Archive | November, 2011

Young Designer’s Workshop

23 Nov

This is an article in which, through the power of contrast, I discover my strong prejudices, and gain venture into a field in which I had no business dealing with.

I hadn’t really planned to attend a workshop on design, as it hasn’t previously been one of the issues I’ve schooled myself in. Though I do indulge in criticizing designs (particularly of public facilities and policies), the divide between ‘the expert’ and ‘the rest of us’ has been drummed into me enough for me to give pause when considering signing up for an area that I’ve not in any way trained in. On the other hand, nothing is learnt without dipping oneself into unknown waters. So when I discovered that the only way I could attend the conference at a reasonable price was to attend a design workshop a week earlier, I leapt at the opportunity – And convinced my husband to spare my company for a week.  (“Are you really so anxious to avoid my company?” He said as he paid for it.)

IDA congress attendance: 21,700NT
Designer Workshop attendance (including room and board) + entrance to IDA congress: 3,300 NT

Who could possibly resist?

I attended the Implementing International Rescue with Unitized Design segment, which is held at the Tainan University of Technology. It was one of the few workshops that wasn’t already booked full, which I found surprising, as I found the topic far more practical and enticing than the other topics, which seemed more philosophical. The fact that it’s not in Taipei might have been one of the reasons. This is day 2 of the Young Designer’s Workshop, and I believe it’s helped me gain some insight into what matters for some designers, and more insight into a certain group of humans in my society (more about a small group of people from relatively developed asian countries, rather than designers/design students per se).

To illustrate this I must mention that the workshop invited a professor from Japan, Satoshi Nakagawa, who brought along another instructor from Japan, who mainly serves as a translator, and two of his graduate students. His presence here seems to be regarded as a great honor to the school. Having no previous interest in the Hall of Fame in Design, I have no idea whether this is warranted. He seems like a kindly enough person though. One of his recent ventures was to take numerous trips into the affected area of Fukushima, where he observed vast destruction and many uncollected bodies (in vehicles, among the rubble) from the tsunami.

One of the problems with inviting foreign speakers to Taiwan is, the professionals in my country are far too apt to cede to the opinions of their oversea peers, than otherwise.

After introduction of the topic, immediately I lit upon an idea of a means for a small population in crisis situation to become self-efficient prior to the entrance of outside aid (more details later). My inspirations were the typhoon disaster in Myanmar (where outside aid was initially rejected by the junta), and a news piece which accused the UN peace keeping forces of not being aware that a village a few miles from their post was under vicious attack by guerilla groups (this article I was, unfortunately, unable to find again). However, this situation was harder for my teammates to envision. I was thus behooved to explain why such an object could be very useful.

On the other hand, I am entirely leery of expensive designs that attempt to increase the incremental comforts of those who are already quite well off, even in disaster situations. I can see how they may be useful, to certain populations that can afford it. But I’m inclined to like more basic designs to increase accessibility to resources for people who have less. This, I discovered in this environment, was a strong bias.

Day 3

He seems obsessed with the notion of ‘Shelter’, of a psychological comfort, of a passive people.

I guess I just don’t like the idea of having my idea restricted. I have no interest in coddled populations to whom the lost of a home and all the intrinsic accessories can come as a deep psychological jar. It’s a deep psychological jar for anyone to lose their home. What I’m interested in is whether there’s a way for victims to deal with the crisis on more or less their own terms, in the hours before a rescue team can effectively bring resources in. The ideal is to have provisional housing, with all the amenities that could bring semblance to the nicely ordered society/infrastructure that existed before – or be able to relocate refugees to a more civilized environ. However, the earliest such a unit can only be brought in is a week after the disaster, and in most of the cases of natural disasters in the world it would take even longer, if ever. If you think about it, there is a very good amount of documentary, in very good quality film, of the tsunami in Japan, both during and after. There is less footage of the during in Indonesia, and none that we’re aware of during the 2010 flood in Pakistan. Now can we say that Pakistan suffered less than Japan in this situation? What about the Congo? There is absolutely no footage of attacks going on in villages in the Congo, but since 1994, at least 5.4 million people have died. That’s nearly as many civilians killed in WWI.

It’s somewhat like the Holocaust having become the story of the Jews. It’s not to say that the Jews haven’t suffered as much as they say they’ve suffered – they have. Yet their grievance is universal. And it’s about time we choose to prioritize redressing the wrongs against those whose voice has not been heard. And if this means that we create something which those whose voice has been heard could use as well, great! But I would like to first look at the needs of disaster victims whose plight has yet to be seen, for whom help has yet to come, and who is in sure danger of being ignored and dying from the further complications of their isolation.

Thus it was that I came upon the idea of a survival box. It’s a common enough idea – an emergency toolkit that each household might have in a well-to-do society. What I want to do is create a toolkit that the poor can afford, and since the poor tend to not be able to afford individual household toolkits, gear it towards a small community, and design it in a manner that people will remember to, and will be able to, use it in a time of need.

So this is the way it looks: It’s like the little black box that airplanes have – it’s durable, can withstand time and harsh environments, and still come out with all its gear intact. However, instead of recording the voices of the dead, it will assist the continuation of that of the living.

The appearance of the box is in the shape of a life ring, which has become a universal symbol of safety at sea. The material is resistant to most trauma, lightweight, insulated, waterproof and may float. I was thinking steel reinforced plastic, that material that has recently become popular in lightweight, sturdy luggage. The appearance can be modified according to the decor of the surrounds (what color shows up most, or what the users prefer), and also glows-in-the-dark. It can be used as a stool or hung on the wall as decoration.

The contents would consist of a flare gun, a hand-crank communication transmitter, a water filter and mosquito net fit for 20 people. There will be other tools as well, such as a swiss army knife, a rope, a lighter, a mechanical camera and a hand-crank flashlight. A survival manual will be in there that would instruct the users how to assemble or most effectively use the contents of the box to survive, written in graphics: the universal language. Kind of like Ikea’s product self-assembly manuals. Finally, there will be a packet of seeds put in there by the villagers themselves.

There is an idea to also include a small disposable camera, vacuum wrapped for preservation. For these areas, being able to have a documentation of disaster would greatly increase their ability to seek aid in later stages. If technology and costs allow, there should be a small chip in camera that can be inserted into the transmitter. The transmitter would then transmit the images to a designated body that could feasibly bring assistance or draw attention to the situation (such as a media source).

What would be even better is if we can upgrade the general accessibility of these communities – the accessibility to communication and thus resources. Without constant communication, or even with it – a backup form of communication that is easy to carry along should exist.

Day 4

I’m told that my concept can’t be considered ‘design’, which I find frustrating, as I find it eminently useful. The vision at the workshop doesn’t seem to be “If I design this it can potentially be scouted by someone and actually made into reality.” The teachers also said, while trying to be kind about it, that it should be a team effort and team consensus.

I’m reminded of why I didn’t choose to study something artsy: Because it’s so subjective. And subjectivity leaves room for fools to assert themselves.

I believe that a few of teachers, who seemed so inclined to be kindly to me, are realizing that I’m not simply a sweet smiling student who can put their tutorage in a good light by responding well, but that I’m also skeptical of authority, stubborn, and unwilling to follow suggestions that I think are stupid. My mother has once told me that one of my teachers had complained to her that I’m a recalcitrant, unteachable girl, which I felt a blow to the general toeing the line that I’ve so carefully maintained. Upon thought, I understand that it doesn’t reflect so much upon me, but upon the teacher’s perspective that her authority to mold is unequivocal.

I’m a horrible team player, though, when the venture doesn’t go my way. An unambitious signal SOS signal light was proposed, and the team decided to go ahead with this design. I looked up supplementary information about this which would have helped for the feasibility of this – what type of LED lights, SOS signal, electricity input…etc. The team decided in the end to exclude this portion, which the team leader objected to because it was in English and he couldn’t read it. Given our target population, the only way we could potentially find investment for it was if we could communicate to a more international audience. I was disappointed with their lack of ambition and vision. At that point I had made myself a nuisance in arguing for my Life Box that I didn’t feel I had the leverage to ‘lead’ the team. Plus the lack of graphic design skills seriously stumped my effectiveness as a team member.

I still find this experience enlightening – to the extent of giving me some idea of the field of design. On the other hand, in order to create a niche of its own, the field seems incredibly narrow. For example, the household gadgets that come out of Japan are frequently commented upon, being very often considered innovative and thoughtful. On the other hand, the existence of these gadgets are driven by commercialism, and accordingly exist in forms that 1. inspire purchase 2. rather easily expirable and 3. are in actuality periphery to our general comfort and do not inspire continual use. Thus, the existence of these nic-nacs are more likely to become waste in a household rather than a continuously functioning item. Not exactly the direction that we should be making our designs for.

I’m also slightly worried about the education of the design students. I felt that they were very well educated in the theories of design, and definitely were very good graphic artists. However, they seemed to lack an international perspective – a stronger education in the humanities, if you will. Designers need to create things that fulfill human need, and an understanding of our world, a holistic education in various fields, should be at the heart of their capacity.

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Nothing to Envy – A starving nation

8 Nov

There is almost no intrusion of the writer’s personal opinions, and none at all of her personal ego – which I find quite an achievement for a book in this age.

In the book ‘Nothing to Envy’, Barbara Demick gives detailed accounts of life in The Democratic Republic of Korea (DPRK) based on interviews with former North Koreans. The particulars of the famine and thought repression, never mind the caste system that the regime imposed, was deeply shocking to me. I was also very impressed by how the collective culture of that society fostered such tolerance to obvious mistreatment and failure of promises by the regime – but the information blockade may have had a great deal to do with that as well.

The societal structure imposed by Kim Il-Sung divided people up into classes. There are three main classes that are then subdivided into 51 subcategories:

  • The Core Class: those who are considered loyal, have a chance of applying for party membership, receive dibs in resources, and may be used to spy on/control the neighborhood.
  • The Wavering Class: A class that is considered less loyal and thus suspect.
  • The Hostile Class: Particularly suspect due to past lineage (parent may have been South Korean, gotten into trouble with the law…etc), children of this class have a lower chance of receiving a respectable higher education.

The class system has implications for educational opportunities, work, housing, resources and frequently, marriage. Families that are considered more loyal, based on a variety of factors, are appointed a higher class, and their higher standing allowed them more leeway in the face of possible legal persecution. It is very difficult to be elevated to a better class, but easy to be demoted.

For more about the DPRK’s class system and its implications, try these articles:

  1. Political Classification and Social Structure in North Korea by Kongdan Oh
  2. North Korea’s Upper Class Flourishes in Contrast to Reports of Impoverished Working Class  from Voice of America –> This article makes me think that there’s something to be said for an economically tiered community – it divides the community enough to make revolutionary thoughts less unifying.

The government also imposed a strict system within the communities – no one was allowed to move house or purchase household electronics without approval, and a minder was imposed for every set number of households who kept a watch on the behavior and talk in the neighborhood. Besides these, there are civilians who are designated to spy on their neighbors, at densities said to be more extensive than the East German Stasi. Any suspicious activities were reported and quickly dealt with, and entire families up to three generations were punished on the grounds of ‘bad blood’. This was also used as a control system to prevent defection of North Koreans who were allowed to travel abroad.

Much of the economic downfall in the DPRK, besides the loss of subsidized merchandize from the Soviet Union, is attributed to the focus on military, particularly the diversion of funds towards the development of nuclear weapons in the late 1980s. A quarter of the national GDP is set aside for military spending – far more than any other nation in the world.

I had previously attended a speech where a Taiwanese reporter had taken a documentary of North Korea. She warned us that the footages were by no means complete – because the tour was strictly regulated, the images taken were heavily censored, and she was not allowed to say anything in the published video that sounded in any way critical of the regime (the studio had to pay a heavy guarantee).  <陳雅琳:直擊世界火藥庫-北韓  the video, however, has been removed from youtube, for no reason that I can discover.>

Last week the DPRK announced that none of the health personnel that were stationed in Libya are allowed entrance back to North Korea. These health personnel were sent there to work in health stations in an agreement with the Gaddafi regime in exchange for much needed hard cash for North Korea.  Now that the Gaddafi regime has collapsed, DPRK is refusing the return of their people, very likely as part of their information control strategy. At first I thought it is a means for this group of North Koreans to leave the abysmal conditions of the DPRK. However, they will be people without a country (though South Korea has pledged to receive all North Koreans within their nation), and they surely have left family back in the DPRK who have been held as collateral. It must be a huge blow to people who have a strong culture of valuing family.

Mike recommended that I watch The Vice Guide to North Korea ( http://www.vice.com/the-vice-guide-to-travel/vice-guide-to-north-korea-1-of-3 ), which showed footages of a guided tour, somewhat similar to the one I had seen by a Taiwanese reporter, but with an entrance from China.

I wanted to look at footages outside the regulated tour though. In fact, I suggested to Mike that someone should smuggle a high resolution camera into less regulated areas where a local North Korean could be commissioned to take candid footages of everyday life in North Korea.

Apparently somebody else had had a similar idea. A video on the Telegraph shows grainy shots of in North Korea life without tall buildings, monuments and pretty waitresses (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newsvideo/8113817/Inside-North-Korea-exclusive-footage.html ).

A girl who looks at most 14 hoists a sack of grass to sell as food at the market. She says she is 23. Her face is hallow, her eyes sunken, and she seems about to cry when asked what she had eaten that day.

As of today, North Korea has been going through another massive famine since 2010. A bitter winter and heavy rains have severely curtailed the expected harvest this fall and the government was desperate enough to invite foreign reporters into the country to tour a hospital where malnourished children were dying – a rare look outside the guided tour.

(sorry, this is not an embedded video. To see the video, please go to The Guardian link here:
http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/oct/06/north-korea-malnourished-ophans-floods )

Some people hold the viewpoint that giving food aid to North Korea is propping up an evil regime – especially since there is so little transparency in the food distribution system that several NGOs have pulled out of the area in the recent decade due to inability to account for the aid given. The army in North Korea is given priority. However, I feel that a starving people cannot even begin to contemplate rebellion – malnutrition saps the will, and seriously harms the mental development of growing children. We cannot let another generation of North Koreans go without the vital nutrition they need to fight back, and this time there will be no hiding the deficiencies of the DPRK. Already it is said that North Koreans living in certain regions are disgruntled with the system. It’s just a matter of opportunity.