Back to News

Northeastern University’s Center for Design Responds to COVID-19 with Design for Emergency Project

Courtesy of Design for Emergency Website.

Around the world, life has been turned upside down by the COVID-19 Pandemic. In response, Dr. Sara Colombo and Professor Paolo Ciuccarelli of CAMD’s Center for Design (CfD) have launched the Design for Emergency project, an open design platform aimed at helping the global community face the current health emergency together.  

It started off as an emotional reaction – as designers and individuals – when the pandemic surged across Northern Italy, leading to a country-wide shutdown. Colombo, Associate Research Scientist, began to think about how design could improve the experiences of people confined to their homes. She envisioned an open design platform that would enable the sharing of innovative ideas, accelerate collaboration, and ultimately make an impact.  

“Time was essential, and we needed to move fast, both in understanding what people were living and in responding with meaningful solutions,” said Colombo.  

So, she and Paolo used the tools available to them to create the first iteration of the Design for Emergency platform with the goal of quickly designing new solutions to address the specific issues that people are facing.  

Focusing initially on Italy – due to the severity of the outbreak and their own strong connections there – they created and disseminated a survey in order to understand the fears, challenges, and hopes of those living there. The response was overwhelming and encouraging; they received 1,600 responses in a span of four days. Once the results were in, Dr. Colombo, Professor Ciuccarelli, and a team of volunteers analyzed and created visualizations to summarize the responses.  

The survey results and visualizations were then used to inform the design phase, which is still ongoing. Through the Design for Emergency platform, they started to launch a series of design challenges and invited designers to submit ideas for new products and services addressing the needs, problems and emotions revealed by the survey.

Photo courtesy of Design for Emergency website.

The project also partnered with Domus Academy in Milan, to conduct a first structured design workshop in April. More recently, a design challenge has begun in Brazil. The outcome of these design activities is feeding a repository of seed ideas that address a wide range of problems and can be implemented by anyone interested in doing so, under a Creative Commons license.  

Photo courtesy of Design for Emergency

Now, as countries around the world continue to understand, predict, and address the pandemic, so does Design for Emergency’s network of partner institutions – now working with ten different countries across North and South America, Europe and Asia (click here for a full list).  

“The network we have created is very committed, and it could be a solid base for future initiatives” said Dr. Colombo and Professor Ciuccarelli.  

It is comprised of universities, institutions and individuals who are all willing to do something for society through design. Anyone interested in becoming part of this network can do so by participating in the survey, creating solutions based on survey results currently available, or implementing one of the many seed ideas published on the platform. For more information, please visit designforemergency.com 

Beyond the current health crisis, Paolo and Sara are hopeful that Design for Emergency will enable a fast response to critical situations that may “emerge” in the future, connecting with broader goals such as sustainability and resilience.  As a testament to the project’s broader reach, Design for Emergency has been selected to be a part of the Collaborative City exhibition taking place in conjunction with World Design Capitol Lille Metropole 2020, a year-long program of events that showcases best practices in sustainable design-led urban policy and innovation that improve quality of life.  

“Design is ready to react quickly and having a strong network, platform and methodologies established could help,” explained Paolo.  

For now, in the more immediate future, the pair sees their platform as tool for navigating the transition to a new normal during the next phase of the COVID-19 crisis. You can participate in your home country’s survey, contribute seed ideas, and keep up with project by visiting designforemergency.com or following Design for Emergency on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook.