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Playpumps & Radical Plumbers

January 15, 2011

Ralph Borland did his Ph.D. viva yesterday and came through with flying colours. His thesis is called ‘Playpumps and Radical Plumbers – Objects in Development’. Ralph has been in my group for the last four years and submitted the thesis a few months ago.

The thesis is based around an object called the Playpump – a water pump designed for use in Africa. The pump is operated by children playing on a merry-go-round. Ralph is interested in the Playpump as it is an especially strong example of an object that has both a functional role and a communicative role. In the case of the Playpump the functional role is on the ground in Africa and the main (though not sole) communicative role is in the first world. The Playpump was at one stage particularly successful in speaking to first world audiences and hence garnering financial support. The image of children at play effortlessly pumping water was considered particularly appealing. Ralph’s thesis picks apart the communicative and functional aspects of the Playpump and through different lenses provides an in-depth reading of the Playpump. Ralph looks at it from an appropriate technology perspective, an activist art perspective, a critical design perspective and a counter-programme perspective to provide this reading. He concludes that the Playpump from a functional perspective has become a very static technology – unable to adapt to needs and demands of users and in fact  that its functional attributes have been highly restricted in favour of a focus on its communicative aspects.

I am in no way doing the thesis justice in this short summary. And while the thesis does focus on the Playpump, it considers it also in the wider context of object design for the developing world.

Professor Mary Flanagan was the external examiner and Professor Michael John Gorman the internal examiner. From my perspective looking on as supervisor (advisors do not play a role in the Viva Voce here), they asked extremely challenging and though-provoking questions.

Ralph intends to turn his thesis material into a book and I am certainly looking forward to that.

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From → Art, Ph.D. Research

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