The Innovation School is the GSA’s centre for design innovation and future thinking. Its students learn to address complex problems through new design practices and examine design’s role as a catalyst for positive change. The distressing and disruptive impact of the Covid-19 pandemic is precisely the kind of issue these designers would typically deal with in their speculative projects. This year, they were confronted with the very real problems it posed to their final year of study and their ability to present work to the public.
A quick browse through the Digital Graduate Showcase that is currently deputising for the School’s annual Degree Show offers a glimpse of how graduates from the BDes and MEDes (Master of European Design) Product Design programmes have approached the fallout from the coronavirus crisis, along with many other significant societal issues, from sustainable development and health anxiety, to ocean plastic, dementia and data use.
The cohort of graduates from the B.Des Product Design programme began their final year by examining the topic of sustainable development, which will become increasingly important in the post-coronavirus world. For the annual Future Experiences project, they worked alongside partners from the University of Glasgow and the Sustainable Futures in Africa Network to explore how development might be delivered more effectively and collaboratively in the year 2030.
Regular interactions with international development experts, academics and inhabitants of African cities helped the graduates identify issues related to domains including Societal Structures, Economies, Education, Mobility and Health, which informed their individual projects. For example, graduate Piér Stevens-Rosa developed a proposal for a new economy centred around affordable technology products made from electronic waste that is exported to the Global South and would otherwise rot in landfill.
Callum Ferguson’s Plastibank project proposes a new material-based stock market that rewards users for depositing plastic waste, while Holly Zambonini adopts a more critical approach by focusing on people in the Global South who have lost their jobs to automation, and who could be driven to sell their genetic information to buyers in the Global North.
The BDes graduates spent the second half of the academic year working on self-initiated projects that aim to make the world a safer, cleaner, healthier and more equitable place in what will no doubt be a very uncertain future. Helena MacDonald’s Interventions for the Worried Well deals with the pertinent issue of health anxiety. She designed a group of deliberately “annoying but well-intentioned objects” to interrupt negative thought cycles surrounding health. The objects recognise behaviours associated with anxiety and trigger responses such as noises, smells or movement to distract the user from their concerns and refocus their attention on their physical senses.
Euan Robertson developed an app to help those with food allergies feel more confident about eating out or dining with friends. The app shows users which allergens may be present in a dish they are being offered and allows them to save restaurants or takeaways in their ‘safe places’ list, as well as clearly pointing out allergens on menus as they browse. Robertson worked alongside food allergy sufferers to identify opportunities to ease their inevitable anxieties and help them feel more comfortable about participating in social events.
Rhona Brown visited the community on the island of Eigg to find ways of dealing with ocean waste that washes up on their shoreline. Her Plastic Community project suggests potential uses for the marine waste, such as building polytunnels for improving crop yields or filling potholes in damaged roads. Struan Stewart’s Scentimental project looks at how smell could help to slow the onset of dementia by enabling users to create a portfolio of scents based on personal memories that would be distilled into essential oils and diffused within the home.
The final year MEDes students partnered with Glasgow City Council for their annual Collaborative Futures project, which sees the Innovation School team up with a private or public sector organisation to identify alternative ways of thinking and operating in the years ahead. The project titled Glasgow’s Future Citizens explored what a well-governed city might look like in ten years’ time, through the lens of “data experiences and experiencing data”.
The graduates used collaborative methodologies to gather insight from stakeholders including members of the Centre for Civic Innovation within Glasgow City Council. This research informed futuristic proposals for how the use of citizens’ data could be made more transparent, and how citizens might be encouraged to participate in public decision making. The outcomes take the form of three speculative Future Worlds – Choiceton, Localtoun and Efficiencity – that demonstrate how different approaches would impact citizens’ everyday lives, making them feel more secure, engaged and knowledgable about how their data is being applied.
The two graduating students from this year’s MEDes programme each also completed self-initiated projects that focus on important contemporary issues. Iona Geddes looks at the effect of rising sea levels on the city of Glasgow, and how people might need to adapt to local climate change by producing their own food or adopting nature-based flooding solutions. Bethany Cheyne worked alongside public and private sector stakeholders in Aberdeen to co-create a positive vision for how the city might shift away from its reliance on oil and gas towards a different economic model.
Each of the Innovation School’s 2020 graduates has been challenged throughout their education to deal with uncertainty, possibility, discovery and experimentation. They are taught to envision and help create a better future, but could never have imagined that they would emerge from their studies into a world turned upended by an unprecedented global health crisis. This makes the work presented here even more impressive and, as we look to build the new post-coronavirus world, we can be reassured that this group of young designers are ready to play their part in making the ‘new normal’ even better than the one we had before.
As Gordon Hush, Head of the Innovation School, puts it in his introduction to the Digital Showcase: “Who better to interrogate habit, to transform behaviour and re-invent experiences than designers trained in creating products, services and interactions? The graduates of 2020 may just be the most valuable resource our shaken society has – smart young minds possessed of fresh eyes and new ideas.”
Alyn Griffiths specialises in architecture and design journalism. He is a contributor to leading print and online publications, including CNN, Style, Wallpaper, ICON, Blueprint, Dezeen, Dwell and Interior Design.
Image: Hydro-City Stories: Glasgow – Iona Geddes, MEDes Product Design 2020
Words: Alyn Griffiths