Thursday, August 12, 2010

Why We Need Design Research

I love listening to public radio because more often than not a story will come up relating to anthropology or design or both.

Today's story by PRI, discussed the impact of traditional cook stoves on climate change. A new study has found black carbon as the second leading cause of climate change. Black carbon is produced by diesel engines, power plants and the burning of wood. Traditional cook stoves in developing nations (India, Asia and Africa) burn wood for fuel and release black carbon into the atmosphere.

Scientists would like to replace traditional cook stoves with stoves that either eliminate or reduce black carbon emissions. The problem is trying to convince rural villagers to change their traditional methods and use the new stoves. As mentioned in the segment, people are very particular about the way food is cooked. Food in many cultures is what brings community and family together. Cooking traditions are passed down from generation to generation and women will spend hours by the stove cooking meals for their families. When scientists, non-profit organizations and designers try to impose new methods and tools onto people, the attempts are often futile and have failed in the past. Villagers like the way the traditional cook stoves makes the food taste and they vastly prefer their traditional methods over the new ones. They are more concerned about making food that their family will eat, than the effects that their stove emissions have on the planet.

This is the point where design research is helpful and I think, necessary. An outsider cannot simply come up with a solution to the problem without first researching the user who will actually be implementing the solution. To impose a new tool on a group of people who's food culture is so intertwined with the object (the chulha) that makes it is a dead-end strategy. I do not know what a lower-emission cook stove that would be readily accepted looks like, but it is clear to me that that working with and for the people who will eventually use the stove should be the first step, not the last.

The chulha (traditional Indian cook stove) 'makes the food taste the way it is supposed to'.

An alternative to a traditional cook stove, the solar cooker uses sunlight as the fuel source to cut down on harmful emissions as well as conserving fuel.

Listen to the story:

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