In recent years, design for social impact has been increasingly re-conceived as addressing global issues ranging from climate change to access to water, shelter, food and medical aid. Most significantly, such alliances have resulted in the spread of design thinking precepts and product development in humanitarian spheres, where innovation and creative problem-solving are now regarded as crucial in the pursuit of dignified, inclusive and economically sound crisis response. At the same time, design thinking has faced a rising tide of critique that ousts it as a progressive narrative of global salvation (Tunstall 2013), and design practitioners have been at times accused of ignoring the plural ways of thinking and knowing of disaster-struck communities.
This project investigates the shifts which paved the way for the rising importance of design amongst humanitarian actors, by examining the meeting of design and emergency relief between 1970 and 2000. Examining historical ‘crossings’ through which designers interfaced with humanitarian networks and operations during this period, the research focuses on a series of initiatives which developed as a result of multidisciplinary projects on issues ranging from logistics, shelter and sanitation. The project thereby aims to trace the imaginaries, moral rationalities, and socio-economic forces that have underpinned such processes, whilst mapping the intended and unintended politics and subjectivities that have risen from the ‘biopolitical assemblages’ that have risen from these (Nguyen 2005). As the project aims to uncover: What circumstances and processes led to the entanglement of design and humanitarian governance, specifically emergency relief in the period studied? Furthermore, to what extent did design practices contribute to or become a symptom of wider politics of aid?