Chronic poverty leads to lack of education leads to chronic poverty leads to lack of ed….you get the picture.  It’s a nasty cycle.  And it’s not just in what we often refer to as the “developing world.” There are underserved populations everywhere.  Even generally affluent U.S. cities often have a digital divide.  In our increasingly information driven world, this lack of access to knowledge results in a barrier to opportunity for those who don’t have the economic, geographical or cultural freedom to participate. 

Here is a look at some innovative design solutions to this worldwide problem.  All of these ideas face some common challenges: How do you create an attractive, secure, sustainable and affordable solution in areas that have little money, little safety and often little hope for a bright future?

The Hole in the Wall Project

A tremendously inspiring fellow named Dr. Sugata Mitra won the million dollar 2013 TED.com Prize for his Hole in the Wall project.

Playground Learning Stations in Eastern Bhutan. (Image: Hole-in-the-Wall Project)

Playground Learning Stations in Eastern Bhutan. (Image: Hole-in-the-Wall Project)

Sixteen years ago, he knocked a hole in the wall of his office and stuck an internet-connected computer through it facing outwards towards the neighboring slum. The local kids started playing with it and taught themselves to navigate the web, and read and write with amazing speed. With the help of the TED Prize, he quickly spread his idea for self-organized learning environments throughout India.  He has impacted tens of thousands of children already and his system for creating minimal interventions to create maximum impact has had a profound influence world-wide.


Coca-cola launched this micro-enterprise/water/web portal kiosk in 2013 in S.Africa. There are now 23 Ekocenters around Africa and Asia.  The design is a mashup between a re-purposed shipping container and a Coke vendor kiosk. The overall concept integrates a variety of functions: it provides clean water and Coke products, refrigeration, solar powered Wi-Fi and charging stations for personal devices (there are many areas of the world that have Wi-Fi, but unreliable or expensive electricity), and an entrepreneurial livelihood for a woman in an economically impoverished area.

The Agora Projects

Source: The Agora Projects

Source: The Agora Projects

The Agora Projects are solar powered, Wi-Fi-enabled community gathering pavilions.  The aspirational architecture of the Agora provides a shaded, open-air, outdoor work environment and seating to help reconnect people to nature and each other. They offer integrated web-enabled tablets, free Wi-Fi, and charging stations.  Surplus power from the futuristic thin-film solar canopy can be used for a variety of additional community-directed purposes, such as water pumping and filtration, programmable LED lighting, speakers (to make it into a classroom or performance venue) and refrigeration. (Full disclosure: I’m involved with this project.)


Librii creatively re-purposes shipping containers to build a secure room for computers and simultaneously use the container’s structure and inexpensive, locally-available materials to define shaded and attractive gathering places.   It also includes a revenue-generating component through its cyber-cafe.

Using Design to Solve Big Social Problems

These are just a few of the many recent design ideas intended to provide access to information to everyone, and through that, to create economic and social upward mobility. 

Using design to solve big social problems comes in myriad forms.  Check out the amazing contributions of Architecture for HumanityEngineers without Borders and Rural Studio.  These are just the tip of the iceberg.  Send me – scott [at] rodwinarch.com – your favorite inspiring design solutions and I’ll re-post them on my Facebook page.

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