Rethink Relief, a design workshop at the Faculty of Industrial Design at TU-Delft, has come to an end and it was a productive week for all involved. We mixed idea generation and design with insightful lectures about the design process and relief-related research going on at TU-Delft. On Friday we wrapped up with presentations of each team’s work, which were attended by faculty and students from all over the university.
My team presented our ideas for a more mobile, transferable water system. The driving force behind our design is the need to adapt rainwater catchment systems to any type of shelter. We want to pair a tarp with a gutter connected to many individual pipes that can be assembled over either a tent or a more permanent roofing system. Then the user can connect the pipes to any number of small water containers, such as plastic “pillow” bags, jerry cans, or terra cotta pots, which are easy to carry around. Reusable plastic bags would be an ideal way to disinfect the water with UV light. The containers can finally be stockpiled in larger rigid containers, such as the uniformly sized plywood boxes that Doctors Without Borders uses to transport supplies to relief camps. In this way, water could be available during dry periods in modestly-sized containers that can be used or shared easily.
This is still a concept that needs extensive development. My teammates David, Christoffer, Joana and I hope to keep collaborating in the future to develop the idea and get other people on board to help us make it a reality. Rethink Relief showed us that there is an extensive network of innovators interested in these solutions, and we need to tap into this network if we want to make real changes to the living conditions of people in relief camps and beyond!
The most important lecture of the week, for me, was that which asked the question “What are we designing for?” Lecturer Amy Smith of D-Lab started the presentation by saying, “THERE ARE NO SOLUTIONS, THERE ARE ONLY TRADE-OFFS.” The trade-offs can occur among the following needs, to name just a few: Affordability, Usability, Manufacturability, and Sustainability.
And finally, my favorite trade-off: Failure. It seems counterintuitive at first to design for failure, but as a structural engineer you could say this is my primary concern. The challenge is to think about how the product or structure might fail, then make sure it fails in the safest way possible and the way that is easiest to fix again – because no matter what you might hope, it WILL fail. In an earthquake, for example, our goal is to make sure the building does not collapse and kill people. This does not mean the building won’t be damaged – there are no earthquake-proof buildings, only earthquake-resistant buildings. It is the engineer’s job to ensure that the building sustains the least catastrophic damage, rather than no damage at all.
A key motivator in designing our rainwater-collection system is to make sure it is easy to fix when it fails. There should be as few components as possible, and each component should be made of cheap, easily available materials that can be replaced quickly. For example, the pipes transferring rainwater to individual containers could be made of a narrow plastic tape that is used in countries like India for irrigation. The tape usually lasts for only a couple of years before it starts to break down, but its low-cost design makes it possible for people to afford it. It doesn’t require a large investment, yet it is still an effective material with which to collect rainwater!
Another lesson learned this week: sometimes the best solutions are so simple that we overlook them. Our culture’s drive to advance technology is often counter-intuitive to the needs of a relief or development situation. People need simple ways to obtain drinking water, shelter, food, and education, and these methods must be sustainable and applicable to any situation in which those people might find themselves. Refugees in relief camps can be stuck in those “temporary” camps for 10 years, 20 years, or their whole lives. By that time, their home is not a camp anymore: it is a slum. Engineers, architects, doctors, social workers, and other innovators have a duty to help these people now – not later, when they might be able to leave the camp. We simply don’t know when “later” will be, if it ever arrives, and we have little control over the politics driving that opportunity. So let’s work to simply and effectively improve human living environments as they are right now.
Libby Hsu- received a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and two master’s degrees in high performance structures and building technology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She now is bringing her engineering experience to MASS.