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Tools to Improve Lives, Health in the Developing World Featured at New York Museum

Design is a topic most often associated with luxury goods. But an exhibit at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York focuses on innovative ways to address the needs of the world's poor. The objects on display represent a new trend in design, one that mixes sustainable and recycled materials with ancient knowledge and high technology.

The United Nations says 90 percent of the world's population lacks the money to buy even the most basic goods. Life is an endless struggle to get enough water, food, cooking fuel and shelter just to survive.

The outdoor exhibit at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum displays tools to meet those needs, and others that address education, better health, and income-generating work. "The kind of design that's in the show, Design for the Other 90%, really can impact people's lives,” curator Cynthia Smith says. “It can improve lives and even save lives."

For transporting things, there is the Boda bicycle, built long and with a low center of gravity. It can handle large loads of goods, or two passengers in addition to the bicyclist. For carrying water home, there's the Q Drum, a plastic container shaped like a ring or doughnut, with a hole in the middle.

“You put the water inside the doughnut,” Smith says, “and then you roll it along the ground -- as opposed to putting it on your head, or pushing it with a wheelbarrow."

The life-straw makes dirty water safe to drink in the time it takes to draw it up from a pond or puddle. Solar-powered lights are woven into a flexible portable light mat, so that people can read or work at night. And for growing food even during a drought, there are micro-irrigation devices on display, including a bamboo treadle pump.

"You use it with a walking motion,” Smith says. “It brings water up from the ground, costs roughly $40. Over two million are in use today. The impact for that one is that in Bangladesh alone, they've increased their net income by $1.4 billion."

The pot-in-pot cooler keeps vegetables fresh for days -- making it possible to earn money from produce that would otherwise spoil before it could be brought to market. "It's designed by Mohammed Bah Abba, an engineer out of Nigeria,” Smith says. “It's one ceramic pot inside another ceramic pot. Between the two pots, there's sand. You pour water into the sand, and as the air evaporates, the hot air escapes from the center of the pot, and leaves cool air."

Sergio Palleroni is an architecture professor who designs for poor communities. His group's solar cooker is made from scrap metal, and uses the same principle. Standing in front of the cooker, which looks like a mirrored satellite dish with a small black pot hanging in the middle, Palleroni explains how it works.

“You turn it to where the line of sun is straight to the center, and then all the rays of the sun will come, reflect, and then hit the black surface [of the pot at the center] and heat it up. So, that's why it's on a stand. You rotate it around and focus it, and then essentially for half an hour or an hour, while the sun is still in that general path, you have a super-efficient stove."

The cooker is faster than an ordinary stove, and saves both trees and the hours people formerly spent searching for fuel. Hundreds of families can cook at once on giant versions, which follow the sun with clockwork mechanisms made of bicycle parts. While the sun’s heat concentrates on a long metal cooking bar, the rest of the device remains cool. "It allows people to cook from what's really abundant along the equatorial belt,” Palleroni says. “Most poverty happens along the equatorial belt. And one resource you have in abundance is the sun."

Other highlights of the show include a fleet of motorcycles that carry wireless Internet from village to village, and furniture built of wood salvaged after Hurricane Katrina.