Kelley Cheng looks at the legacy of the democratic chopstick and discusses the need for a new kind of design utopia. I aspire to be a design democrat. Perhaps it is a genetic thing. When my dad asked my six-year-old nephew, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”, he exclaimed, “A doctor!” And my dad told him, “Then you have to be a good doctor, remember never to charge any sickly person who has no money.”

A doctor can save the world. An architect, too, can save the world. So, can a designer as an individual save the world?

I have a personal theory about this. We can attempt to save the world in many different ways, and if each of us can do so in our own small way, the world will be a better place. I suppose the ‘good doctor’ theory, prescribed by my dad, of giving to those who can’t afford it, would be one way to save the world as an individual. And if I ever design something that has a positive impact on the way we live, and I make it free for all, I suppose that will be one step toward saving the world.

If every designer were to come up with something – like a pair of chopsticks, so simple, so cheap, and yet so effective in making lives easier – with no copyright, then everyone would be able to reproduce it, everyone would be able to afford it, and everyone would be able to own it. This is design democracy at its simplest and best. The spirit of designing something simply to solve a problem, not to be famous or make money, was alive 3,000 years ago when chopsticks were invented; unfortunately, that spirit is now completely lost.

Today designers sometimes act like superstars, creating a body of work primarily for money, fame and vanity. And it’s worrying when famous designers suggest that design is “not about solving problems”, as Karim Rashid does in his theory about changing the world. He wrote, “Now design is not about solving problems, but about a rigorous beautification of our built environments.” Somehow, design becomes superficial when designers become superstars and preach self-prescribed theory like a charlatan.

While beautifying our built environment is indeed important, it should not be limited to those times when a client is paying big money. It is easy for designers to criticise and complain when things around us are ugly and not well designed, but this happens because good designers often refuse to take on jobs that they think do not pay well, resulting in design being an elitist engagement.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, there is a group of professionals contributing beautiful design for reasons other than profit. Architect-turned-activist Mohammed Rezwan changed the lives of many students in Bangladesh with his solar-powered floating boats that allow school to continue despite floods. Project H Design is a non-profit organisation – run by designers, teachers and builders – that uses design to transform public education, often with limited budgets. In 2003, the Campana brothers designed the materially and culturally sustainable Favela chair, a hand glued and nailed seat made with wood scraps from the furniture industry; the same wood scraps were also used to build ad-hoc shelters in Brazil. At Space Furniture in Singapore, initiatives such as Green Space 2012 and Space Nurtures are motivated by a desire to serve the community for intangible rewards such as environmental and design awareness.

Understood by most people to mean ‘for free’, the Latin phrase ‘pro bono’ actually means ‘for good’ and originated from ‘pro bono publico’, or ‘for the good of the public’. If every designer contributed a little to the people who need design but cannot pay for it, as utopian as it may sound, there will be a real possibility of building a design democracy here in Singapore, regardless of race, language or religion.