The Global Health Challenge 2016 brought together students from across the nine schools of University of Dundee to work together to design innovative and entrepreneurial solutions for the wicked problem of health equality, aiming to improve social, cultural and physical wellbeing. As a design researcher exploring new and novel ways of supporting older people through loneliness, I was invited to co-facilitate one of six themes set by the GHC; ‘Social Isolation in the Elderly’. Working with Dr Louise Valentine and a team of six skilled students who are undertaking a range of specialisms (Medicine, Dentistry, Humanities, Product Design and Community Learning and Development), I was keen to understand this hugely impactful social issue through the lenses of their different disciplines and experiences, to learn their motivations for designing for this theme and indeed, to gain deeper insight from challenge sponsor Dial-Op.
The team were brought together by their shared interest or concern for social isolation and loneliness in the elderly. Two team members cited their own grandparents in igniting their interest, another, their fears for our growing ageing population and indeed their future selves, and another student saw opportunity to apply their knowledge of inclusive design to the project. Naming themselves, Team OAPortunity, I was invigorated by both their pluck and sense of fun; both important qualities in supporting people who are isolated or lonely through negative, difficult and often sensitive experiences.
Over the next four weeks, we worked with the team to discover the current landscape of loneliness and isolation, exploring issues at play within society at large – the team were abhorred that 40% of 75 year olds in the UK name television as their primary source of company – and locally with great support from sponsor Dundee Dial-Op’s Lali Tudela. In addition to this, one team member’s chance new acquaintance with an older woman who spoke freely about her own very real experiences of loneliness and isolation was particularly impactful, ‘hitting home’ the team’s understanding and grounding their thinking. We sought facts and opportunity throughout the research process, challenging assumptions and stereotypes by using a series of design methods to continually question and reframe findings. This process was at times sticky, with a tendency to rely on anecdotal knowledge and propel too-soon towards solutions before fully interrogating an idea or issue. In reflection I think that the team would agree with and acknowledge the gains of compelling themselves to re-immerse within this iterative process of questioning despite the intensity. I feel that this culture of questioning – which session leaders Louise Valentine and Natalie Lafferty established in Week One – really benefitted the teams’ ability to reflect upon and shape their ideas and this resulted in the delivery of an insightful concept at the close of the challenge in Week Five; an elective ‘caring and sharing’ module for first and second year students to spend time with older people in the community, swapping stories, skills and spending quality time together. Arriving at this solution by combining their own previous experiences and hopes for future elective modules and the noted successes of intergenerational activity in building social connectedness and capital, Team OAPortunity presented a strong case for their mutually beneficial enterprise.
We encountered a series of challenges during the facilitation of the GHC and given the ambitious nature of the project, this is to be expected. As facilitators we draw upon previous experience and methods to react to and attend to the challenges faced, supporting the development of new solutions.
1. Challenging Assumptions
As a society we can be guilty of making assumptions about the pathways, experiences and needs of individuals who are facing difficult issues such as those explored by the GHC. Team OAPortunity brought some assumptions about loneliness and isolation to the fore, including ‘Older people are lonely or isolated because they have no friends their own age’ and ‘Social networking prevents feelings of loneliness or isolation for older people’. Further reading and discussion revealed that these negative experiences are subjective – each individual experience is unique – and that successful solutions will derive from genuine insights and opportunities about the lives of older people and the reasons they feel lonely or isolated in the first instance rather than deploying ‘blanket’ or ‘one-size-fits-all’ solutions.
Take-Away 1: We can attend to assumptions by revisiting the literature in our field and credible sources for hard data and statistics to ground our thinking in fact.
2. The Culture of Communication & Sharing
My own professional practice has taught me the importance of transparency, communication and sharing in cultivating a positive team working culture and in dealing with complexity but this was an issue for our team during the GHC. In discussion, factors such as unfamiliarity with online collaboration tools, misunderstanding of roles and responsibilities and concerns about ‘getting it wrong’ were highlighted. These are not atypical challenges and indeed we explored solutions for these as a group. We asked each team member to define their role from the perspective of their discipline to establish confidence and accountability within the team and joined the team’s preferred chosen mode of communication – a Facebook group – to support them in between sessions.
Take-Away 2: Early establishment and agreement of roles, responsibilities and communication strategies can support team dynamics and expectations and produce higher quality project deliverables.
Empowering Students as Influencers of Change (Now and in the Future)
It is tricky to reflect in practice, particularly at speed, but this challenge was a great opportunity for students to attune their skills in working reflexively and consider the meaningful impact they can affect. As facilitators we used various activity sheets and visualisation methods to chart problems through research and development and the perceived impact of potential solutions. We also encouraged the team to not only question their sponsor organisation but to use them as a sounding board to explore, critique and validate their ideas. Tapping in to the knowledge, skills and expertise of Dial-Op helped the team to very quickly make decisions and shape their design direction.
Take-Away 3: Gaining feedback from experts in the field throughout the research and design process can be key in inspiring and driving innovation and also, in identifying personal skills, interests and goals. I would encourage students to continue to discuss their thoughts and ideas widely and with a range of different stakeholders to fuel their ideas.
In closing, this GHC certainly packed a punch; students – and staff – were working live with sponsor organisations, learning not only about the ways they strive to improve the experiences of their service users, but to also gain a deep understanding of the subject matter themselves and uncovering areas of opportunity within this complexity. Not to mention tackling proof of concept and finally pitching ideas in a Pecha Kucha style – unfamiliar to most before this event. And whilst I think it is fair to say that each and every team were truly challenged by their GHC journeys, I’d like to commend them and their challenge sponsors for their hard work and dedication in delivering some truly exciting concepts at the close of the challenge. A pleasure to have worked with you all.