Cameron Sinclair
1,350,256 views • 23:34

I'm going to take you on a journey very quickly. To explain the wish, I'm going to have to take you somewhere where many people haven't been, and that's around the world. When I was about 24 years old, Kate Stohr and myself started an organization to get architects and designers involved in humanitarian work, not only about responding to natural disasters, but involved in systemic issues. We believe that where the resources and expertise are scarce, innovative, sustainable design can really make a difference in people's lives.

So I started my life as an architect, or training as an architect, and I was always interested in socially responsible design, and how you can really make an impact. But when I went to architecture school, it seemed that I was a black sheep in the family. Many architects seemed to think that when you design, you design a jewel, and it's a jewel that you try and crave for; whereas I felt that when you design, you either improve or you create a detriment to the community in which you're designing. So you're not just doing a building for the residents or for the people who are going to use it, but for the community as a whole.

And in 1999, we started by responding to the issue of the housing crisis for returning refugees in Kosovo. And I didn't know what I was doing — like I said, mid-20s — and I'm the Internet generation, so we started a website. We put a call out there, and to my surprise, in a couple of months, we had hundreds of entries from around the world. That led to a number of prototypes being built and really experimenting with some ideas. Two years later we started doing a project on developing mobile health clinics in sub-Saharan Africa, responding to the HIV/AIDS pandemic. That led to 550 entries from 53 countries. We also have designers from around the world that participate. And we had an exhibit of work that followed that. 2004 was the tipping point for us. We started responding to natural disasters and getting involved in Iran, in Bam, also following up on our work in Africa.

Working within the United States — most people look at poverty and they see the face of a foreigner. But I live in Bozeman, Montana — go up to the north plains on the reservations, or go down to Alabama or Mississippi, pre-Katrina, and I could have shown you places that have far worse conditions than many developing countries that I've been to. So we got involved in and worked in inner cities and elsewhere;

and also, I will go into some more projects. 2005: Mother Nature kicked our ass. I think we can pretty much assume that 2005 was a horrific year when it comes to natural disasters. And because of the Internet, and because of connections to blogs and so forth, within literally hours of the tsunami, we were already raising funds, getting involved, working with people on the ground. We run from a couple of laptops, and in the first couple of days, I had 4,000 emails from people needing help. So we began to get involved in projects there, and I'll talk about some others. And then of course, this year we've been responding to Katrina, as well as following up on our reconstruction work.

So this is a brief overview. In 2004, I really couldn't manage the number of people who wanted to help, or the number of requests that I was getting. It was all coming into my laptop and cell phone. So we decided to embrace an open-source model of business — so that anyone, anywhere in the world, could start a local chapter, and they can get involved in local problems. Because I believe there is no such thing as Utopia. All problems are local. All solutions are local. So that means, you know, somebody who's based in Mississippi knows more about Mississippi than I do. So what happened is, we used Meetup and all these other Internet tools, and we ended up having 40 chapters starting up, thousands of architects in 104 countries. So the bullet point — sorry, I never do a suit, so I knew that I was going to take this off. OK, because I'm going to do it very quick.

This isn't just about nonprofit. What it showed me is that there's a grassroots movement going on, of socially responsible designers who really believe that this world has got a lot smaller, and that we have the opportunity — not the responsibility, but the opportunity — to really get involved in making change.



I'm adding that to my time.


So what you don't know is, we've got these thousands of designers working around the world, connected basically by a website, and we have a staff of three. The fact that nobody told us we couldn't do it, we did it. And so there's something to be said about naïveté. So seven years later, we've developed so that we've got advocacy, instigation and implementation. We advocate for good design, not only through student workshops and lectures and public forums, op-eds; we have a book on humanitarian work; but also disaster mitigation and dealing with public policy. We can talk about FEMA, but that's another talk. Instigation, developing ideas with communities and NGOs, doing open-source design competitions. Referring, matchmaking with communities. And then implementing — actually going out there and doing the work, because when you invent, it's never a reality until it's built. So it's really important that if we're designing and trying to create change, we build that change.

So here's a select number of projects. Kosovo. This is Kosovo in '99. We did an open design competition, like I said. It led to a whole variety of ideas. And this wasn't about emergency shelter, but transitional shelter that would last five to 10 years, that would be placed next to the land the resident lived in, and that they would rebuild their own home. This wasn't imposing an architecture on a community; this was giving them the tools and the space to allow them to rebuild and regrow the way they want to. We had from the sublime to the ridiculous, but they worked. This is an inflatable hemp house. It was built; it works.

This is a shipping container. Built and works. And a whole variety of ideas that not only dealt with architectural building, but also the issues of governance, and the idea of creating communities through complex networks.

So we've engaged not just designers, but also a whole variety of technology-based professionals. Using rubble from destroyed homes to create new homes. Using straw bale construction, creating heat walls. And then something remarkable happened in '99.

We went to Africa originally to look at the housing issue. Within three days, we realized the problem was not housing; it was the growing pandemic of HIV/AIDS. And it wasn't doctors telling us this; it was actual villagers that we were staying with. And so we came up with the bright idea that instead of getting people to walk 10, 15 kilometers to see doctors, you get the doctors to the people. And we started engaging the medical community, and you know, we thought we were real bright sparks — "We've come up with this great idea: mobile health clinics, widely distributed throughout sub-Saharan Africa." And the medical community there said, "We've said this for the last decade. We know this. We just don't know how to show this." So in a way, we had taken pre-existing needs and shown solutions. And so again, we had a whole variety of ideas that came in.

This one I personally love, because the idea is that architecture is not just about solutions, but about raising awareness. This is a kenaf clinic. You get seed and you grow it in a plot of land, and it grows 14 feet in a month. And on the fourth week, the doctors come and they mow out an area, put a tensile structure on the top, and when the doctors have finished treating and seeing patients and villagers, you cut down the clinic and you eat it. It's an eat-your-own-clinic.

So it's dealing with the fact that if you have AIDS, you also need to have nutrition rates, and the idea of nutrition is as important as getting antiretrovirals out there. So you know, this is a serious solution. This one I love. The idea is it's not just a clinic, it's a community center. This looked at setting up trade routes and economic engines within the community, so it can be a self-sustaining project.

Every one of these projects is sustainable. That's not because I'm a tree-hugging green person. It's because when you live on four dollars a day, you're living on survival and you have to be sustainable. You have to know where your energy is coming from, you have to know where your resource is coming from, and you have to keep the maintenance down. So this is about getting an economic engine, and then at night, it turns into a movie theater. So it's not an AIDS clinic. It's a community center. So you can see ideas. And these ideas developed into prototypes, and they were eventually built. And currently, as of this year, there are clinics rolling out in Nigeria and Kenya.

From that, we also developed Siyathemba. The community came to us and said, "The problem is that the girls don't have education." And we're working in an area where young women between the ages of 16 and 24 have a 50 percent HIV/AIDS rate. And that's not because they're promiscuous, it's because there's no knowledge.

And so we decided to look at the idea of sports, and create a youth sports center that doubled as an HIV/AIDS outreach center, and the coaches of the girls' team were also trained doctors. So that there would be a very slow way of developing confidence in health care. And we picked nine finalists, and then those nine finalists were distributed throughout the entire region, and then the community picked their design. They said, this is our design, because it's not only about engaging a community; it's about empowering a community, and about getting them to be a part of the rebuilding process.

So, the winning design is here. And then, of course, we actually go and work with the community and the clients.

So this is the designer. He's out there working with the first ever women's soccer team in KwaZulu-Natal, Siyathemba. And they can tell it better.

(A cappella singing in a South African language)

Video: Well, my name is Cee Cee Mkhonza. I work at the Africa Centre, I'm an IT user consultant. I'm also the national football player for South Africa, Banyana Banyana. And I also play in the Vodacom League, for the team called Tembisa, which has now changed to Siyathemba. This is our home ground.

Cameron Sinclair: I'm going to show that later because I'm running out of time. I can see Chris looking at me slyly.

This was a connection, just a meeting with somebody who wanted to develop Africa's first telemedicine center, in Tanzania. And we met, literally, a couple of months ago. We've already developed a design. The team is over there, working in partnership. This was a matchmaking, thanks to a couple of TEDsters — Sun [Microsystems], Cheryl Heller and Andrew Zolli, who connected me with this amazing African woman. And we start construction in June, and it will be opened by TEDGlobal. So when you come to TEDGlobal, you can check it out.

But what we're known probably most for is dealing with disasters and development, and we've been involved in a lot of issues, such as the tsunami and also things like Hurricane Katrina. This is a 370-dollar shelter that can be easily assembled. This is a community-designed community center. And what that means is we actually live and work with the community, and they're part of the design process. The kids actually get involved in mapping out where the community center should be. And then eventually, the community, through skills training, end up building the building with us.

Here is another school. This is what the UN gave these guys for six months — 12 plastic tarps. This was in August. This was the replacement; that's supposed to last for two years. When the rain comes down, you can't hear a thing, and in the summer, it's about 140 degrees inside. So we said, if the rain's coming down, let's get fresh water. So every one of our schools has a rainwater collection system. Very low cost: three classrooms and rainwater collection is 5,000 dollars. This was raised by hot chocolate sales in Atlanta. It's built by the parents of the kids. The kids are out there on-site, building the buildings. And it opened a couple of weeks ago, and there's 600 kids that are now using the schools.


So, disaster hits home. We see the bad stories on CNN and Fox and all that, but we don't see the good stories. Here is a community that got together, and they said "no" to waiting. They formed a partnership, a diverse partnership of players, to actually map out East Biloxi, to figure out who's getting involved. We've had over 1,500 volunteers rebuilding, rehabbing homes. Figuring out what FEMA regulations are, not waiting for them to dictate to us how you should rebuild. Working with residents, getting them out of their homes, so they don't get ill. This is what they're cleaning up on their own. Designing housing. This house is going in in a couple of weeks. This is a rehabbed home, done in four days. This is a utility room for a woman who is on a walker. She's 70 years old. This is what FEMA gave her. 600 bucks, happened two days ago. We put together, very quickly, a washroom. It's built, it's running and she just started a business today, where she's washing other people's clothes.

These are the Calhouns. They're photographers who had documented the Lower Ninth for the last 40 years. That was their home, and these are the photographs they took. And we're helping, working with them to create a new building. Projects we've done. Projects we've been a part of, support. Why don't aid agencies do this? This is the UN tent. This is the new UN tent, just introduced this year. Quick to assemble. It's got a flap — that's the invention. It took 20 years to design this and get it implemented in the field. I was 12 years old. There's a problem here.

Luckily, we're not alone. There are hundreds and hundreds and hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of architects and designers and inventors around the world that are getting involved in humanitarian work. More hemp houses — it's a theme in Japan, apparently. I'm not sure what they're smoking.


This is a Grip Clip, designed by somebody who said, "All you need is some way to attach membrane structures to physical support beams." This guy designed for NASA, is now doing housing. I'm going to whip through this quickly, because I know I've got only a couple of minutes.

So this is all done in the last two years. I showed you something that took 20 years to do. And this is just a selection of things that were built in the last couple of years. From Brazil to India, Mexico, Alabama, China, Israel, Palestine, Vietnam.

The average age of a designer who gets involved in this project is 32 — that's how old I am. So it's a young — I just have to stop here, because Arup is in the room, and this is the best-designed toilet in the world. If you're ever, ever in India, go use this toilet.


Chris Luebkeman will tell you why. I'm sure that's how he wanted to spend the party. But the future is not going to be the sky-scraping cities of New York, but this. And when you look at this, you see crisis. What I see is many, many inventors. One billion people live in abject poverty. We hear about them all the time. Four billion live in growing but fragile economies. One in seven live in unplanned settlements. If we do nothing about the housing crisis that's about to happen, in 20 years, one in three people will live in an unplanned settlement or a refugee camp. Look left, look right: one of you will be there. How do we improve the living standards of five billion people? With 10 million solutions.

So I wish to develop a community that actively embraces innovative and sustainable design to improve the living conditions for everyone.

Chris Anderson: Wait a sec — that's your wish?

CS: That's my wish.

CA: That's his wish!


CS: We started Architecture for Humanity with 700 dollars and a website. So Chris somehow decided to give me 100,000. So why not this many people? Open-source architecture is the way to go. You have a diverse community of participants — and we're not just talking about inventors and designers, but we're talking about the funding model. My role is not as a designer; it's as a conduit between the design world and the humanitarian world. And what we need is something that replicates me globally, because I haven't slept in seven years.


Secondly, what will this thing be? Designers want to respond to issues of humanitarian crisis, but they don't want some company in the West taking their idea and basically profiting from it. So Creative Commons has developed the Developing Nations license. And what that means is that a designer can — The Siyathemba project I showed was the first ever building to have a Creative Commons license on it. As soon as that is built, anyone in Africa or any developing nation can take the construction documents and replicate it for free.


So why not allow designers the opportunity to do this, but still protect their rights here? We want to have a community where you can upload ideas, and those ideas can be tested in an earthquake, in flood, in all sorts of austere environments. The reason that's important is I don't want to wait for the next Katrina to find out if my house works. That's too late, we need to do it now. So doing that globally — and I want this whole thing to work multi-lingually. When you look at the face of an architect, most people think a gray-haired white guy. I don't see that; I see the face of the world. So I want everyone from all over the planet to be able to be a part of this design and development. The idea of needs-based competitions — XPRIZE for the other 98 percent, if you want to call it that.

We also want to look at ways of matchmaking and putting funding partners together, and the idea of integrating manufacturers — fab labs in every country. When I hear about the $100 laptop and it's going to educate every child — educate every designer in the world. Put one in every favela, every slum settlement. Because you know what? Innovation will happen. And I need to know that. It's called the leap-back. We talk about leapfrog technologies.

I write with Worldchanging, and the one thing we've been talking about is, I learn more on the ground than I've ever learned here. So let's take those ideas, adapt them, and we can use them. These ideas are supposed to be adaptable; they should have the potential for evolution; they should be developed by every nation in the world and useful for every nation in the world. What will it take?

There should be a sheet. I don't have time to read this, because I'm going to be yanked off.

CA: Let's just leave it up for a sec.

CS: Well, what will it take? You guys are smart. So it's going to take a lot of computing power, because I want the idea that any laptop anywhere in the world can plug into the system and be able to not only participate in developing these designs, but utilize the designs. Also, a process of reviewing the designs. I want every Arup engineer in the world to check and make sure that we're doing stuff that's standing, because those guys are the best in the world. Plug. And so, you know, I want these —

I just should note: I have two laptops and one of them is there, and that has 3000 designs on it. If I drop that laptop ... What happens? So it's important to have these proven ideas put up there, easy to use, easy to get ahold of. My mom once said, "There's nothing worse than being all mouth and no trousers."


I'm fed up of talking about making change. You only make it by doing it. We've changed FEMA guidelines; we've changed public policy; we've changed international response — based on building things. So for me, it's important that we create a real conduit for innovation, and that it's free innovation. Think of free culture — this is free innovation. Somebody said this a couple of years back. I will give points for those who know it. But I think the man was maybe 25 years too early.

So let's do it.

Thank you.