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.


The future is here: Register now for Barcelona’s New Economy Week

Barcelona New Economy Week (BNEW) starts this Tuesday with the goal of turning the Catalan city into the "global capital of the new economy".

BNEW runs from 6 to 9 October, with registration remaining open throughout the event, offering insight from 350 speakers on how businesses can bounce back from the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. It will feature top speakers from the business sectors of real estate, logistics, digital industry, e-commerce and economic zones.

The hybrid, business-to-business event – which is taking place in physical and virtual forms – is organised by Consorci de la Zona Franca (CZFB) and will showcase the way in which Barcelona is preparing for the post-Covid world and the "new economy". It is the city’s first big business event of the year and aims to help revitalise and restart the local economy.

“BNEW will be the first great event for the economy’s global recovery that will allow the redesigning of the productive fabric,” says Pere Navarro, state special delegate at CZFB. “It is an honour to have the participation of renowned professionals and attendees from all around the world.

“As we are not in a position to do a proper ‘in person’ fair, we decided to adapt by creating a disruptive and useful event in this way to relaunch the economy.”

The conference will encompass five interconnected events incorporating real estate, logistics, digital industry, e-commerce and economic zones. More than 8,000 professionals from 91 countries from all over the globe will take part virtually. A further 1,000 delegates are expected to attend the five events in person. Over 200 speakers will take part physically, while the rest will give their talks via a digital platform especially created for the unique event. An advanced digital networking platform – using artificial intelligence – will cross-reference the data of all those registered to offer a large number of contacts and directly connect supply with demand.

The conference will also be simultaneously broadcast in high-quality streaming on six channels, one for each of the five interconnected events and an additional stream showcasing Barcelona’s culture and gastronomy.

BNEW will take place in three venues in the city: Estació de França, Casa Seat and Movistar Centre. All are open, digital spaces committed to the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda. Estació de França will host the BNEW Logistics, BNEW E-commerce and BNEW Real Estate events, while Casa Seat will be home to the BNEW Economic Zones event, and the Movistar Centre will host the BNEW Digital Industry.

Some 36 companies are sponsoring BNEW, and 52 start-up companies will take part and present their highly innovative products and services. A further 128 firms will participate in BVillage, a kind of virtual stand where they can show their products and schedule meetings with potential clients.

Highlight sessions will include: "the era of humankind toward the fifth industrial revolution," by Marc Vidal, a digital transformation expert; "rational optimism," by Luca Lazzarini, a commercial communications specialist; and "future smart cities’ challenges and opportunities," by Alicia Asín, a leading voice on artificial intelligence. Sandra Pina will also talk about how sustainability is transforming us, Jorge Alonso on the humane future of cities and Pilar Jericó on how to face changes in the post-Covid era.

BNEW is described as a new way of developing your know-how, expanding your networks and promoting innovation and talent.

“Networking is always one of the main attractions of the events, so to carry it out in this innovative way at BNEW – with the high international profile it boasts – is a great opportunity for companies,” says Blanca Sorigué, managing director of CZFB.

Readers can register for BNEW for free via this link using the discount code BNEWFREE.