bellagio.pngI was critical, at the time it was announced, of a plan by the Rockerfeller Foundation to convene a meeting about Design for Development. Their starting point was “to bring together the world’s best designers with people and organizations that work on the world’s most important and complex problems” – an objective that struck me as being too designer-centric, and too uncritical of the notion of “development”.

A report of the meeting (at the Foundation’s gorgeous-looking Bellagio Center) has now been published – and I have to say that my misgivings persist. The project has acquired a macho new title – “Design for Social Impact” – and there are repeated references to “the social sector” as if society, in all its complexity, is best understood as a market for design services. (The language used here reminds me of time I heard a senior person from Cisco talk about “the sustainability space”.) It is also assumed throughout the report that ‘the social sector’ contains only NGOs – whereas, for a lot of critics, NGOs are as much a part of the development problem as they will be part of any solution.

Most uncomfortable of all, for me, is that nowhere in the report can I find one single mention of the lessons design might learn from other cultures.

I’m going on about this because an eminent participant told me the meeting would “influence how hundreds of millions of dollars of aid money are spent.” It’s fine for designers to discuss these things, but candidly I don’t think a single dollar should be spent helping designers make a “social impact” on places and cultures they know very little about.