During a recent event at the Amsterdam Pakhuis De Zwijger, titled “Design the Change”, I felt very much moved and inspired by a talk by Reinder Van Tijen (1932). Design as we know it tends to imply the need for resources, knowledge, and infrastructure. But what happens when these are not readily available? Which means would you have to come up with innovative design? Reinder argues and proves that, with the right state of mind, you can be perfectly capable of innovative design, and make a meaningful contribution to the world, without having access to all of the above.
Reinder Van Tijen has been applying all of the principles of traditional design thinking to his work, even long before the concept was invented. In 1975, he founded an organization called Demotech, which focuses on designing for self-reliance in developing countries. By listening carefully to local people, he is able to determine needs as well as the means that are realistically available in a given setting, which allows Demotech to come up with highly context-specific designs that translate high-tech principles into applications that workers and farmers in developing countries can easily understand, build and maintain themselves. Materials that are generally used are bamboo, car tires and reinforcing bars, which are all inexpensive, widely available and do not require specialized tools in order to be processed.
Open source invention
Reinder strongly adheres to the idea of open source invention, thereby side-tracking patents. Demotech believes that inventions should be made public in order for anyone to be able to contribute to their further development. In this vein, Demotech makes its designs available to others on its website, free of charge and free for anyone to use. As a result, all sorts of local adaptations to a certain design become possible, which significantly prolongs the life span of the invention.
Frame of reference: "Successfully participating in a rich society creates little joy for its participants"
Perhaps the most inspiring part of Reinder’s argument relates to his evaluation of our Western world view, which he judges as very problematic as we take so many things for granted. In this light, he highlights the importance of learning to look for solutions that are located outside of our own frames of reference. He demonstrates that, with just several electricity wires, some aluminium foil, empty batteries and a small led-light, you can make sure that kids are able to continue studying after sunset. Interestingly, the overall cost of this option represents only a very small fraction of the cost of a similar lamp–“My Reading Light”–that Philips recently developed. What’s more, the Demotech light can easily be built as well as maintained by its users.