Design Activism for a Caring Society

How mission-driven design is transforming the future of care

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What is design? One could say it is making a prototype for a new home device, others could say it is wire-framing user interactions for a travel app, composing a perfume brand poster, creating a new signage system for a hospital or plotting the reconstruction of an old urban area…

I prefer to ask ourselves… Why do we design?

Design, in all its forms, has traditionally been a transaction that is reactive; it responds to a question posed in a brief from a client often pursuing nothing else than growing their own profit, usually expecting the designer to deliver mainly aesthetics and attractiveness to a product, service or environment.

When talking about contemporary design, the bright and shiny results displayed often mask the strategic process that lies behind it. Design is not only a beautiful piece of work. It is a purpose-driven process aimed at finding a relevant solution to a complex existing problem.

Daily life is filled with challenges that can be, and are, tackled through design. But what about on a societal level? What is the role of design in creating a better world?

The world is currently facing a growing number of complex social challenges. We are rapidly ageing and living far from our loved ones. In Spain, more than 850,000 people over 80 years old live alone, 112,000 more than 5 years ago, as reported by the National Institute of Statistics (INE) last month. Socio-economic disparities are leaving the most vulnerable at risk, lifestyle chronic diseases are booming the world over and loneliness is an increasing phenomenon. Our health and care no longer lies only in the hands of care professionals but in our hands, too.

Meanwhile, according to Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott, authors of the book The 100-Year Life – Living and Working in an Age of Longevity, life expectancy has been steadily increasing for decades, and yet we continue to structure our lives the way our parents or grandparents did. Did you know that 50% of babies born in 2007 are predicted to live for an average of 104 years?

In light of all this, I firmly believe it is time for design to become proactive and responsive to the broader shifts and challenges faced by our society; not to wait to be asked how to solve problems, but to frame the appropriate question and facilitate working with different professionals to find compelling long-term solutions.

Design, designers and design-driven practices have much to offer when it comes to unpacking the complexity behind these social challenges, but it would be too presumptuous to think that we can do this alone.

Modern design and designers have much to offer when it comes to unpacking the complexity behind social challenges.
Showcooking with cancer patients, chefs and medical professionals at Onkologikoa Living Lab. Photo © fuelfor

After working as a designer in health and social care systems for 20 years, I realised that care should be an equitable, pro-active and compassionate experience that is accessible for all, and one that forms an integral part of our everyday life, cutting across institutions and organisations, and including interactions between teacher and child, doctor and patient, social worker and client, councillor and citizen, parent and grandparent.

Care is a universal and essential human quality that is a supposed attribute of our post-industrial systems of health, social care and education. But these social structures were developed to be transactional, time and cost-effective – far from becoming empathic, compassionate and caring.

That is why two years ago I decided to found The Care Lab, a collaborative platform of activists transforming care through human-centred design practices. These are the fundamental principles I believe can build a more caring society:

Design that reveals the human condition

It is essential to design ecosystems by listening carefully to the everyday stories of individuals told in their context. For our project Who Cares?, we provided tools to enable caregivers in Singapore to be heard, so that support could be redesigned into the system. Similarly, the Participle team with their project Life Programme in the UK created conversation and reflection tools for social workers dealing with vulnerable families, after finding that they dedicated 74% of their time to administration work and only the 14% of it face-to-face supporting their clients.

A Caregiver from Who Cares? A project with NCSS Singapore. Photo © NCSS Singapore and fuelfor

Design as a collaborative act

Complex social challenges need a multidisciplinary approach. Co-designing together with oncologists and patients, teachers and students, policy makers and citizens is key for better design outcomes. The Living Labs in Onkologikoa in San Sebastián and Hospital Clínic de Barcelona are great examples of this. Both are creating spaces where patients, caregivers, citizens and healthcare professionals collaborate to rethink and improve the quality of care they are providing and receiving.

Raising Places in the USA, a program by Greater Good Studio to foster wellbeing through community initiatives for kids at risk, is a compelling case that shows how co-creation might help redefine relationships and equalise power disparities. Bringing everyone together and doing away with preconceived social roles leads to a better understanding of the problem, a more realistic definition of human needs and a more empathic solution where everyone wins.

Modern design should mean a more realistic definition of human needs and a more empathic solution where everyone wins.
Bite size future: end-of-life conversation toolkit from Hospitable Hospice. Photo © fuelfor

Design that expresses positive social intent

 Design has the power to reframe conversations around social issues such as death, ageing and mental health. Creating new spaces and toolkits that enable these conversations will help care professionals to empathise with people’s needs, bringing hope, comfort and accessibility to the topic.

Lien Foundation in Singapore, for example is transforming the way people confront death by redesigning end-of-life care in the Hospitable Hospice project with Bite Size Future, a conversation toolkit we had the chance to co-design.

As designers, when we work beyond the brief and strive to understand why we design vs. what we design, we manage to transform care on multiple levels: from policy and services, to toolkits and skills training. When we work as design activists, we can deliver a broader and more systemic impact.

This article was written in connection with the roundtable event ‘The Future of Care, rethinking Care for a 100-year life’ on April 24th at Roca Barcelona Gallery.

Main image: An elderly resident giving advice to trainee nurses in the Hospitable Hospice. Photo © Lien Foundation, Ang Chin Moh Foundation and fuelfor

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