Hans Rosling, a guru of development data and TED star, has for decades asked people around the world what they know about international development. The results are not good:
In the 1990s, a professor at a medical university in Stockholm decided to test his students’ knowledge about the progress of global development. He was staggered to discover the class, some of the brightest people in Sweden, scored fewer than two out of five on average…
That academic was Hans Rosling, Professor of Global Health at the Karolinska Institutet and a medical doctor who had carried out decades of research in Africa, discovering the complexities of the continent (and a new disease) along the way…
Rosling has been on a mission to inform since the realization that his students — and his fellow professors — were somewhat woefully informed about the state of the world. Today CNN publishes Rosling’s latest survey of the United States which shows Americans, like most of the world, are far behind the reality in their understanding of world development but ahead of some — for example, Swedes…
In 2005, he co-founded the Gapminder Foundation, which aims to “promote a fact-based world view.” The following year, Rosling spoke at a conference run by TED — the non profit organization “devoted to ideas worth spreading.”…
Rosling realized the concept of “developed” and “developing” countries was hindering understanding of the emerging world, giving an impression of remaining homogeneity of a so-called “developing world”.
Nothing that an introduction to sociology course couldn’t help.
While Rosling wants to focus on facts (and there are some improving figures in the global fight against some major problems), I wonder if it isn’t also about getting people in the developed world to pay attention to the bigger picture. To be honest, many Americans, residents of Sweden, and people in other first-world countries don’t always have to know or consider what is going on in the rest of the world. For example, American media discussion of foreign countries is often pretty woeful and often presents a very American perspective. It is a luxury of being in a wealthier nation as your life is in decent shape (in global comparison).
I just saw the end of a House Hunters International episode on HGTV and heard a justification for buying in a more tropical location that is often used on the show: it is good to expose kids to other cultures. On one hand, there may be some truth to this: the kids may indeed meet people very different from themselves as well as see other social and cultural practices. This exposure might be more significant if the family is living in the the new location full-time, as was the case in this episode as the father had a new job, versus flying to the location a few times a year for vacation.
However, there are some factors that are working against this significant exposure:
1. The family typically buys in a Western-style housing complex. This suggests they may be living more near other internationals or at least near more people with money.
2. The families typically are people of means, those who can afford to purchase a second home or have the kind of jobs that transfer them to foreign locales. This status would particularly stand out in developing countries.
3. At least on the show (which is not a good depiction of reality), the families are not typically shown doing “normal” things in the new society in which they live. No trips to the grocery store or market, hanging out in local eating establishments, or participating in social life with people who look different than themselves. Instead, we typically see shots of them on the beach or at the pool or enjoying their home.
In the end, I’m skeptical about the level of exposure to other cultures. This sounds like wealthier Westerners wanting some diversity on their terms and social standing.
Here is an interesting discussion of how some architects are looking to third-world slums for innovations in design:
The lofty vision of “Favela Cloud” touches upon several trends cycling through architecture today. First, it responds to the rising popularity of “architecture for social change,” for which the profession nobly renounces its service to the rich to address the issues of the poor. But the “Cloud” purportedly distinguishes itself from more conventional do-good design because its principle source of inspiration is the slum itself. As eVolo explains, the success of the design hinges on its “additive system that can grow and adapt to its site conditions,” motivated by the existing self-organizing logic of the favela. In other words, the intervention draws from the social and organizational qualities characteristic of the very environment it seeks to improve, a methodology that has its own backstory in architectural discourse, as I’ll explore later. By returning to its point of departure and theoretically folding back into itself, the shiny edifice straddling Santa Marta brings into question if and how architecture can intervene in communities that have developed in the abject absence of a welfare state…
With basic rights to food, potable water, and shelter categorically denied to slumdwellers, decent public architecture is but a pipe dream. Without functioning infrastructure, working sewage systems, proper housing, and designated civic spaces, slum-dwellers are forced to engineer their own systems of order. Waste from the city proper is salvaged in the slums to form constellations of cinderblock shelters fortified with sheets of tin and plastic-bag insulation; the meager space of a home easily and often doubles as a workshop; makeshift marketplaces sprout like weeds in every available space. As urban sociologist Erhard Berner wrote in his 1997 book examining land use in Manila, “Virtually all the gaps left open by city development are immediately filled with makeshift settlements that beat every record in population density.”…
Around the same time when Koolhaas was traveling to Lagos, San Diego-based architect Teddy Cruz was visiting Mexico’s border towns with a similar resolve to study under-the-radar urban phenomena. Cruz observed in Tijuana how developers were importing a superficial image of the American dream across the border in the form of cheap, miniature replicas of the suburbs. “What I noticed is how quickly these developments were retrofitted by the tenants,” Cruz told the New York Times, bringing attention to the makeshift mechanics’ shops and taco stands that quickly took over front lawns and the spaces between the homogenous suburban shells. Here along the border, the ersatz American utopia could not help but evolve into something much more layered and complex.
Cruz studied the individuated forms and programs and exported these lessons back across the border to suburban San Diego, where he was working on a design for a residential development for Latino immigrants. His resulting prototype weaves 12 affordable housing units, a community center, offices, gardens, and spaces for street markets and kiosks into a concrete frame. “In a place where current regulation allows only one use, we propose five different uses that support each other,” Cruz explains in an article for Residential Architect Magazine. “This suggests a model of social sustainability for San Diego, one that conveys density not as bulk but as social choreography.”
Combining technical and theoretical expertise with how people “live on the ground” seems like it could be a winning combination. It is one thing to impose a particular design or program on a group and another to work with them and utilize their own expertise. This can require some humility on the part of trained professionals…it would be interesting to know how this is viewed within the broader discipline of architecture.
I’ve highlighted Cruz’s work before.