Imperatives and Trade-Offs for the Humanitarian Designer: Off-Grid Energy for Humanitarian Relief

Brita Fladvad Nielsen


This article will guide designers who hope to work in the unpredictable area of humanitarian relief. Conflicting interests among stakeholders is a key element of this unpredictability. Conflicting interests in the “humanitarian market” create significant barriers to the satisfactory implementation new designs. For this study, off-grid energy devices are identified as one of the most important devices, with significant room for improvement. Scarce resources, health issues and damaging ecological impacts make current energy sources untenable. The ideal design of off-grid energy devices must ideally be one that is sustainable, does not risk the health of the end-users, and provide jobs for the surrounding host communities. For this research, I interviewed product designers and humanitarian customers in order to understand the dilemmas inherent in this market. Findings revealed that a major barrier to successful design is the short-term focused humanitarian stakeholder system. Participants suggested trade-offs that can balance short term objectives with long term, triple bottom line, sustainable development goals in this dynamic environment.

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Journal of Sustainable Development   ISSN 1913-9063 (Print)   ISSN 1913-9071 (Online) Email:

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