‘Don’t bother me. I’m dreaming:’ Designing for good in Los Angeles

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On a fancy strip of Beverly Boulevard, across from a pricey restaurant and up the street from shops that purvey jewels and perfume and precious housewares, 40 people gathered Wednesday afternoon in the office of a global relief agency to talk about helping the poor globally by designing innovative products that help improve their lives. It turns out that social entrepreneurship is a burgeoning industry in our fair city.

Most people wouldn’t automatically consider Los Angeles as a hub of the social entrepreneurial spirit (although the buy-one-give-one-to-the-poor company Tom’s Shoes is headquartered here.)  But this meeting of Global SoCal, a coalition of people working to help beyond our borders, suggests a thriving community of people helping the world beyond.

The audience was as diverse as the interests they serve, from a medical student to a design student to academics to non-profit executives and the creator of Gallant Suits, which sells menswear to help end sex trafficking. All gathered to hear presentations from people here who are leading the charge to design products for the developing world.

Proximity Design, which recently won a prestigious Skoll Award for its work in Myanmar, where she said 95 percent of the people still live off the land –and off the grid. “We treat people as customers, not as aid recipients,” she explained to the group. The respect yields results in one of the world’s least developed nations: one man, she said, went into a trance while testing out a low-cost irrigation pump developed by Proximity. “Don’t bother me,” he said, when others nudged him to allow them their chance to demo the device. “I’m dreaming.”

Mechanical engineer Dr. Ken Pickar of Caltech talked about a unique partnership between his school and the Art Center in Pasadena, where science-minded and design-minded students partner with others in India to innovate against troubles there.  He said they’re taught that the goal isn’t to necessarily end poverty, “but to design solutions that give them the leg up.”

Mariana Amatulo of DesignMatters, the Art Center’s initiative to fuse design with social innovation, recently won a Dell Social Innovation award, also spoke, and showed a video about an initiative to provide clean drinking water in Peru.

The session was moderated by nonprofit executive Carolyn Wagner, who is launching a new initiative called Do Good LA to “trumpet LA as a mecca for those working to make the world a better place.”  A few hours in this company on a nice Wednesday afternoon offered a good start to that.