s when it was preparing for independence after decades of British colonialism.

Such initiatives are now increasingly common, and more ambitious. Volunteer networks, like Architecture for Humanity and Ingénieurs Sans Frontières, are enabling architects and engineers to devote all or part of their time to humanitarian design projects all over the world. Other projects respond to specific problems, as Little Sun is doing by addressing the need for alternative forms of lighting in off-grid communities, and the BioLite team by designing a cleaner, safer cooking stove. A new genre of design entrepreneurs is emerging within developing economies who are committed to supporting and empowering their compatriots, as Sanga Moses is doing in Uganda by establishing Eco-fuel Africa as a source of inexpensive, organic cooking fuel.

The challenges are huge. Ensuring that a new type of fuel or lighting can be produced cost-effectively in a way meets the needs of millions of people, many with very different requirements, is difficult enough, but such projects must also be designed to be sustainable in complex, often volatile conditions, for example, by making provision for repairs, maintenance and responsible disposal. Not that such difficulties should deter anyone from the essential human endeavour of empowering “the other ninety per cent”.

Alice Rawsthorn
Design critic of the International Herald Tribune, London, UK