Accepted paper:

Micro-utopias: humanitarian goods in an age of audit


Peter Redfield (University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill)

Paper short abstract:

This paper examines contemporary efforts to improve the world through humanitarian design, and the form of practical utopianism invested in the “small fixes” promised by humanitarian goods.

Paper long abstract:

What scale of vision do people enact when seeking to change the world? This paper explores that question by focusing on humanitarian goods: objects that direct sentiments of human connection toward highly delimited practical problems. Whereas the era of decolonization embraced large dreams of nation building and massive development works, today they appear in relatively short supply. By contrast, diffuse claims about human rights and humanitarianism permeate international relations alongside the glossy brochures of aid organizations. They also adhere to specific objects on a growing frontier of design. Recently, a wave of social entrepreneurs has sought to respond to social problems of disaster and extreme poverty with ingenious, small-scale designs. The successors to an earlier wave of appropriate technology like solar cookers, these devices display heightened ecological concern, deploy audit oversight and desire to enroll their targeted users into the planning process. They remain modest in scope, seeking "small fixes" through highly specific interventions. At the same time they suggest new contours of humanitarian imagination, partly decoupled from both states and standard infrastructure and refocused on a microscale of future good.

panel P04
Architects of utopia