Medical workers' principle of mutual aid is a call to action for designers, too

Designers have turned to fabrication labs to produce 3D-printed personal protection equipment for medical workers. (Paul Ellis/AFP via Getty Images)

This article appears on CityMetric courtesy of Blueprint magazine.

This year, we entered what I was seeing as a decade of action. Along with much of the rest of the world, architecture and design as a discipline would come together to address some of the most pressing concerns of our time. We would take collective action in response to the climate emergency armed with science, data, and other tools to tackle and advance resiliency, adaptation, and sustainable practices in the built environment. We would catalyze a shift in dispositions rooted in consumption and growth by prioritizing the circular economy, the Green New Deal, affordability, and equity.

What we did not know is that as early as January we were watching the formation of the Covid-19 pandemic, a crisis that would claim hundreds of thousands of lives (a growing figure) and lay bare a number of critical gaps in our global systems. Breakdowns in these systems have required urgent responses at every level of government and leadership. International travel, exchanges, and supply chains that underlay the global economy and related socio-economic structures went from hard truths to open questions. And much of the globally coordinated action that might have been dedicated to problems with a 10-year timeline was channeled into the current crisis that appears to have immediately compressed response times to weeks or days wherever it has landed.

The near collapse and various kinds of safety netting thrown under the global economy has not only revealed its vulnerability and our personal dependencies, but also our interconnectedness. As we see the virus continue to spread across the United States, I do not have a perfect analogy to describe the series of actions connecting so many different people with so many different needs, but I can speak to its power fairly clearly having witnessed an interconnected and expanded form of mutual aid.

In the emergency medical services profession (as well as in activist circles) the mutual aid agreement is a common understanding that in moments of crisis the jurisdictional boundaries between practitioners, each with distinct expertise and knowledge, dissolve. The medical profession as whole unites around a common problem to work quickly to address urgent conditions and effectively manage contingency. Everyone comes together with their resources – materials, skill, time, and effort – to help in whatever way they can.

The Covid-19 crisis has placed enormous pressure, to a degree that much of the world has never seen, on the health care industry and its workers. Despite preparedness and selfless response efforts in hospitals and other health care centers, the crisis not only overwhelmed the system but also created a direct threat to the lives of both providers and the sick. Under the current conditions, the call for mutual aid is extended well beyond the health care industry. The industry cannot handle this crisis on its own. The crisis requires spatial and social practices to work in tandem with health care measures. Our situation demands the mobilization of resources and quick action from a broad range of perhaps unlikely disciplines to meet urgent needs by any means possible.

What we have learned from design practice and applied research is that with the most pressing issues, we often work best in collaboration with other disciplines that inform our work, and with new tools and new perspectives, be they from science, engineering, or the arts. Whether we could anticipate the many Covid-related needs that emerged quickly and urgently, I have recently found that as architects and designers we are primed for working together across boundaries toward a mutual benefit – and, that this brings me a bit of optimism in these difficult times. Our willingness to act has opened many of our eyes and minds to what we as designers and global citizens have to offer.

To share a few examples, though there are many more – there are designers at work on problems that are material and require pragmatic action, and simultaneously, those who are analyzing and calling out inequity as the virus affects those who face discrimination and have less access to care than others.

Operation PPE was sparked by a call from medical professionals at Weill Medical to faculty at Cornell University's College of Engineering, who then connected with Professor Jenny Sabin, director of the Matter Design Computation program at Cornell, who rebooted the recently vacated fabrication labs at AAP to produce 3D-printed personal protection equipment. Many of our alumni and students joined in producing PPE from an open source design file and designers utilized and modified as needed.


J. Meejin Yoon is dean of the College of Architecture, Art and Planning at Cornell University. (Andy Ryan)

At the Harvard Wyss Institute and the Graduate School of Design, students, researchers, and faculty responded to an urgent need for personal isolation hoods that would keep patients and doctors at Massachusetts General Hospital safer as they fight the virus in infection wards and operating rooms. By coordinating ideas and action via a Slack channel, collaborators across the design and health disciplines initiated a completely horizontal creative process so that the strongest designs could be modified and added to in real time and advance to clinical testing and production in a matter of not months, but weeks.

 Kimberly Dowdell, Chicago-based architect and president of the National Organization of Minority Architects recently responded to figures citing the tragically disproportionate number of Covid-19 deaths among black and Latino people in New York City and Chicago. Dowdell highlights how all of our communities, particularly those still affected by discriminatory policies in our cities, now suffer greater challenges and losses in the face of this crisis.

There are other data and design ideas emerging that may impact the future of how a crisis of such magnitude might be handled.

In the past several weeks, designers and architects have assumed the agency and responsibility we share to engage new problems and offer meaningful service to a cause that asks us to reach far beyond disciplinary lines. We acted quickly and were able to do so by seeing past ourselves and our claims to authorship, by working across professional boundaries, and providing crucial help where needed. Many of us already have an eye on the long term and are asking important questions that I wonder if – despite the holding pattern between worry and hope most of us share – we can better understand in terms of what it will take to come together around a mutually beneficial plan for recovery, and for the future. A future where we enact our interconnectedness not as a shared vulnerability, but a strength – extending the practice of mutual aid beyond the medical profession to coordinate action and contributions to shared problems in a shared world where design and planning have critical agency.

J. Meejin Yoon is the Gale and Ira Druckier Dean of the College of Architecture, Art and Planning at Cornell University.


What's actually in the UK government’s bailout package for Transport for London?

Wood Green Underground station, north London. Image: Getty.

On 14 May, hours before London’s transport authority ran out of money, the British government agreed to a financial rescue package. Many details of that bailout – its size, the fact it was roughly two-thirds cash and one-third loan, many conditions attached – have been known about for weeks. 

But the information was filtered through spokespeople, because the exact terms of the deal had not been published. This was clearly a source of frustration for London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who stood to take the political heat for some of the ensuing cuts (to free travel for the old or young, say), but had no way of backing up his contention that the British government made him do it.

That changed Tuesday when Transport for London published this month's board papers, which include a copy of the letter in which transport secretary Grant Shapps sets out the exact terms of the bailout deal. You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so minded, but here are the three big things revealed in the new disclosure.

Firstly, there’s some flexibility in the size of the deal. The bailout was reported to be worth £1.6 billion, significantly less than the £1.9 billion that TfL wanted. In his letter, Shapps spells it out: “To the extent that the actual funding shortfall is greater or lesser than £1.6bn then the amount of Extraordinary Grant and TfL borrowing will increase pro rata, up to a maximum of £1.9bn in aggregate or reduce pro rata accordingly”. 

To put that in English, London’s transport network will not be grinding to a halt because the government didn’t believe TfL about how much money it would need. Up to a point, the money will be available without further negotiations.

The second big takeaway from these board papers is that negotiations will be going on anyway. This bail out is meant to keep TfL rolling until 17 October; but because the agency gets around three-quarters of its revenues from fares, and because the pandemic means fares are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what is meant to happen after that. Social distancing, the board papers note, means that the network will only be able to handle 13 to 20% of normal passenger numbers, even when every service is running.

Shapps’ letter doesn’t answer this question, but it does at least give a sense of when an answer may be forthcoming. It promises “an immediate and broad ranging government-led review of TfL’s future financial position and future financial structure”, which will publish detailed recommendations by the end of August. That will take in fares, operating efficiencies, capital expenditure, “the current fiscal devolution arrangements” – basically, everything. 

The third thing we leaned from that letter is that, to the first approximation, every change to London’s transport policy that is now being rushed through was an explicit condition of this deal. Segregated cycle lanes, pavement extensions and road closures? All in there. So are the suspension of free travel for people under 18, or free peak-hours travel for those over 60. So are increases in the level of the congestion charge.

Many of these changes may be unpopular, but we now know they are not being embraced by London’s mayor entirely on their own merit: They’re being pushed by the Department of Transport as a condition of receiving the bailout. No wonder Khan was miffed that the latter hadn’t been published.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.