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Putting the public back in public interest design: The making of an exhibit at TED2013

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The exhibit Public Interest Design gets set up at TED2013. Here, a look at Embrace Nest, an affordable alternative to an incubator, aimed to provide the 20 million low birth-weight and premature babies born each year with critical warmth. It was created by students at Stanford. Photo: Michael Brands

By Courtney E. Martin and John Cary

Editor’s note: designer John Cary and journalist Courtney E. Martin are the curatorial brains behind the show, “Public Interest Design: Places, Products, & Processes,” which opened at the Autodesk Gallery in San Francisco last October. The entire exhibit has been reinstalled at TED in Long Beach, and we invited the duo to give us a sense of the thinking behind the installation.

Momentum is building at the intersection of design and social justice, or what is called “public interest design”—akin to public interest law and public health. In recent years, there has been a real proliferation of high-profile exhibitions, books, and events. Back in 2007, for instance, museum goers began flocking to the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum’s “Design for the Other 90%” exhibition series; in 2010, “Small Scale, Big Change” was installed at the MoMA, also in New York. Meanwhile, books like Design Like You Give a Damn and its recent sequel, by 2006 TED Prize winners Cameron Sinclair and Kate Stohr of Architecture for Humanity, as well as events such as the 2012 Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) Annual Meeting on “Designing for Impact,” led by 2007 TED Prize winner Bill Clinton, underline the growing interest in this important topic. Next month even sees the first-ever Public Interest Design Week.

We joined the curating fray last October, working with the Autodesk Gallery team to assemble an exhibition focused on covering the most provocative and interesting areas in the space. In doing so, we aimed to be very intentional about filling in some of the gaps in earlier attempts at displaying and explaining this burgeoning field. We tried to break new ground in a few key ways.

Jane Chen: A warm embrace that saves lives Jane Chen: A warm embrace that saves lives First and foremost, we wanted to put people at the center of the show, focusing on stories of those who were impacted by design as opposed to the stories of the designers themselves. The design itself, after all, is ultimately a means to an end. We wanted to be clear and transparent about the effect and influence of this work.

For example, among the products on display, is the Embrace Nest infant warmer, pioneered by TED Senior Fellow Jane Chen. Many families in India wait to name their babies until nine months after they are born. The reason? High infant mortality rates, caused in part by the inability of low-birth-weight babies to regulate their own body temperature. One mother, Shivamadamma, from a farming family in rural India, gave birth to a premature baby boy weighing only 3.5 pounds. Keeping her baby in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit was impossibly expensive. Fortunately, doctors were able to provide thermal support to Shivamadamma’s baby with the Embrace Nest infant warmer. Now nine months old and feeding well, the baby is ready for his naming ceremony.

Public Interest_MASS Butaro Hospital

The Butaro Hospital is a 150-bed, 60,000 hospital built in the Burera District of Rwanda by MASS Design Group in association with and operated by Partners in Health. Photo: Iwan Baan.

Also included is the Butaro Hospital by MASS Design Group and Partners in Health in rural Rwanda, which sets a new standard for healthcare design, not just in the global south, but beyond. Opened in January 2011, it is a 150-bed, 60,000-square-foot world-class hospital, bringing health care to a district of 400,000 people who previously had to travel long distances to access even the most basic of health services. The building, created from local materials with local laborers—employing 4,000 people over the course of its construction—became something of a symbol of the renaissance of health care in Rwanda. As Neal Emery, writing last week at, explained it, “Amidst the barrage of stories about failing states and civil wars that characterize the dour American media coverage of the developing world, the reinvention of Rwanda offers hope. Since the genocide with which its name is still synonymous in the United States, Rwanda has doubled its life expectancy and now offers a replicable model for delivery of high quality health care with limited resources.”

The exhibit also deliberately includes products, places, and processes. To be honest, this last category was the hardest to curate. It’s challenging to explain the critical nature of systems in our lives and the lives of the most vulnerable citizens—both domestically and abroad. In some ways, this is the invisible category of design. We hold and touch products. We work, live, and learn in buildings. Both are physical and tangible. Systems, on the other hand, affect our quality of lives in profound ways, but are often difficult to conceptualize, and most certainly, to display.


Home for Good, a multi-organization initiative to end chronic homelessness among veterans in the Los Angeles area, redesigned and streamlined the process of the number of days and steps it takes to get people off the streets and into housing. Graphic by Megan Jett, courtesy of Autodesk.

We drew inspiration from projects like Annie Leonard’s Stories of Stuff and Purpose’s unPAC, which increase systemic literacy with crystal clear, highly visual communication. That’s not always easy to come by, we understood, after trying to figure out a way to demonstrate the efficacy of Community Solutions and Home for Good for the exhibition. These organizations have collaborated to develop a process to get homeless Los Angelenos off the street. Before, it took an average of 47 steps and 168 days for a homeless veteran to get into permanent housing. Since their intervention, the average has dropped to 21 steps and 93 days, with an ultimate goal of 10 steps in 10 days. Our Santiago-based designer Megan Jett worked through at least a dozen iterations before we were convinced that our graphic installation really showed the innovation at the heart of the process.

Ultimately, our aim was to communicate something not about design, per se, but about dignity. Environmental psychology tells us that the moment we are born, the world around us—the rooms we sleep in, the classrooms we study in, the outdoor spaces we have access to, the bureaucracies we see our parents wrestle with—signals something about our own identity, our own worth, what we can expect from life. In this way, we are a reflection of the design we experience in our lives. Which leads us to the critical question: how do we make a world that is more hospitable and healthy for all of us, that signals back to us that we belong, that we deserve beauty and functionality and dignity? And in instances where design, be that of products, places, or processes, is less than ideal, what changes can be made quickly, simply, easily, or painlessly?

Courtney E. Martin is the author multiple books, including Do It AnywayJohn Cary is an architect, author, and the founding editor of They are also members of the TED Prize team and co-leads ofThe City 2.0, the 2012 TED Prize focused on the future of cities.