Design can save the world

As a child, Yves Béhar dreamed of becoming a writer. Inspired by the battle scenes covering the Turkish carpets in his parents’ home and the French bestseller Papillon he devoured in his youth, Béhar’s wild imagination took on a life of its own. He concocted crazy stories that detailed his own “escapes” from prison and imagined the lives of the survivors of the 1972 Andes plane crash that took place when B.har was just five. 

These stories of survival and risk had a level of adventure that was in stark contrast to Béhar’s childhood in Switzerland. His dual cultural upbringing by his Turkish father and German mother infused him, on the one hand, with the Swiss need for consistency, a strong work ethic, and attention to detail, and on the other hand, the poetry, warmth, and storytelling culture of Turkey. 

Just by looking at the designs that Béhar and his team create at his San Francisco design firm, fuseproject, you can see imagination and Turko-German synergy at work. The Mission One motorcycle aims to visualize what it means to “ride the wind,” while while the Vue watch Béhar created for Issey Miyake is a whimsical piece that only allows the user to see the current hour, as the last hour (and the next) fade in and out of view. Just as the motorcycle is a metaphor for ultimate liberty, the watch is a statement on the meaning of time and the dislocation of past and future. 

The world is a better place because Béhar renounced a decision to take the safe path, preferring the one that catapulted him around the world. If he hadn’t taken the leap of faith to pursue design and ended up at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, what is known to the world as the $100 laptop might not exist today. The idea was the brainchild of MIT Professor Nicholas Negroponte, who, after traveling to a Cambodian village in 2002 and watching children play with laptops, thought: “What potential could be unleashed if every child in the world had access to a computer?” This thought led to the  per Child initiative and the creation of the XO laptop, designed by Béhar. Many critics said that not only was a $100 laptop an impossible dream, but also questioned the priority of computers when many children didn’t have food or clean water. Design Continuum, the firm initially brought on to create the laptop, hit a wall. Then, in 2005, fuseproject came in and labored for two years to create what is today considered a resounding success. More than one million laptops have been distributed to children around the world, and a new, all-plastic tablet screen design, which is semi-flexible and extremely durable, is expected to be released this year. This third generation model transforms from horizontal book mode to portrait mode, and includes the added element of multitouch so that multiple children can use the same laptop at once.  

Uruguay may have earned the prize for the most comprehensive rollout of the One Laptop per Child initiative in the world. The country’s Plan Ceibal is an education reform initiative with the goal of providing one computer for every student and teacher. Now that this goal has been accomplished at the primary school level, high schools are next in line to receive the computers. Uruguay’s example proves that a low-cost, highquality laptop for every child is indeed possible.

Béhar believes that for technology to take hold in society, children need to lead the way. “Adults have a hard time adapting to anything new,” said Béhar in a recent phone conversation with The Global Journal. “The reason why we are able to get kids a laptop that goes beyond the conventions of the technology products we use today is because kids have an unadulterated, open mind. Technology has taught adults all these bad habits and complicated ways. When you can remove the layers of complexity and can bring in elements of customization and uniqueness that allow kids to take part in its creation, kids become the greatest adopters of new ideas.”

His most recent effort at fusing education and design is evident in See Better to Learn Better, a free eyeglasses program conceived in partnership with the Mexican government. The goal of this program is to give away 300,000 glasses every year, ensuring that the 11 percent of kids in Mexico who can’t learn because they can’t see, and who are stigmatized because they wear glasses, are given a real chance at education. The frames of the glasses are made from an almost unbreakable plastic and the two-part design of the frames allows kids to choose their favorite colors and shapes.

“It really changes their world when children see you created something specifically for them and you thought about how it will fit into their lives functionally, emotionally, and aesthetically,” Béhar said. “Good design treats people well from an ergonomics standpoint, a usage standpoint, an environmental standpoint, and a health standpoint.”

One of Béhar’s greatest gifts is his ability to marry the world of luxury and privilege with that of low-cost design. He has traveled to countries with a culture of hand-me-downs and no technology community to speak of, in order to prove that high value can be delivered at any cost. While he has partnered with companies like high-end Bluetooth creator Aliph to create the best-selling Jawbone headset, and the venerable hippycrunchy footwear company Birkenstock, it is his collaborations like those with Negroponte and the Mexican government that have proven Béhar’s mantra: design should be both sustainable and attainable.  

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