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Design needs to address some of the World's Biggest Problems, says this Author and Architect

09 Mar 2018  •  5 min read

John Cary, author of Design for Good, talks at the Brainstorm Design conference in Singapore on Mar. 7, 2018.

Photograph by Stefen Chow for Fortune


When John Cary designs a building, he puts dignity first.

An architect by training and the author of Design for Good, Cary delivered a presentation on Wednesday at the inaugural Fortune, Time and Wallpaper* Brainstorm Design conference held in Singapore, making the case that the same principles of design fundamental to the private sector should be applied social sector to address some of the world’s most urgent issues.

“Design has yet to become a keystone in solving the world’s most pressing challenges,” says Cary. “But I believe its time has come.”

To Cary, the design of a building reflects the values and needs of the people inside of them. The layout of the spaces we inhabit, from schools to offices to homes, influences the way people live, so Cary has spent most of his career expanding his design practice into humanitarian work.

In Design for Good, with a forward written by Melina Gates, the TED Prize strategist disabuses us of the notion that design is only a luxury concept. Design isn’t just for turning a profit, but can be used to make the world a better place. When design, the social sector, and investment intersect, life-changing products that specifically meet the needs of the poor can be created, from irrigation pumps, to solar lanterns, to prosthetics.

Cary’s cited the Butaro Hospital in Rwanda as one such example in architecture. A project led by MASS (Model of Architecture Serving Society) Design Group, the state-of-the-art hospital is a 60,000-square-foot clinic with 150 beds. It was built by locals with locally sourced materials, employs at least 270 people, and provides an abundance of greenery and light to help in healing.

“While we routinely celebrate the flashy new headquarters of companies,” says Cary, “there is no comparison in the social sector.” Now with a whole cohort of private sector leaders—”the design vanguard,” he calls it—and a new generation of non-profit design agencies that are specifically created for purpose and impact, Cary argues that with enough investment, that can all change.

His book also cites architecture projects around the world that have leverage design positive social impact, from a primary school in Guangdong, China to a social justice center at Kalamazoo College.

“Dignity is to design, just as what justice is to law, and health is medicine,” says Cary.

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