The TEDGlobal Fellows program had their TED Global Conference this July in Oxford. Twenty-three individuals came from 20 countries and sectors as diverse as dance, agriculture, technology and biochemistry. Beyond Profit is bringing you exclusive interviews with select TEDGlobal fellows, for insight on how they are using innovative ways to create sustainable change. This is our last profile in the TED Talks series.

TEDGlobal Fellows profile: DK Osseo-Asare

The “Design for Development” movement is a controversial one. Many argue that it leads to architects and designers from industrialized nations designing for, rather than with, the citizens of developing nations. Ghanaian-American architect DK Osseo-Asare has seen similar, well-intentioned mistakes. “Definitely not all, but some of the emerging ‘humanitarian design’ initiatives today show up in communities without adequate partners, and fund their own design visions,” Osseo-Asare says. “We are wary of scenarios in which design is in a sense forced into local communities.” His two organizations, the think tank DSGN AGNC  (Design Agency) and architecture studio LOWDO (Low Design Office), aim to reverse this debilitating trend. For Osseo-Asare, design isn’t about constructing buildings – it’s about building connections.

His two organizations aim to do just that. DSGN AGNC is a non-profit organization that looks for design solutions to development problems. LOWDO is a social enterprise, “an architecture studio that realizes high design through low cost, low energy technologies and solutions.” Regardless of the vehicle, both organizations see their structures as more than buildings – they are opportunities to build sustainability and community. Both DSGN AGNC and LOWDO work closely with the neighborhoods they build in.

One area where Osseo-Asare hopes to use collaborative architecture is through the “kiosk culture” of Ghana. Informal shacks and buildings made of reused materials line Ghanaian streets, home to microenterprises and microindustry. While these buildings are technically illegal, they are an integral part of Ghanaian culture and daily life. “People expect ubiquitous micro-enterprise, [like] the ability to buy water or mobile phone credits from a vendor at virtually any point in the city,” Osseo-Asare says. Why then, are city planners trying to wipe out such structures, and replace them with factories?

“Kiosk culture is an existing model for survival in the city that can also become a bottom-up strategy for advancing local fabrication and sustainability,” Osseo-Asare says. Instead of eradicating kiosk culture in the growing city of Tema, Ghana, he and his team are working to build stronger, more environmentally friendly microstructures. Their first project is “bamboo lifecycling”: growing bamboo in an urban setting, and using it to build temporary and mobile infrastructures. After use, discarded building materials can be used as low-cost and low-impact cooking fuel.

Like another TEDGlobal fellow, Veronica Reed, Osseo-Asare is working to reverse the misconception that positions low impact and low cost as two separate goals. Many of his other projects involve creating gardens and green schools in low-income areas to serve as an example to the rest of the community. They promote the incorporation of rainwater catchment, renewable energy, and productive landscaping into both urban and rural neighborhoods. And they’ve changed the way they look at landscaping, by designing on the ground to accommodate the land in its natural state.

“The architecture born within low-income environments is often very sustainable: efficient spaces, use of recycled materials, building with natural materials according to traditional or vernacular techniques,” he says. By working with existing Ghanaian building traditions, rather than striving for new western modernity, he sees a path to more collaborative sustainability.

“Part of the problem in Ghana is that too often people tend to equate ‘modern’ with ‘Western,’” he says.  “Low-cost/low-tech architecture can not only be climate-responsive and ecologically-sensitive, but also simultaneously aesthetically progressive and grounded in local culture.”

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