Ten Questions about “the Base of the Pyramid population” Wes Janz I. Whose vantage point is privileged when we speak of “the base of the pyramid”? Whose construction of “base” and “pyramid” are we talking about? Can we say with confidence that the people (not “population”) at “the base of the pyramid” consider themselves to be at “the base of the pyramid” that we have designed? Who are the 2.5 billion people at “the base of the pyramid”? What sorts of meaningful generalizations can be made about one-third of the planet’s residents? Is it possible -- is it essential -- to have some specific insights about the “the base of the pyramid population”? We’re very comfortable with numeric, quantitative measures – “over 2.5 billion people” and “under $2.50 a day.” Might some small understanding of another person’s life provide inspiration, insight, and humility? And might it elicit caution, reluctance, or disengagement? What do the people at “the base of the pyramid” know? What is their knowledge, what sorts of intelligences do they have? What do they know that others with knowledge about “extreme affordability” don’t know? Is it possible to provide approaches from within their knowledges? Or do we expect someone else to change in order for our well-intentioned offerings to succeed (on our terms)?
Are we sympathetic or empathetic towards the people we view as living at “the base of the pyramid”? That is, are you interested because you feel sorry for them or because you want to better understand someone else as a way to better understand yourself? Here, I like the perspectives offered by David Stairs in his “Why Design Won’t Save the World” post for Design Observer. In his writing, Stairs leverages his experiences at the “Design for the Other 90%” show at the Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum (2007) into a commentary about “the challenge facing outsiders, who cannot begin to imagine the vicissitudes of life in such distant places.” He frames three critiques: remote experience often leads to remote solutions; a belief by designers that technology can, more often than not, provide the solution; and “gargantuan thinking,” i.e., thinking we should and could house the world’s poorest people, eliminate disease, or halt global warming, just for example. Possible alternatives, according to Stairs? Recognizing that we don’t need to remake other people or their societies in our image and likeness, living among other people, and “education is also a wonderful access point … but how many design curricula are supporting, let alone implement such global initiatives?” II. How is our work complicated, as members of a university culture, when we are concerned with “the base of the pyramid population”? That is, do our loyalties reside within academia (with tenuring processes, demands for funded research, aspirations for named professorships), within our practice protocols (licensing, advancement to fellow’s status, having our work featured in professional journals), or with the local people?
Can engineering, architecture, and design education be transformed to focus on humanitarian problems and the improvement of the lives of those typically seen as being inneed? What sort of evolution is imagined, is possible, is required in order for us to become more socially focused and responsible? Do good models exist? Every day I remember something said to me by a woman on the sidewalk in East St. Louis, Illinois, one of the USA’s most distressed cities: “Professor, we don’t need to be studied. We need help.” How, then, should we help? III. Is "socially responsible design" practice different than any other kind of design practice? Can practitioners be socially responsible? Are non-profit and for-profit our only options? And, who is making a living doing such work? Are any recent graduates paying off student loans while working on the ground at “the base of the pyramid”? To what extent does the “top of the pyramid” entrap all of us, limit all of us, define the practices of all of us? I agree with Margaret Crawford who wrote in her 1995 article “Can Architects be Socially Responsible?” that practitioners can not be socially responsible because 1) we are too concerned with economics, what Crawford terms “compromised practice” – deadlines, office overhead, per square foot costs, developers, timesheets, and marketing dominate -- and 2) professors are too comfortable talking in school while practicing “esoteric philosophies of inaction.”
Crawford’s suggestions? Biography (getting to know another person) and stopping our reliance on new material systems – on technology – when considering how we can imagine and implement new futures for ourselves and alongside others. IV. And a final question: is the sort of engagement considered by this workshop more important to “us” than it is to the people that are being categorized as being at “the Base of the Pyramid”? Do we need them more than they need us? Here, I like this quote from the homeless man John, as posted on the Archidose blogspot in early 2004: “no matter what architects do, somebody else is doing something more interesting than architects would ever dream of.” Thank you.