The coronavirus problem could be solved with design thinking

January 28, 2020, 6:07 PM UTC

This is the web version of Business x Design, a newsletter on the power of design. Sign up here to get it in your inbox.

A central premise of this newsletter is that design is about more than creating beautiful objects. We’ve embraced the broad notion of design that includes “design thinking,” the use of empathy, brainstorming, prototyping, testing, and other techniques to solve practical problems in areas not traditionally associated with design.

One of those areas is health care. I’m pondering design thinking’s potential contribution to that sector because I write from Hong Kong, where the entire city is convulsed by the prospect of a respiratory pandemic originating from the central-Chinese metropolis of Wuhan. At the time of writing, known cases of a mysterious new coronavirus have jumped to 4,515—a 60 percent increase from just 24 hours ago at time of writing. More than 100 people in China have died; the virus has now spread from Wuhan to over a dozen countries, including the United States.

China’s government has imposed a travel ban on Wuhan and 16 other cities in Hubei province. The restriction seeks to create a cordon sanitaire around 50 million people, and might be the most ambitious lockdown in the history of civilization. It may also be too late. The mayor of Wuhan acknowledged that just before the ban, five million of Wuhan’s 11 million residents left the city, most returning to rural villages to celebrate the Chinese New Year.

In combating the Wuhan virus, scientists, doctors, and nurses form the first line of defense. As Annie Sparrow notes in this excellent Foreign Policy essay, experts are still grappling with basic questions about the virus: Where did it start? How lethal is it? How does it spread? And how long will it take to develop a vaccine?

As answers materialize, designers and design thinkers can play a vital role. Among the areas where they might help:

  • Visualizing data: In a Fast Company article, journalist Stephanie Evergreen says graphic designers can save lives by helping scientists and public health officials communicate information about the geography of the disease, how it spreads, and how to stop it.
  • Rethinking China’s health care system: China does not have enough hospitals, and the ones it has are bureaucratic, inefficient, and poorly organized. Videos circulating on China’s social media shows scenes of chaos and squalor inside Wuhan’s hospitals. The government has ordered construction companies to work round the clock to build a six-acre, 1,000-bed emergency hospital for coronavirus patients within the next week. But will facilities thrown up with such haste still function properly, and minimize the risk of contagion?
  • Cleaning up China’s wet markets: Many of the early victims of coronavirus worked in or visited one of Wuhan’s largest wet markets, where a wide array of wildlife species—bats, civet cats, snakes, live wolf pups—were sold as food. Experts say that close contact with these creatures can accelerate the mutations that spawn viruses capable of jumping to humans. Chinese authorities imposed a temporary nationwide ban on the trade of wild animals and quarantined all wildlife breeding centers. Designers may not be able to change a country’s dietary preferences. But they could address the infrastructure around wet market hygiene.

Design thinking’s methods aren’t widely understood in China. Beijing tends to prefer solutions that involve top-down edict and central control rather than “empathy” and “ideation.” The Wuhan outbreak, and China’s struggle to contain it, demonstrates the need for a different approach.

More design news below.

Clay Chandler


This edition of Business x Design was curated by Margaret Rhodes.

Portland Maine Aerial
The waterfront in Portland, Maine, where Northeastern University will open a graduate school and research center.
Robert F. Bukaty—AP Images

Street smart. How does a town become a smart city? Chattanooga invested in fast public Wi-Fi. Toronto is considering a proposal for a connected, sensor-laden waterfront district, from Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs. Portland, Maine is taking another tack. The historic fishing town is opening a research institute focused on artificial intelligence and machine learning. If you build it, the thinking goes, talent, patents, and jobs will come. [The New York Times]

New life, new perspective. “Birth is a design problem,” says Kim Holden, SHoP architect-turned-doula. Beyond the physiology of pregnancy, expectant women also have to navigate a healthcare and hospital system that wasn’t designed specifically for them. Holden, the founder of Doula x Design birth services, is applying architectural thinking to the birthing experience, and espousing the “positive ripple effect” of supporting women. [Madame Architect]

Drive slow. A Dallas ride-share company wants to take on Uber and Lyft by building and then leveraging an intangible, yet crucial, feature: trust. Alto offers its drivers better pay and benefits, and promises passengers safer, vetted rides. (Plus customized touches like curated playlists.) In exchange, users pay more and wait longer for rides to arrive. That’s a tough sell. But in the wake of reports and lawsuits detailing sexual assaults happening in Uber and Lyft rides, trust is a service more consumers might want to pay for. [Texas Monthly]

“Does This Bother You?” Tinder is training machine learning models to detect offensive interactions in its app. AI is capable of flagging toxic language (check out this case study on filtering comments, from Alphabet’s Jigsaw), but because flirting is a context sport, Tinder is taking a more nuanced approach by asking users if select messages are welcome or not. The upshot: a redesigned interface that makes it easier for users (especially women) to report bad behavior. [Wired]


Apple’s new golden child—services—is in the earnings spotlight. Here’s why by Don Reisinger

WeWork’s other cofounder has a plan to save the company. It’s the opposite of what Adam Neumann envisioned. By Polina Marinova

The future of sustainable air travel: How airlines (and you) can fly more efficiently by Danielle Bernabe

Berlin’s ‘ghost’ airport might finally open—billions over budget and 8 years late by Steven Perlberg

Melinda Gates has big plans for Chicago by Emma Hinchliffe


Homesteaders are always out there, growing their own lettuce and eating by solar-powered light. But every now and again, a magazine story spotlights a reincarnated version of living off the land. This month, The New York Times Style Magazine published a tour of an off-the-grid, intentional living community in Missouri. Journalist Mike Mariani describes them as “a modern descendant of the utopian colonies and communes of centuries past.”

If you’re reading this, you’re probably on a computer. In turn, that tech-free way of life might come off as impossibly niche. It is—and yet, intentional living communities are on the rise among the millennial demographic: Mariani reports that between 2010 and 2016, these collectives doubled in number, with about 100,000 people living in each one. Many of the new residents are in their 20s and 30s, and say they’re pursuing a life with fewer corporate influences, and more meaningful, tangible social connections.

Over at The New Republic, a deep dive into the “degrowth” movement captures another kind of self-sufficient living, this one aimed at decelerating economic expansion. Proponents of degrowth suggest replacing electricity with human energy, and disavow using raw materials or buying consumer goods. Degrowthers believe this strategy, if adopted at scale, could stave off climate disaster. Inspired by the Amish, it’s also a prototype for another way of life. From journalist Aaron Timms:

In public, degrowthers often emphasize that they do not advocate a return to the past. Their writing says something subtly different: not exactly that we should regress to the Neolithic or live like hunter-gatherers or the Yaka pygmies of northern Congo, but that we should be inspired by their examples … against the religion of the economy degrowthers erect their own cult of premodernism.”

We live in times of breakneck speed, both in the spread of information and the development of new services and consumer goods. It’s easy to see why some people want to slow down and redesign the systems that underpin daily life. Most people won’t chase this particular dream, and plenty can’t afford the time, headspace, or money to even think about it. But it would be interesting to see how the thinking behind intentional living and degrowth could apply elsewhere. People want to step outside the stream; that desire exists in ways big (entire communes) and small (deleting Facebook from your phone), and it’s worth a closer look.

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