Timothy Prestero designed a baby incubator for hospitals in the developing world that could be made cheaply from Toyota truck parts. Mallory Taub and fellow students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) created an inexpensive, easy-to-build dome using locally made bricks. John Todd's Eco-Machine, in use in more than 100 locations, provides a sustainable alternative to traditional wastewater treatment, a natural system that's not only practical but beautiful.
Visitors exploring the wide-ranging "Why Design Now?" exhibition at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York City are likely to come away in awe of how designers such as these are employing their creativity to become 21st-century problem-solvers.
This year's triennial, the fourth in a series that appears every three years at the museum, breaks new ground by going beyond the work of US designers, highlighting 134 projects from 44 countries.
The show, which opened May 14, focuses on the way design can help solve pressing world needs.
"I think design is going to be the major tool of this century to help solve many of these problems," says Cara McCarty, curatorial director at the Cooper-Hewitt and one of four curators who pulled the enormous project together. "Good design can push people's thinking. This show is tackling issues that go way beyond our borders."
Organized around eight themes – energy, mobility, community, materials, prosperity, health, communication, and simplicity – "Why Design Now?" gives a passing nod to the innovative design expressed by a few iconic consumer items launched in the last three years – the multitasking iPhone; the Kindle wireless reader; and Twitter, the online social network.
But most of the exhibits will surprise, perhaps startle, and in some cases delight viewers.
"Design is about optimism," Ms. McCarty says. "Design is finding solutions. This is not a doom-and-gloom show."
Labels for each work answer why it is in the show – what makes it unique and useful in the world. While most of the objects are in production and available to buy, some are still prototypes. Many express a combination of both beauty and utility – while also embracing the need to be environmentally responsible.
"Today, as designers strive to simplify production processes and consume fewer materials in smaller amounts," notes the exhibition catalog, "the quest for simplicity is shaping design's economic and ethical values as well as its sense of beauty."
For example, when in use, the Power Aware Cord glows a soothing ice blue. But it also reminds the user that whatever device it is attached to is consuming electricity. The Cobi office chair combines elegant design and comfort with the ultimate in reuse: It can be completely recycled.
The bioWAVE Ocean-wave Energy System, a prototype from Australia shown only on video, looks to the motion of the natural world for inspiration. Attached to the seabed, it would rock gently in tune with ocean currents, mimicking swaying sea grass and seaweed. Each unit could produce up to 2 megawatts of power. A field of such machines would become a sizable undersea power plant.
Among other places, the Eco-Machine cleans the wastewater at the Omega Center for Sustainable Living in Rhinebeck, N.Y., two hours north of New York City. Dr. Todd's system passes dirty water through naturally occurring enzymes, fungi, bacteria, plants, and animals (insects and fish) in a series of pond and greenhouse settings.
"We go into the local environment and literally bring in hundreds of thousands of forms of life and let them sort themselves out" inside his Eco-Machine, he says. "It's called 'seeding.' "
Part of the Eco-Machine even grows flowers for display in the centers. Eventually the water returns to the aquifer, "cleaner than water from a conventional wastewater treatment plant," says Laura Lesniewski, a principal at BNIM, an architectural firm in Kansas City that designed the building. "This whole system doesn't cost any more than if they replaced it with a traditional septic system."
Demonstrating a modern twist on an ancient technique, the MIT Masonry Research Group used 720 bricks made from 30 percent raw sewage and postindustrial waste to build a 16-foot-wide undulating arch inside the Cooper-Hewitt. The student team took three days to complete the structure.
The bricks are only 1-1/2 inches thick, yet the arch is so strong that two MIT students have stood atop a similar structure built on the campus.
"We're trying to show that bricks can do more than make a wall," Ms. Taub says. "Bricks can span surfaces. They can do that in a very beautiful, innovative way."
Special computer-designed curves within the arch add to its strength.
"It's very strong, even though it's very thin," she says. It can be built by unskilled laborers who lay the bricks over a simple wooden form.
The design for the Neonurture Car-parts Baby Incubator rested on a simple fact.
"Think of it," says Mr. Prestero, founder and CEO of Design That Matters in Cambridge, Mass. "There are three things you can buy anywhere in the world: a Coke, cigarettes, and car parts."
Most medical equipment donated to the developing world breaks or is abandoned for lack of parts within a few years, he says. But major automakers such as Toyota already extend their parts supply lines into the remotest corners of the world.
Incubators are used to keep infants warm for the first 24 hours after birth. "There are 1.8 million infant deaths per year because of hypothermia," Prestero says. Having a working incubator at a local hospital or clinic could save many lives.
A Toyota truck has about 17,000 parts, he says. His team's design objective was to "take away all the parts that aren't an incubator." The result looks a bit like a street vendor's cart or baby carriage hiding a car battery for generating heat. At first Prestero thought parents would want something designed to look comfortable and friendly. But instead, he found, they wanted the reassurance of a high-tech look – "NASA, not IKEA."
Creating a "warm box" for the infant isn't hard, he concedes. But keeping the design simple can be. "We want to make it easy to do the right thing and hard to do the wrong thing," he says. As a result, the incubator has a single knob to control the temperature and requires minimal training to operate.
The Cooper-Hewitt's four curators spent three years searching for innovative and world-changing designs. A museum website solicited ideas from the public, many of which were included.
The design of the exhibition itself tries to "walk the walk" of sustainability. The furniture, for example, is made from 100 percent postindustrial recycled wood. At every step of the way, efforts were made to reduce waste and choose materials that took little energy to manufacture and ship and were recyclable. It's all meant to inspire visitors.
"This [exhibition] is about how can we solve the world's problems together," McCarty says. "Hopefully people will walk out asking, 'What can I do? What difference can I make?' "
• "National Design Triennial: Why Design Now?" runs through Jan. 9, 2011, and is expected to travel to venues both within the US and abroad.