Designing for Social Impact        

Designing for Social Impact

August 19, 2019

Design is one of the most powerful tools being used in the 21st century. In order to understand the broader impacts of design, we first have to look beyond immediate results and into the surrounding system that a design will affect.

Design is no longer about solving one dimensional problems. Design for social impact, as we are defining it, has to do with measuring user satisfaction at an individual, community and global scale. We want to know: how does this design create more opportunities for change? And at what scale is that change occurring? As a product development firm, we are always thinking about how the products we design impact the modern consumer and how we can use that to create change through those 3 scales.

Designing for Scales – Across Industries

Successful, proactive designs can spread beyond impacting on an individual level, and continue to create change on a community, national, and even on a global level. We have seen this first hand both internally from designs we have created and externally with more well known products and solutions. The social impact of design has affected a widespread variety of industries and trades including architecture, transportation, healthcare, packaging, and connectivity.

Design creates culture. Culture shapes values. Values determine the future.” – Robert L. Peters

Architecture: Designing for Presence
As we’ve seen with popular buildings and skyscrapers, architecture has the ability to create social impact and give cities a global, prominent presence. Completed in 1931, the Empire State Building is an example of smart design becoming more than a physical presence and becoming a cultural change maker. Towering at 102 stories in the center of Midtown Manhattan, the building’s distinct art deco design has been world renown and considered the “heart of New York” for decades. Buildings like that have the ability to drastically change the economy of their entire city, not just function as rental space.

We’ve seen this proved all over the world with buildings such as the Sydney Opera House, Burj Khalifa, and the Walt Disney Opera House. All designed with purpose and going outside of the box when it comes to appearance and functionality. We have seen an increase in sustainable architecture in the past few years – something that takes designing for multiple scales to the next level and creates more opportunity for change and creativity.

Architecture: Designing for the Environment
Global architecture and design studio, dwp, designed the Smart Dubai office that opened their doors in 2017. Designed with cutting edge technology and rooted in sustainability, the building relies on mostly organic material, like wood and rope, and prides itself on it’s small carbon footprint. Dwp designed with the building as a “living office,” marrying nature, technology, and culture as one.

Another example of a green landmark, is One Angel Square in Manchester, United Kingdom. It is one of the largest, most sustainable buildings in the UK and is powered by a biodiesel cogeneration plant and is an energy plus building, producing surplus energy and zero carbon emissions. Impressively, it is one of the largest buildings in Europe to receive a BREEAM certification. The Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method is a publication that assesses, rates, and certifies the sustainability of buildings. One example of its ingenious design is the south atrium’s ability to collect heat and The building’s sustainable cogeneration heat and power plant uses biofuel and waste cooking oil. Its computer systems will recycle waste heat and the building has a used water recycling system and rainwater harvesting.

In China, the Shanghai Tower takes the form of nine cylindrical buildings stacked atop each other, totaling 128 floors, all enclosed by the inner layer of the glass facade. It has a megatail design, curved and twisted, to combat strong winds of Shanghai and entirely geothermal heating and cooling.

Architecture: Redesigning Traditional Cities
Powerful cities like Shanghai and Dubai boost their global presence with milestone architectural developments like smart offices and towers, but there are also cities being created with sustainability and stamina to combat today’s political and environmental issues. One of which is Masdar City – a planned city in Abu Dhabi. It relies on solar and renewable energy and only houses “cleantech” companies. Initiated in 2006, Masdar has been growing little by little with it’s final completion slated for 2030. The city can hold up to fifty thousand people with pedestrian and cycle friendly streets and sidewalks. Taking influence from ancient cities of Cairo and Muscat, Madar draws from these ancient designs and is a cube shaped, terracotta walled, unique place drawing from the past and built for the future.

Designing for the Economy
In addition to environmental effects, public spaces with renowned architecture have had significant economic impacts in recent years as well.

The Seattle Central Library holds nearly 1.5 million books and has 2 million visitors a year. The design has “floating” platforms and striking steel net and glass skin. The library generated $16 million in new economic activity for its surrounding area when it first opened in 2004. It incorporates new technology, like wireless communication for staff and automatic book sorting, and has become a valuable resource to the Seattle citizens as well as a visual tourist attraction for visitors.

Built in the dilapidated port are of Bilbao, Spain, the Guggenheim Museum designed by Frank Gehry transformed the city and brought in a windfall of economic success. Opened in 1997, it’s one of the largest museums in Spain and universally praised for revitalizing the city. With 4 million visitors in its first 3 years it created a boom tourism which trickled into surrounding hotels, restaurants, and shops. Although the museum has brought such swift success, it can create a double edged sword ramifications. The “Bilbao effect” refers to how the museum transformed the city but how it also added to gentrification and cultural imperialism. With such impactful design, sometimes there can be both positive economic effects as well as negative cultural effects, all of which transcend local impact and has global impact.

How Design Impacts Transportation
As we’ve seen how impactful architecture can be on local, national, and global levels, the same effect is achieved in successful transportation design.

Since embracing car alternative lifestyles in the past decade, we’ve seen an increased efficiency in bikes, scooters, and vehicles. Foldable bikes, electric unicycles, self driving buses, and of course electric cards and ride sharing are all new designs that have had a global impact on how we get from point A to point B.

One of the biggest changemakers of the 21st century is, of course, Tesla. Tesla’s design purpose was always rooted in social responsibility. Founded in 2003, the team of engineers wanted to create an electric powered car that would have societal impact and be sustainable while still maintaining a beautiful design. Tesla grew into more sustainable ventures besides automobiles like autonomous vehicles and solar power. Tesla wants to put an autonomous twist on rideshare as well. Without sacrificing design, the cars remain on the cusp of new sustainable technologies and are creating new job opportunities. Tesla continues to push boundaries. Elon Musk’s, The Boring Company, is in the process of designing an underground portal in California, with the hopes of creating a new form of public transit between cities and alleviate traffic.

Making Transportation Environmentally Sound
Transportation design has become about more than just the product. It is no longer just the design of the Tesla itself but the design of the entire system, attempting to change the way that people are experiencing transportation. We see that with ride sharing trends like Divvy and Citi bikes ,most recently scooters, and of course car services like Uber and Lyft.

Transportation: Higher Accessibility, Economic Boost
Since its creation in 2009, Uber has established a global presence, aiming to help reduce the number of cars on the road and provide an easy and convenient mode of transportation for millions of people. It is the perfect example of a design evolving past individual use and impacting the world. For the individual, Uber is an easy and convenient way around. The app makes Uber quick to use and accessible. Services such as Uber Pool encourage people to rideshare, making the broader community more cost and energy efficient. With a presence in more than 60 countries, the influence of Uber has spread worldwide.

Creating Social Impact in the Healthcare Industry
The medical field has recently seen many developments, ranging from products for individual usage (such as elderly care and alert products) to large scale machinery for hospitals and labs. Designs are making life saving and effective medical products more accessible and portable leading to better healthcare, faster.

One example is Tug. Tug is the robotic assistant that is currently delivering meds at University of California, San Francisco’s Mission Bay wing. Tug delivers clean linens, meals, carts away medical waste, and improves the hospital’s efficiency. Connected to patients through tablet access, it provides quick access to necessary, noncritical items. The fleet of Tugs navigate hospital halls by way of the Wi-Fi and in this particular hospital, the employees respect the robots. It’s not just automated robots and advanced imaging making strides though, everyday medical devices have also been redesigned and improved for practicality.

Redesigning Everyday Medical Devices
Products intended to track bodily movements, monitor heart rates, or respond to sudden falls aid individuals medically without depending on bulky equipment. An important detail in terms of design is how these devices are very discreet and can be easily worn without impediment.

Some examples include sleek Bluetooth-enabled smart inhalers, wearable baby monitors, and motion detectors and disease detectors.

BlueTooth enabled smart inhalers use technology that connect the device wirelessly to computers, phones, or tablets making data accessible and offering in depth insights like environmental alerts (i.e. air quality). The sensor installed in the inhaler tracks data like dosage timing, overall use, and schedules the next dosage. Smart Inhalers can generate alerts for the daily dosage for the user , creating alerts via Bluetooth. A perfect example of design moving past functionality and creating more connections and insights for the user.

The Owlet similarly is a smart sock that affixes to a baby and tracks heart rate and oxygen levels, streams HD video and sound, and gives real time notifications via app (i.e. trended sleep data). The tiny wearable uses hospital grade technology, pairs it with everyday smart devices, and gives parents the peace of mind, and sleep, they need. The Owlet has a Bluetooth range of 100 feet and stay alert and ready for 18 hours at a time.

Perhaps taking the Life Alert to a new level, the GoLiveClip is a mix of safety and FitBit. “It counts your steps, helps to keep you fit, sounds the alarm when you fall and even sends you a warning as soon as your fall risk increases!” Targeted to those who work alone, seek adventure, or just as an everyday precaution, the GoLiveClip is meant to be a safety companion. “GoLiveClip makes sure you will never be alone.”

Just like the wearable technology, prosthetics are a good example of design allowing for more accessible and discreet medical products that make people want to wear them. Outfeet is designed specifically for amputee women by female industrial designer Aviya Serfaty. This prosthetic leg is among many attempting to make prosthetic legs something to flaunt (like a fashion accessory) rather than something to hide. It’s not just a medical device, but a fashion accessory and comes equipped with a high heel component and variety of “skins.”

Designing for Efficiency Within Healthcare
As we have seen medical devices designed for accessibility and universal use, they have also been designed for efficiency. Devices like biosensors, non invasive solutions, and human guided learning robots are all innovative designs we’ve seen improve the healthcare industry that help patients heal and hospitals be more efficient.

Philips’ new wearable biosensor utilizes AI to monitor patients in urgent care. It increases efficiency within hospitals by allowing doctors to monitor patients remotely.

The Gut Probe Pill is so small it is swallowable and captures images of the gut without anesthesia, nor any extensive procedure.

Lastly, Mox (like the aforementioned, Tug) is one of many robot assistants being introduced and tested in hospitals around the world. It increases efficiency by doing menial tasks while doctors and nurses are busy. Moxi helps clinical staff with non-patient-facing tasks like gathering supplies and bringing them to patient rooms, delivering lab samples, fetching items from central supply, and removing soiled linen bags. Moxi has a bit more “personality” than Tug and uses human guided learning.

MedModular: Scale Example
It’s not just single devices being redesigned though, entire hospital rooms are being designed for efficiency and convenience. MedModular created the first ever pre-fabricated, modular hospital room to maximize cost and construction efficiency for hospitals. These rooms are mostly touchless to reduce risk of infection, making it safer and cleaner for both staff and patients. It is a “hospital room in a box.”

Individual: On an individual level, MedModular rooms are more sanitary, reducing the risk of infection for both patients and staff.

Community: If MedModular rooms were integrated into public hospitals, there would be less risk of cross contamination and the overall public health experience would improve.

Global: If hospitals around the world were to implement these rooms, the system of health care would become more efficient as a whole. Less affluent countries could benefit from these “boxed” hospital rooms.

Keep reading our next blog post for part two of our Designing for Social Impact article!

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