Why You Need to Define Your “Other 90%”


It was a muggy summer day in New York City. After traversing through the meandering paths in Central Park, I quickly crossed the bustling Museum Mile to enter Cooper Hewitt’s smaller but equally green garden exhibit on “Design for the Other 90%.” With roots in a rural, agricultural-centered California town, the Day Labor Station caught my attention immediately. Architecturally it was beautiful and well designed. The intricate construction details, solar panel roof, and integrated toilet made for a completely off-the-grid design that any architect would be proud of. Then I noticed the bright blue Q Drum for transporting water and then the small LifeStraw to purify water. I was captivated by these products and structures that were addressing things I take for granted.

This was my first exposure to the concept of “Design for the Other 90%.” Over the past seven years, I’ve recited this phrase numerous times but I recently needed a fresher to remind myself who this group of people encompassed.

Of the world’s total population of 6.5 billion, nearly 5.8 billion people, or 90%, have little or no access to most of the products and services many of us take for granted; in fact, nearly half do not have regular access to food, clean water, or shelter.

Ever since I became involved in public interest design, I have been trying to understand how to address this enormous task in a tangible and relevant way. How might we identify the people to work with while simultaneously proving that the work is alleviating this huge deficit?

Last week, I posted about three launching points into social impact design to help individuals identify ways to initiate a project. Through investigating each project, we can most likely easily categorize the issues and identify the people. But what happens when you work on another project, you bring on a teammate or two, and all of the sudden you have an organization?

At that point, there is a unique opportunity for socially-focused design organizations to move beyond just merely being a traditional service provider and take a stand on the causes that matter most to them. Be it food, water, shelter, health, sanitation, or energy, the sheer amount of people needing these basic services should shatter fears of becoming too specialized.

Honing In on AzuKo’s “Other 90%”

During our second impact measurement workshop with AzuKo, we have begun to chip away at narrowing down who they want to work with amongst the 90% (now up to 6.4 billion people.) First, we began with the big, meta-level causes that AzuKo has identified as the most important:

17% of the world’s population (7.1 billion) are living on less than $1.25 per day. This equates to 1.2 billion living in extreme poverty. If the current rate of progress is achieved, one billion will be living in extreme poverty in 2015. – The World Bank


Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services. – Article 25.1, Universal Declaration of Human Rights

This is still a really large task for AzuKo’s small team of two. So we then took a micro view and evaluated projects that AzuKo is currently working on–Emmaus St Albans, A Sense of Place, and Cyclone Shelters. Through each of these, we identified four key issues with statistics that matter most to AzuKo and the people they want to work with:


6,437 people slept rough at some point in London during 2012/13, an increase of 75% over the last 3 years. – Crisis


In the three years to 2011/12, 2.1 million people in London were in poverty. – London’s Poverty Profile

31.5% of the population are living below the poverty line (in Bangladesh.) – Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics


The London Housing Strategy 2013 estimates nine million people will live in London by 2020, and one million more by 2030, giving rise to many challenges, not least housing. – London Housing Strategy 2013

In some cities, up to 80 per cent of the population lives in slums. Sub-Saharan Africa has a slum population of 199.5 million. – UN Habitat

Virtually all of the expected growth in the world population will be concentrated in the urban areas of the less developed regions, whose population is projected to increase from 2.5 billion in 2009 to 5.2 billion in 2050. – UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs

Climate Change

A one metre rise in sea level would engulf approximately 18% of the landmass, directly affecting 11% of the population. – Agrawala

If predicted rates are witnessed this will result in an estimated 15-20 million displaced persons by 2050. – Thomas-Hope

Although they are still big issues with big numbers attached to them, we are narrowing in to capture the causes in bite-size chunks that AzuKo can then measure impact against. Next up AzuKo will be writing the aims to describe the overall change that they want to achieve towards tackling each of these causes.

Use Causes to Define Design Practice

The big challenge for all impactful design organizations is to remain relevant on a global scale while identifying the specific issues, people, places, and timeframe. We can no longer choose the traditional commercial, residential, or institutional clientele tracks because these are not relevant to the “other 90%.”

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Image source: Clouds AO (previously Studio Lindfors)

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5 Responses to Why You Need to Define Your “Other 90%”

  1. Edan Weis says:

    Hi Katie, thanks for this post, and many others that I’ve enjoyed reading. I have just one critical point to make…

    “Design for the other 90%” is not a phrase worth repeating according to the Cooper-Hewitt, who subsequently renamed their exhibition, “design WITH the other 90%”. The message for socially-focused design organizations, however, remains implicit and bears repeating — the poor should have a high degree of individual agency in collaborative design activities.

    If AzuKo is to act as an example of how architects and built environment professionals can reshape their role in society, it should start by delimiting its own agency while recognizing that through their diverse livelihood activities, the poor exemplify the local knowledge, resourcefulness, ingenuity, opportunism and coping strategies needed to conduct their own analyses, establish priorities and systematically reduce their own vulnerability and deprivation.

    When it comes to categorizing the issues, identifying the people and defining “your other 90%”, we should consider the ways that an excluded, disempowered, dependent and “otherised” people are reproduced through an instrumental rationality — in this case, the statistical measures through which we come to understand them.

    No matter how narrow or broad we register such issues and their proportions, capturing them in bite-size chunks can never substitute for understanding the dynamic and complex social practices of the poor.

    Let’s stop unreflectively quantifying the problems of the other, defining them and their issues. Instead, how might we conceptualise the success of design interventions according to the aims, objectives, outputs and outcomes that people have reason to value for their own sake and on their own terms?


    • Katie says:

      Hi Edan, thanks for you very thoughtful, thorough, and critical comments. I really appreciate opening up the dialogue!

      I completely agree that the beneficiaries and community members that organizations work with should have a high degree of agency and contribute to the aims, objectives, outputs, and outcomes. If designers are truly focused on a participatory process and authentic positive change, then the people they work with (poor or not) have just as much—or even more—of a say as designers do.

      However, my point to define the issues is a challenge for design organizations to hone in on what means the most to them and their customers or clients rather than just being a service organization that cherry picks projects. Perhaps this won’t work for service-based organizations, but I am curious to see how organizations like AzuKo might operate through identifying and focusing on issues like rapid urbanization in Kibera and climate change affecting communities along the coast of Bangladesh rather than being a general architecture firm working with the “other 90%” using participatory processes. This work is a two-way dialogue (and three when it’s a charity): the organization, the clients (or beneficiaries), and stakeholders like funders, municipalities, and governing bodies. So I believe that being more specific rather than general with the causes means better success for all parties involved.

      We have done a lot of work looking into similar design organizations so I will be posting about our findings, as I think this will help to clarify where we headed.

      I believe we’re talking and trying to arrive at the same conclusion just approaching it from two different sides at this point. I hope you follow the posts on our future workshops, too. We are going to create a Theory of Change map for AzuKo next and then further refine the aims, inputs, outputs, and short- and long-term outcomes. What’s really great about this process is that AzuKo has projects that are embedded in communities and are helping to define the organization as a whole and it’s primary clients.

      • Edan Weis says:

        Hi Katie, thanks for taking time to reply to my comment — I’m happy to continue the dialogue and will keep an eye out for posts on future workshops.

        If we are approaching the same conclusion from different sides, then we must be experiencing the parallax effect! 😉 Here’s why I see a different conclusion:

        The means by which a design organization tends to define issues and causes is unrelated to the specificity of those causes or the model of service provision assumed by that organization.

        As an example, I used the trope of “other 90%” to illustrate how the regular use of statistical measurement may be an inadequate and even harmful means of identifying causes (ie. purposes); understanding them and evaluating the impact of interventions designed to address them.

        If AzuKo should hone in on a specific cause that means the most to its beneficiaries, then its relevant geographical, political, social, economic circumstances should be expressed through the voices and local knowledges of people affected, invested and implicated in those circumstances, and not necessarily enumerated and parameterized by design organisations and their stakeholders. The task of formulating a mission, or measuring impact should not be excluded from the participatory, situated and contextual design activity architects are already familiar with.

        Embracing local voices and existing social struggles along with their self-identified causes mitigate the faults of design intervention. One of the most spectacular failures in this regard is PlayPumps. Ralph Borland analyses PlayPumps (noting similar design-for-development objects such as the Q Drum and LifeStraw) and compares them to the grassroots activism of the Anti Privatisation Forum in South Africa in his thesis “Radical Plumbers and PlayPumps”. His findings call for a multidimensional understanding of design interventions and the power that forms of representation have in influencing stakeholders at the expense of beneficiaries. I believe statistics are one such form of representation whose instrumental application towards defining and understanding causes (purposes) — no matter how general or specific — may also lead to failure.

        Perhaps the alternative to traditional service-based organizations when it comes to identifying causes and appropriate outcomes, is to start with ones that are embedded in a historical and political context represented by the knowledges and voices of those already tackling them. After all, they have their own maps and theories of change.

        The challenge for designers is not necessarily about greater specificity, participation or organizational models. It is to become aware that design activity is intrinsically part of the complex social reality it is striving to change. Situations emerge from problems and solutions already brought into being by design before they are approached by designers as something to define and intervene in.

        That is why I think you do not need to define your “other 90%”.

        • Katie says:

          Thanks again, Edan, again for your thoughtful comments. This is an experiment for us so it’s encouraging to hear about your own research and investigation into this work. I’ve read through Ralph Borland’s summary of his thesis and it brings up a lot of underlying issues I have with this type of work (even if I don’t vocalize it here on Design Affects all the time.) Your comments and his investigation into PlayPump are making me even more aware of the ‘Global North’ approach we are taking to impact. I would be curious to hear if you’ve found any ‘good’ examples or if you are applying your ideas/research to your own work.

          On a broader note, the process we are going through with AzuKo is ongoing and will entail much iteration and improvement as the organization develops. I’m sure the insights from locals who AzuKo will be working with in Kenya and Bangladesh will have a great impact on what we’ve done so far–and potentially shift it in another way.

          • Edan Weis says:

            Hi Katie

            I haven’t found many design-led development initiatives that exemplify the kind of critical and reflective approaches described in design research literature. However, I don’t actively search for them, and I’m not sure that I have any reliable means of identifying and evaluating the ‘good’ ones.

            A recent collection of essays edited by Tony Fry and Eleni Kalantidou, ‘Design in the borderlands’ is a very stimulating read on design and the ‘geopolitics of inter-cultural difference’, as is Arturo Escobar’s draft paper, ‘Notes on the Ontology of Design’.

            In my research I apply the ideas of ontological designing and sociologies of practice in order to conceptualise design as a social practice that overlaps, interweaves, coheres and conflicts with the practices of development agencies, NGOs and their donors. This has led to the development of a Linked Open Data resource — a ‘formal ontology’ — designed to help facilitate decision making, information sharing and reporting in social impact design: http://www.open-impact.org — I’m seeking advice and input from various people at this stage so if you are interested in contributing, please let me know– I would greatly appreciate your support.

            Thanks again Katie, for openly sharing and debating the knowledge and experimental process at AzuKo!

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