Saving The Hometown

For this assignment we were asked to come up with the story about poverty and find a smart way to incorporate the main ideas of the readings in to a comic strip presentation.

Here is my story in slides.

  1. Meet Zina
  2. She is from Siberia. Her hometown Myski, it’s okay if you’ve never heard of it, is known for its beautiful mountains. Locals call this place “Second Switzerland” for its immense taiga forests and fast rivers. This area in Russia is also known for its high-quality coal deposits. Myski’s coal mining industry has flourished these last 45 years but not anymore.
  3. In recent years China, a major coal consumer, announced its move towards renewable energy resources. The future does not look good for monotowns in Russia like Myski that rely on the trade of raw fossil fuels.
  4. For young people opportunities have dwindled which has led many to move elsewhere. As a result, the population is highly skewed towards grannies, old coal miners, and their cats. In spite of these facts, the town dwellers continue working hard.
  5. Reading such news online, Zina did not like the prospects of her hometown. She thought hard about how she could improve the situation.
  6. And then, suddenly, an idea came to mind. Zina went to the US Bank and got a micro-loan. She didn’t know yet how this money would be invested in her community. Around the same time, she received news that she inherited her grandparent’s house and land.
  7. When Zina came to her hometown she found only “babushkas” (grannies in Russian) on the streets. Talking to them she found out that these grannies are gold, they knew amazingly delicious jam and black current wine recipes that stayed in their families for generations.
  8. That summer was busy for Zina. She turned her grandparents property into mini-farm and planted various berry bushes in it.
  9. The house also went through an upgrade, it became a production-ready facility for making & packaging delicious jams. The grannies who lived nearby came to help and Zina hired them. In addition to all these changes, Zina’s dad built a wine press and they decided to open a new line of delicious black currant wines.
  10. Finally, Zina made a website for a new berry business and announced the sales on Internet.
  11. These wines and jams were so delicious that news spread quickly and went far beyond that they expected. Other towns approached Zina and ask for guidance in setting up similar farms.  Zina was very busy. She established a franchise initiative and spent all summer training and teaching at the other 48 locations.
  12. While she was gone, grannies in her hometown missed her a lot. They were so overwhelmed with orders that couldn’t keep up and quality suffered.
  13. Winter came around. Due to climate change, the temperatures were extremely cold and all berry bushes died.
  14. When Zina came back to her hometown the next summer she had to start over. This time she re-planted only a fraction of best-performing berries.
  15. The rest of her time she spent teaching local kids everything she learned so far about running a business and sustainability.
  16. She hopes that one day these kids will grow up and find their way to sustain equilibrium; that they create new products and services that will do good to the local economy and to our planet.

Here is the link to my presentation

In my story, I see some points that can be applied to the readings we discussed. From the readings I’ve selected a few perspectives that also help formulate my own view as a designer when thinking about the situation around poor communities of the world.

Emily Pilloton is a proponent of immersing yourself into a community and its problem. As a designer I find it useful to think on a local scale first and to find an opportunity to “commit to a place, live and work there and apply my professional skills to that community benefit”. The heroine in my story did exactly this. Serving the community in this way has three important goals. First, a designer stays engaged and builds long-lasting emotional relationships to the people and place. Second, the designer builds trust within the community and all ideas and actions become “inherently collective”, helping this community build their own future and continue to function when the designer removes himself/herself from the picture. The third, poverty is a symptom of a more systemic problem and to find a possible solution a designer should look at the ecosystem as a whole and evaluate all actors and agencies involved in this problem. Every system needs to have support of its smaller parts to be able to function long term.

Another perspective that echoed in my story is Michael Hobbes’ vision that going big and scale quickly sometimes is not the right approach to solve a “wicked problem” such as poverty. What works in one place (example of scaling my mini-farm in the story) would not work in 48 other locations. The geography is different in each place, social-economic development and many other factors are different. That is why the rule of thumb is to test small and only then scale if appropriate. If the solution looks lucrative and easy to implement then most times it is not the best idea/solution.  In order to solve complex problems, a designer needs to develop a much more nuanced and holistic lens to look at the problem. There is no simple pill that solves it all.

Other two authors, M. Yunus, and V. Margolin, ideas I found inspirational. I admire Mr. Yunus as an entrepreneur. He invented a new term micro-loan and was be able to implement a new financial product idea very successfully to the poorest populations of India. Even though I admire his entrepreneurial skills, I believe his success depends on certain time and place in history. Not every day someone could step in and open the markets within millions of customers. However, his approach to run a business using traditional consumption paradigm and at the same time to create a space within the ecosystem that supports the lowest bracket of populations is extremely beneficial.  In today’s reality full of firce competition it is nearly impossible to sustain a social business without breaking capitalism as a system.

V. Margolin, on the other hand, thinks philosophically about the world’s problems. His ideas about four domains of design problems I would continue to apply as the methodology to my own design research. This lens helps to move from the smallest to a bigger scale and evaluate how components fit the system.  In his model, he moves from “symbolic, visual communications of design practice to material objects, and then on to activities and organized services and finally to complex systems or environments”. The idea of the role of a designer today is to sustain, develop and integrate human beings, their consumption behavior into broader ecological and cultural environments I find extremely valuable in today’s world. In my story, I made a point that bigger scale issues like climate change have an effect to its smaller parts. The ecological balance in a small town in the middle of Siberia depends on how we all as dwellers of Earth will find a way to sustain life on our planet. Personally I feel humble and find extremely challenging to work at this scale. At the same as a designer I feel the urgency to solve the coming world’s problems in our generation’s time because it might be no a second chance.