By Rosalie Hughes
Since February, Congolese refugees in Burundi have been receiving more than the typical aid package of food, water, and shelter.
That’s because two of Burundi’s four refugee camps have been testing a new project that uses technology to bring culture to conflict-affected people.
It’s called the Ideas Box. Created by non-profit group Libraries Without Borders in partnership with the UN Refugee Agency, the concept is quite an innovation. Designed by world famous designer Philippe Starck, the box contains computers, paper books, electronic books, audio books, tablets, a movie screen, a video camera, and more. It also contains light, IKEA-esque furniture, ropes, and tarps to protect it from the elements, and a battery pack enabling self-sufficiency system in settings without electricity. It’s designed to be able to be tossed from a plane and survive intact.
Libraries Without Borders will ship three more Ideas Boxes to Africa’s Great Lakes region in the coming months. In the fall they hope to send more to Syrian refugees in Jordan and Lebanon.
Rosalie Hughes sat down with Philippe Starck to talk about his role in the project. Here are some excerpts from the conversation, translated from French:
Rosalie Hughes: Why did you agree to design the Ideas Box?
Philippe Starck: Because it’s a grand honor and it’s rare to be given the chance to deserve to exist. To deserve to exist is above all to serve. And there are people for whom it’s urgent to serve. There are people who have lost everything.
There’s something that’s extraordinary about the Ideas Box; it’s a present that falls from the sky. Like in Gabriel García Márquez’s book One Hundred Years of Solitude, all of a sudden there are people who bring crates. And inside every crate is a treasure. And to put this in the middle of nowhere, in the desert, at the world’s end, it suddenly creates a small village. Tents erect, umbrellas open, chairs unfold, and drawers open, in which there are books, tablets, and computers.
So it’s a real service. It wasn’t me who had the idea, I regret. All I did was put it together and make it more sturdy and practical. In doing so I had to solve numerous puzzles: how to put the most multimedia elements together in the least amount of space, to throw it from an airplane and have it not shatter when it lands. There were a bunch of puzzles. But that’s my job. Unfortunately, I work only on the material part of the object. I would have loved to be part of the virtual aspect too.
Hughes: Can you talk a bit about the creative process you took when designing the Ideas Box?
Starck: There was no creative process. It was essentially technical and one of the technical parameters was to remember what we say in French, that you can’t catch a fly with vinegar. In other words, the passageway to dreams, the access to knowledge, can’t be punishment or a chore. So, using the very small means that we had at our disposal, we needed to make a pleasing object and space. It needed to be a place where people want to go. In other words, at any given time, people should see that something’s happening there, that people –that foreigners – have mounted a little village. So, by the style, the colors, the details, things like that, we needed to first physically attract people. After, once the book is opened…it will never close.
Hughes: How does this work fit in with your other works, what is the connection?
Starck: The system is binary: useful profession, useless profession. Useful professions really save lives. Useless professions don’t save lives. Because of bad luck, a bad draw of cards, I’m in the second category. I do a useless profession. But with a project like this, while we’re not physically saving lives, we’re saving the soul, the mind, the heart, everything that makes a human a human.
Hughes: Have you ever been in a refugee camp?
Starck: A few years ago I was in Shatilla (refugee camp), in Lebanon. But I was in the middle of the conflict and massacres. So it was a really a particular moment; the violence was beyond extreme. I’ve never been in a refugee camp in a “pseudo-peace” situation. I believe it’s a terrible hardship. To speak about it is one thing and to see images on the television it’s another thing. But it still stays two-dimensional. I think that to really realize in what conditions today people live and die, compared to our comfort, I think it’s beyond acceptable. I think it’s something profoundly disturbing and I don’t imagine that I would be able to really understand, realize, integrate this reality, and then return to my home in the [bourgeois] 16th arrondissement of Paris. It’s out of the question. I think it would be a visit without return.
Hughes: You have said in the past that when designing something you try to understand the society that will use the product. And so without going to Burundi and to the refugee camps there for example, how did you educate yourself on what the life of a refugee is?
Starck: The operation of Libraries Without Borders is multinational, multi-ethnic, multi-racial, multi-everything. Tomorrow we could drop our containers over Burundi, after that it could be over Haiti, after that over the Amazon, after that it could be anywhere in the world. So the contents should be absorbable and adaptable by everyone.
I’m not the person who decides on the content. But the people who do try to get materials in their original form. Materials of culture, knowledge, dreams, entertainment. And you know, one shouldn’t exaggerate; thank goodness we’re all similar. We all have the same heart, the same brain, and the same two eyes. We shouldn’t exaggerate the differences.
Hughes: Do you have any involvement in the Ideas Box anymore, are you following its progress?
Starck: Yes, we follow the project enormously because it’s in a state of permanent improvement. It’s in that state because despite all of the care – and you know, I’m a psycho-maniac of perfection[ist] – there is still always one little washer that’s leaking water, a construction foam that’s not resistant enough and the material breaks, or another idea for improvement comes. So it’s an endless product.
Hughes: Certain people might say that the Ideas Box is a luxury item for a refugee camp. Why should humanitarian organizations give satellite connection, Internet, tablets, etc… to people who have shortages of water, food and shelter?
Starck: The project is directed to survivors. To people who already have water and something to eat. Other organizations take care of those needs. Bravo, very good. We complete the work.
Rosalie Hughes is a master's student in journalism and human rights at Institut d'Etudes Politiques de Paris and a journalist with Radio France International (RFI)
[Photos courtsey of Jean-Baptiste Mondino and Philippe Starck]