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Take Five: Washington University's Peter MacKeith on good design for the planet

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 14, 2012 - When you think about good design, do you imagine a couple of hipsters in oversize glasses and skinny jeans sipping mint-infused, simple-syrup cocktails over a table of reclaimed wood?

An exhibit opening at Washington University’s Kemper Art Museum Friday, Sept. 14 turns that image on its head. In “Design with the Other 90%: CITIES,” the smart sipping involves a wide blue straw and swamp water.

A device called LifeStrawcould vastly increase global opportunities for safe drinking water. It’s one of 60 solutions on display through Jan. 7 to improve life for the nearly 1 billion people -- the “90%” -- who live in makeshift urban communities, commonly known as slums. Others ideas from across the world include stone-and-wire shelters, computers housed in oil drums, a bus system that handles 1 million passengers daily and a neighborhood-wide mural project.

As a bonus, some designs may also be useful to hikers, campers and others who spend time away from the modern conveniences they typically enjoy.

“Design with the Other 90%” is organized by the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum and its curator for Socially Responsible Design, Cynthia Smith, who will host an opening-night discussion.

The Beacon talked with Washington University professor of architecture Peter MacKeith about the exhibit and its implications.

The Beacon: What does the exhibit aim to accomplish?

Peter MacKeith: This exhibition has some very broad themes: water, transportation, energy, communications, information, education. A very strong part of the exhibition, which we hope will come across, is that the solutions and responses to these critical situations are just as valuable as other design circumstances.

An intention of the exhibition's design and content is to provide the visitor with things at the individual scale, or the micro scale, going all the way up to the urban scale or the macro scale.

Would you give an example of a micro and macro solution?

MacKeith: For instance, one presentation would be on the issue of water. On an individual scale, one design response is the LifeStraw, an individual water filter made of a plastic casing that’s packed with a very dense textile material, and you can truly place that straw into water that may not be the cleanest, and suck through it.

On the same theme, the exhibition also presents systems thinking and urban-design thinking, such as a metering system by which people in neighborhoods can have inexpensive access to water. There’s a sanitation system that has been reworked and redesigned for not only clean water but also for waste and runoff to be organized in a much healthier way.

Is the exhibit interactive in any way?

MacKeith: We’ve tried to make this as tactile an exhibition as possible inside an art museum. There are things you can handle. There are things you can turn on and off, things you can roll around. We have a very strong K-12 and adult education program set up through the museum’s education department to facilitate those kinds of encounters.

Can people try out the LifeStraw?

MacKeith: It is possible for people to put their hands on one, but for reasons you can imagine, it’s not possible for people to literally use. But it is possible for people to acquire one. You can actually buy them on Amazon -- they’re about $20.

We have a donation program set up whereby visitors to the museum can basically purchase one and it goes as a donation [minimum $6.95] through a charity and then goes out into the world -- you can pass the gift on to others who truly need it.

We have on view 1,000 of them to try to dramatize the power of a simple object. They’re outside of their sterile packaging but we are gong to distribute these for demonstration purposes to Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts and local hospitals and so forth.

Do any of these projects include a blueprint for making them?

MacKeith: Some of the solutions do, especially for temporary housing and easy-to-construct housing. We’ve actually constructed one outside the museum using a very basic diagram provided by an architect in Mexico City.

It’s a kind of open-source resource for shelter, and it’s another ambition of the exhibition to make these more and more known, and have them understood as viable solutions in a lot of locales and geographies.

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.