For the 2004 Popular Science invitational design competition, we chose the theme of “technological CARE packages for the 21st century.” What good, we asked, might emerging technology do for global communities in need? We put the problem before internationally renowned designers, architects and thinkers. The results surprised and delighted us. Whales, it seems, need noise-cancellation devices. Office chairs should morph, like Transformer toys, into survival gear. Bombed-out villages need utility centers powered by wood or the turn of a bicycle wheel. And cities need to gaze at newborn stars.
When we decided to build a design competition around the idea of a 21st-century CARE package, the idea was to move well beyond the original 1945 template. Those simple boxes of Spam, lard, cornmeal, powdered milk and other American staples saved the lives of many starving Europeans after World War II. But soon after 1945, CARE was air-dropping tools, blankets and medicine as well. Over the decades the concept of international relief evolved to include transfer of expertise and technology and the encouragement of self-help in communities in need.
The parameters for those invited to participate in our competition were left wide open: We asked the entrants to identify a community, define a need (it could be “any urgent, definable need: social, political, cultural, domestic or international”) and then imagine a technological fix. The technology itself should be extant or within reasonable hailing
distance, and a matchmaking service was offered: We would pair entrants with experts in scientific or technological fields related to their concept.
When the folders, discs and e-mail attachments arrived at our offices early this spring, the projects revealed in roughly equal measures the influence of CARE, the nightly news, Florence Nightingale and the 101st Airborne Division. The judges encountered fleets of autonomous underwater vehicles to save sonar-assaulted whales; survivalist office chairs; deployable sweet-water systems; and a savagely satirical project called PAL of the USA, for People About to be Liberated by the United States of America, in which the community receives a “smart bomb” ordnance of iPods, hot dogs and other Americana. Some entries were dead serious, some a mere provocation and some a techno-poetic gloss on the predicament of western communities lost in their own machine-made fog.
Taken together, the CARE packages mirror their creators’ first-world sense of technological might: Membership has its privileges. Who else can afford to consider electroactive polymers, Technogel, woven-fabric electroluminescent displays and 3-D scanners as aid? Yes, attention was paid to basic needs—for purified water, for example—but it seems humanity also requires sleeker portable communications devices, more and better network access, more terminals and displays, and all the power sources to feed them, from solar to steam to hypothetically efficient Stirling engines.
The judges were experts on design, technology and the blurry line between fancy and feasibility. They met around a table at the magazine’s headquarters to evaluate the entries. Epithets shot back and forth, from “technoporn” to “fantasy projections” to “commercial home run.” There were plenty of practical questions: “Why do you need connectivity in the same box with water purification?” “Does it allow people to create an economy or is it going to be a burden?” “What happens when this technology breaks down?” What rumbled under the hood of the proceedings was not so much the problems of specific technologies, it was a more philosophical issue: In the real world, would these technologies, these silicon CARE packages, be real gifts or simply more levers of influence in the balance of power?