Developing more sustainable cities require interdisciplinary solutions. It is this mindset that has framed the Heath Futures Lab, a five-week long interdisciplinary unit focused on ‘Innovations in Health and Well-Being for Limerick City’. The lab utilises design principles to organise the interaction between 14 recent graduates across a range of disciplines including Economics, Marketing, Architecture, Engineering, Interactive Media, Product Design and Occupational Therapy. The researchers were guided in their work by a team of academics representing each of these disciplines, as well as regular input from representatives from local and regional authorities, business chamber, charities etc.
By tackling local issues as opportunities & problems and harnessing social capital, within and outside the University, the five weeks aimed to explore how the combining of disciplines could bring about new perspectives as well as thoroughly achievable innovative solutions. I spoke with Dr Annmarie Ryan who co-led this unit with colleagues in the design faculty of the University of Limerick.
How did it work in practice?
The participants were all recent graduates (within two years) from either undergraduate or postgraduate courses and were integral members of the trans-disciplinary teams bringing specialist expertise and perspective to the challenges. The structure of the HFL followed a Design Thinking Process or a Design Process where the main focus is on making things, testing and iterative development and embodiment of ideas. Those operating within the process must be open to change, comfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity as the process itself is non-linear and in continuous flux. Reflection, critique and constant questioning ensure all ideas are robustly tested and refined ideally leading to the emergence of one or a number of solutions that best address the challenges under exploration.
The Lab was deliberately held in an unused city centre industrial building as it allowed for a physical and emotional connection with the city, the civic society and the stakeholders in the project. The facilitators chose the building as it had the added benefit of anchoring the participants in a new physical space which was unfamiliar to them. This encouraged the development of a new set of norms and working practices which would have been less possible in the University environment.
This centralised location enabled the researchers to access the field easily whilst also allowing stakeholders and interested parties to ‘drop-in’ and see the work in progress. Through this engagement we enabled key stakeholders (education, public sector, community and the sponsor of the event Johnson & Johnson) to co-imagine and create solutions for the betterment of health and well being in Limerick.
What were some of the results from the Lab?
Three important proposed themes emerged from the project: a new initiative that tackles the growing obesity epidemic through innovative technology and health promotion to prompt a permanent and personalised cultural and lifestyle change (Saol Nua); A service to ensure timely and aggregate flow of information through a persons life as they interact with the health system (LifeBase) and a city-wide policy to introduce preventative measures and increase resilience amongst grassroots organisations that focus on mental well-being (Minding Minds). Each of the propositions offered independent, but interconnected, ways to address pressing issues around Health and Well-Being experienced by citizens of Limerick.
The final output of the HFL was a pop up exhibition where large scale posters explained the detail of the three proposals. These were tied together with a floor-based timeline that highlighted key moments in a fictional person’s life. The stories of these moments explain the pivot points where interventions offered by one, two or all of the proposed solutions might have prevented or lessened the impact of challenges an individual might face as they journey through their lives. The outcomes of the HFL not only proposed a bold future vision for health in Limerick City it also offered a detailed roadmap on how we might get there.
Was the impact of the lab measured in any way?
The academic team was very keen to understand the experience of graduates working in a new inter-disciplinary team, in the context of a ‘live’ project. An ‘Ethnographer’ was employed as an independent researcher to record the processes, follow the ideas and observe peoples actions and behaviours. The participants were interviewed at various intervals throughout the process. The data was then mapped and analysed to identify key themes and trends. Through this unpacking process the facilitation team and the partners (including J&J) began to understand how it could be modified and applied across longer-term projects that are situated in different research areas. A key emerging insight was that for high achieving, high performing graduates becoming part of a team with people outside of their discipline was a real challenge for them. In order to work well as a team they had to be able to articulate the value added of their knowledge and discipline specific expertise. This required a kind of objectified understanding of their discipline and how it might be different in terms of values or approach to others; for instance how can an occupational therapist and an architect find common ground? How can a marketer inform an engineer about healthy lifestyle choices? These were the day to day challenges and opportunities afforded to the group.
What was the role of the advisory board and have they taken on any of the project ideas?
Every week the groups would present their work in progress to a gathered audience. As such the advisory board evolved over the course of the lab as experts were found to match the direction of the groups emerging project ideas. Representatives of the local authority were invited, along with visiting academics, directors of charities and regional representatives of the National Health Service Executive (HSE). Following the lab the HSE representatives along with 2 of the lab’s academic team began discussions to progress Limerick’s application for WHO European Healthy Cities Network, whose goal is to put health high on the social, economic and political agenda of city governments.
Any advice do you have for other schools?
At the University of Limerick we have been modelling a form of engagement with the city that is particularly rich. Of note in the approach is the interdisciplinary and response nature of these engagements. The HFL was a follow on to the IU Designing Policies lab in 2013, and was followed by The IU Culture Lab in 2015 which looked specifically at supporting Limerick’s bid for European Capital of Culture in 2020. The design studio approach supports the interdisciplinary work by giving a framework for each participant to bring their own disciplinary specific knowledge to bear and work iteratively with other disciplines to create a rich knowledge base to support innovative ideas to complex problems. Rather than a single discipline carrying out one piece of research, the lab encourages quick iterations through different pieces of research where the output of one becomes the input to another. For cities coming to their local university for support, this kind of rich but fast, research that they themselves participate in, ensures that the research is meaningful and impactful.
My main goal would be to find a way to ‘institutionalise’ the lab without loosing the spontaneity and sense of ‘getting away’ from mainstream teaching environment.
For the month of May Primetime will be featuring examples around the Special Focus area Sustainable Cities and Communities (SDG 11). Click here to see the rest of the articles in that feature.