Design-led solutions to wicked problems

August 3, 2011

Sean Godsell and Leah Heiss discuss the role of design in delivering solutions to contemporary social and health issues, in a talk presented by the Australian Design Alliance.

The benches at Do Design Space, which can barely be described as utilitarian, made my heart sink when I arrived for the State of Design’s two and a half hour long ‘Design-led Solutions to Wicked Problems’. Fortunately the speakers that followed, ably begun by a typically dour Sean Godsell, gave interesting and thought-provoking presentations that diverted attention away from an increasingly sore derriere. The event was organised by the Australian Design Alliance, the design partnership launched in 2010 by thirteen different bodies including the Australian Institute of Architects, Australian Craft and Design Centres, Planning Institute of Australia and Australian Network for Art and Technology.

Godsell presented his on-going projects for the homeless that include the Picnic Table House, Dignified Rubbish Bin and Bus Shelter House. Describing Melbourne as a “very rich, fat city,” he gave some startling figures: 4,000 people across Melbourne slept rough the previous night, with that figure rising to 20,000 across Victoria. In the Q&A that followed, he readily admitted that he is neither politician nor social policy maker, and as far as homelessness is concerned, his interest is not in the why, but in the how the problem can be relieved.

The current brief regarding urban furniture, he explained, is that the design prevents homeless people from using it via various means. Godsell subverts that notion with his furniture; the integral part of the design is its transformability into shelter, bed and more for the homeless. The Bus Shelter House provides an arm rest by day and a head rest by night, while the Picnic Table House’s table top converts to roof at night, with a woven stainless steel mattress supported by the legs underneath. It is sophisticated yet simple design that could easily be rolled out to make life for the homeless more bearable. That is until Risk Management comes into play, as has happened in Melbourne – a city that had come close to trialling the Picnic Table bench. I cannot help wondering, though, if there is more to it than this. Godsell’s designs address homelessness as an existing problem; his solutions are interim solutions that acknowledge that this current social issue has no immediate answers. I cannot imagine that many governments would want this to be so readily advertised.

Gavin Artz, who is involved the Australian Network for Art and Technology, discussed the need for a cross-disciplinary approach to design, and the requirement for a platform where such interconnected-ness between disciplines can occur. He described how the platform often enables surprising results and unexpected things to emerge, citing The Bionic Ear Institute as an example. Knowledge that was gained through the invention of the Bionic Ear led to the development of music that is suited to the Ear, thus enriching the lives of people with them.

Leah Heiss, the last speaker of the day, continued Artz’s discussion of a cross- or trans-disciplinary approach to design. Heiss is an artist/designer that works at the nexus between design and nano-technology, creating a range of medical jewellery and seed sensors that bring a sense of humanity to science. Heiss’s approach is to use design to humanise technologies and help to remove the stigmas attached to certain illnesses. Her insulin ring combines the nano-technology of the insulin patch with a piece of jewellery, something the user is likely to have an emotional attachment to. The ring discretely administers insulin and replaces the role of the syringe. Similarly her seed sensor, a swallowable device that detects gas fluctuations that may be the precursor of an undiagnosed disease, is a radical innovation. The seed sensor, which again fuses design with medical technology, unfurls in the digestive tract, working with natural body rhythms and periodically samples and captures information. The process is less invasive and painful than existing methods such as endoscopy, and is also more dignified.

Both Heiss and Godsell’s work shares a common theme: a desire to deliver greater dignity to the user. Each uses an approach informed by design to deliver solutions to broader social and health issues, demonstrating the valuable role of design in addressing big policy issues.


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