The pandemic has challenged social and economic structures of the wealthiest part of the planet. The time has come to redesign. And from the South of the world we can learn resilience, the ability to coexist with major crises, and the activation of a different ecology

Lagos is home to 22 million people.

Unlike other huge cities, many of those people live in multigenerational households of seven to ten persons, in an average space of 7.5 square meters. The inhabitants of Lagos don’t spend much time at home, in part because their totally informal economies bring them into the streets, where many of them work. And in part because the heat makes it impossible to sleep indoors. Therefore, as the Nigerian journalist Olu Timehin Adegbeye explains, Lagos cannot apply the measures suggested by the WHO (World Health Organization) to combat the pandemic. Simply because there is no room to do it. And because, even if the space was there, most of the population would die of hunger in a few days. A logical observation for those who know about the South of the world.

Emergency as normalcy

Giulio Vinaccia is a designer who has always worked on projects of cooperation. It should come as nothing new that design, taken with farsighted intelligence into situations of economic and social difficulty, can do a lot. It can activate local micro-economies, and find intelligent ways to utilize materials. It fits easily into the network of participation that is the foundation for survival. Vinaccia’s first comment aptly explains this reality: “I have received worried calls from the people with whom I work in Haiti, Syria, Morocco. They all said the same thing: come here, be safe.” An urging that seems totally illogical, but has a meaning. “The countries of the South of the world live in a state of constant emergency. Coronavirus is one of the many problems, and in the end it is not the worst one.” So no social distancing? “The attitude of the WHO (World Health Organization) reflects a post-colonial culture that does not take local realities into account, even when armed with the best intentions.”

Resilience is not a dirty word

“Social distancing is a possibility directly proportional to economic resources,” says Paolo Cascone, another designer and architect expert in the field of co-design in Africa. “But resilience in poor countries can teach us a lot here in the West. We need to design what is truly necessary. At times it is frustrating to work, letting yourself be guided by basic priorities: such things are rarely glamorous. But I think this is the task of design in this moment.” Resilience, a word much abused of late, in this case takes on a design attitude that sets out to intervene in the present with a certain humility. Enzo Mari would be overjoyed, Achille Castiglioni would be curious. There is no lack of cultural roots on which to rely to redesign spaces, mobility and welcome, starting with the present and observing those who always live inside an emergency.

Ecology of relations and consumption

“Less developed countries are already capable of activating solutions for the crises. They do it all the time,” Vinaccia explains. And the solutions are often surprisingly suited to the problems the western world has to solve, and in a hurry. Reuse, the life expectancy of objects and materials. Intelligent though inexpensive architecture, springing from the tradition and starting with spontaneously ecological models of construction: ventilation, thermal insulation, natural materials. Without overlooking the constant presence of a culture that does not fear social proximity, ever. Because care and cooperation are synonyms for survival in places that not only do not permit, but even fear the individualism of distancing. Cultures based on ingenious economies, completely destructured, inefficient of course, especially if the aim is luxury. And yet… “I have seen peddlers of used caps from tomato jars. I’ve never understood what they are used for, but the logic with which the end of product life cycle is challenged can be very creative and lively.”

Simple, rational responses

It is also worth thinking about the ability to organize co-existence with illness and epidemics: “Malaria is a part of everyday life in Cameroon. You get organized: people know perfectly well what path to take from a healthcare standpoint, how to avoid interrupting work and sustenance. They take turns, they visit local facilities that do rapid testing, and they work online. Depending on the status of the infection, people are hospitalized for four days, or given treatment at home. A form of self-discipline in a context in which the healthcare system is lacking in many things, but uses resources in an intensive way,” says Paolo Cascone.

Crude logic, yet one that speaks of adaptation, suggesting rational solutions to natural problems. Illness is not extraneous to life, but a part of it. It is not countered as if in a war, but by adapting with solutions designed and based on already available resources. “It is the African solution to the global pandemic,” Cascone comments. “I am convinced that low-tech will save us, if we think about redesigning material systems. Through forms of organization that are already part of people’s awareness in Africa.”

Social design: a proving ground

For design, above all if inserted in interdisciplinary teams, this could be the opportunity to put into practice a lot of the theory developed in an academic context on themes of social coexistence, co-design and reuse. Because thinking in an ecological and collective way could be the response to the crisis caused by the pandemic in the more advanced societies.

“Design has an enormous capacity to solve problems. The big cities, like Milan, are desperately seeking solutions,” says Giulio Vinaccia. For transports, for shops that have to change their flows and ways of operating. For mobility and the new web economies that replace, at least in part, delocalization. And for programs of non-dangerous social proximity. “Design has to be on the front line,” Vinaccia concludes. “This is an emerging world in which the role of design is clear and visible. They are waiting for us. If universities and associations make themselves available, it will be even easier to reformulate a new role for design.”

At the top, in the photo by Alessandro Grassani, two women harvesting corn in Ivory Coast, Africa. The image, together with others in the article, was part of the benefit initiative 100 Photographers for Bergamo, which in two months raised 727,600 euros to support the intensive care units of Ospedale Papa Giovanni XXII of Bergamo, and other healthcare centers across the national territory.