On their website (www.visionspring.org) VisionSpring proclaims that 703 million people could have their vision restored with a pair of glasses, and 90% of those living with uncorrected vision live in the developing world. It is proposed that this situation results in an annual loss of US $202 billion to the global economy. Subsequently VisionSpring supplies affordable glasses to regions within the developing world, targeting communities that have limited access to eye care. The company organizes ‘vision campaigns’, which usually take place at a school, church, or community center over the course of a day, and includes a temporary exam room and a pop up shop that sells glasses and protective sunglasses. These campaigns are operated by local, trained people, who educate communities about the importance of eye care and the benefits of corrected vision. These ‘vision entrepreneurs’ are often women, disrupting and eliminating context-specific barriers to an equal gender social participation. If, as VisionSpring suggests on the website, glasses can increase productivity by 35%, then there is the potential to increase individual monthly income by 20%. Based on their conservative estimates for the average daily income of their customers, it is calculated that the annual increase in earning potential for each pair of glasses sold (multiplied by the two-year lifespan of a pair of glasses) has already resulted in an economic impact of US $269 million. The website continues to suggest that recent research conducted in China determined that correcting vision in primary school students is the equivalent of an additional four to six months of schooling. The community outcomes of these operations are significant: not only do they allow workers and students alike to participate more fully in the world around them, but the uneven social relations (rural vs. urban or socio-economic access to quality resources) are also improved. An integral component of this approach is a pricing strategy that addresses the need for glasses while creating viable businesses at the same time. VisionSpring sells frame options ranging from basic and affordable, to higher priced styles for those who can afford them. The income generated through the sale of these higher margin products enables the resource-intensive operations required to reach more remote locations with limited access to eye care. This is a good example of social design being able to operate at simultaneous scales, looking at the external context (what product was available) and at the scale of social relations, which were preventing certain groups from fully participating.
Similar to the previous discussion of VisionSpring, this example demonstrates how a social design approach, by focusing on social relations, can enable women to increase their participation in society. By collaborating with a particular social group (the Latina community in Los Angeles) and concentrating on uneven social relations (cultural and gender barriers) this project was able to engage a community group with vital health resources. Hispanic women have the highest incidence and mortality rates for cervical cancer of any major racial or ethnic group in the United States. While case studies show that the best way to prevent and detect cervical cancer is with annual Pap tests, many Hispanic women do not go to the gynaecologist regularly. (Alterkruse, 2010, cited in Shea, 2012, p. 90) Students from the Art Centre College of Design’s Designmatters department used this context to design a campaign focused on the Los Angeles Latina community concerning the importance of annual Pap tests. Working at the level of uneven social relations, the approach was place-based and participatory, working with the local community in focus groups to uncover the attitudinal and logistical barriers to regular check-ups. They had predicted that it would concern a lack of education regarding Pap tests but in fact it emerged that it was more about understanding the importance of an annual check-up. The research also showed that the group did not want to feel targeted and so the approach avoided being too direct, using personal language and familiar imagery (for example, on bus shelter maps and on the paper that covers the beds in the clinic examination room.) Shea (2012) suggests this level of empathy is vital: Instead of focusing only on a community’s shortcomings, chart both its strengths (local language, style, skills) and challenges (literacy levels, drug and crime problems) and use that list as a guide through the project. Take inspirations from your interactions with community members and find ways to create an emotional tie with the general public by representing them with dignity. (p. 83) The campaign realised the need to build trust between the women and the doctors and so focused on the positive aspects of prevention rather than the negative consequences of inattention. This included creating a relationship with VISA card to help the women cover the time they needed to be absent from work to go to the doctor, and clinic kits to make the exam experience less distressing, which included a blanket, gown stickers and slippers. Ultimately the Es Tiempo campaign targeted the economic, gender and cultural barriers within social relations that created uneven integration, resulting in a greater access to essential health services.
Uneven social relations can be the result of environmental externalities, such as a community having no access to drinking water, and internal contexts, as in the case where children are denied the opportunity to attend school as they are forced to walk considerable distances to collect water. In this context-based example, the design thinking focused on sustainable access to, and purity of, the water, while also helping to provide solutions to children to access education. The World Health Organization’s 2013 annual compilation of health-related data noted that, despite increased global usage of improved drinking sources since 2010, progress has been irregular in different regions. One in eight people still do not have access to clean drinking water. This equates to almost a billion people, of which 37% live in Sub-Saharan Africa (WHO, 2010). Water-related diseases kill thousands of people each day. Additionally, water sources in some remote areas can be a significant distance from habitation, requiring women or children to walk carrying heavy water vessels every day. To contend with this major issue IDEO designed a tool to secure clean drinking water. The Aquaduct is a pedal-powered vehicle that transports, filters, and stores water, and addresses the two principal water challenges in the developing world: cleanliness and transportation. “The Aquaduct is designed to enable a person to sanitize and transport water simultaneously, potentially lessening the physical strain of the task and freeing up more time for work, education, or family.” As the bike is pedaled, a pump attached draws water from a holding tank, and passes it through a filter, to a smaller, clean tank. It can filter while the bike is in motion or when stationary. The clean tank is suitable for home storage and use. Presently it is not a viable solution due to production costs and resilience, but it does raise awareness around the water issues in developing countries and, as such, demonstrates how social relations can be improved by giving access to basic needs. The women and children who have to walk considerable distances to get the water could potentially be able to gain paid employment or attend school as a result of this invention, allowing them an equality of opportunity with others who have easier access to water sources. This project focused on an issue that involved a similar ‘position’ across many communities, that being a location with inadequate access to potable water. The barrier of insufficient resources is still being worked through to create the opportunity of full participation of individuals in society, be it in children being able to attend more school or through improved community health.
projectOPEN Homelessness is an extreme consequence of unequal social relations. Individuals and families can be forced into situations of deprivation due to uneven economic and cultural relationships, in which they are powerless to prevent the loss of one of the most basic of human needs – shelter. This example looks at a social design response to the hardship of homelessness, seeking to facilitate – through collaboration – the ability of a ‘user’ to achieve essential access to appropriate community services. The result was a socially-focused product that was able to disrupt the process of disparity by removing obstacles to knowledge and access. This project from the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) focused on the issue of homelessness in Santa Monica, California, seeking to empower the homeless community by removing the barriers it faced to accessing important knowledge and amenities. The research group considered the various causes of homelessness and met with over forty associated organizations. The aim was to set up a robust network among these organizations and facilitate better communication between them, while ensuring that the homeless people were fully educated on their rights and what resources were available to them. The outcome was a services resource guide called projectOPEN that opened out into a large map that identified valuable services, such as doctors’ offices, shelters, social services and food banks with information such as opening hours, contact info etc. On the back of the poster there was a reference to legal rights and safety tips. What is particularly interesting about this example is that the Santa Monica’s city government withdrew their offer to pay for and distribute the map when they discovered that the legal rights were printed on the back of the resource. It was they feared that this would increase levels of homelessness. Ultimately the map was distributed through a different printer. “This points to the importance of keeping the design process transparent, meeting with the community, clients, and funders frequently to keep everyone on the same page.” (Shea, 2012, p. 67) It is also a display of how uneven social relations can prevent access to knowledge that can remove barriers to full participation. The success of the initiative has seen it expand to include other cities, including the development of making a tri-lingual map in English, Spanish and Chinese. This is a good example of how social relations design can operate over time, building on an initial venture to develop into a larger project with a greater impact potential. It is useful when discussing scale to consider time and the sustainability of projects. Social relations design should not focus solely on one-off projects but aim for long-term commitments, which this project has the opportunity to achieve. Overall, this project demonstrates how social designers can identify the key mechanisms in a situation of inequality. It clearly shows how the barriers of prejudice and power were able maintain the disadvantaged position of the homeless community, preventing full participation.
This article has argued that a design focus on social relations is capable of contributing to the disruption of the processes that drive social inequality. It has been proposed that disparity is evident in many social contexts, such as education, health and income, and that responses to it are widespread through policy and community action. However social design – or specifically social relations design – has considerable potential to positively add to these responses by operating at a different scale and with a different methodology. This requires a commitment to being context-based and involves a goal of disruption, comprehensive observation, and a participatory approach. The process of inequality operates within a ‘complex whole’ of externalities and internal relations and consequently requires a design strategy that can work at different scales simultaneously. It has been argued here that a social relations design is capable of taking on this challenge and therefore causing significant disruption to on-going disparity traps and processes. The examples used, loosely categorized into access to services, environment and engagement, illustrate the potential for this approach. Individuals and groups in communities, and communities themselves, often struggle in a network of uneven, dependent social relations and design thinking has significant potential to remove some or all of these barriers to create greater participation and an equality of opportunity. The main challenges for social designers interested in this focus are working with a community to identify and isolate particular uneven social relations within a context and doing this in such a way that is non-invasive or directional. This requires considerable preparation and observation to ‘map’ a matrix of social relations in the community before discussing which of the relationships can be considered dependent or uneven, and therefore causative of inequality. Once the community – or community group – has identified specific social relations, then the design space has been created and is ready for the initial stages of a co-design project. It is vital that the design space has been selected by the community. This methodology is recognized here as having significant potential for further development within a social relations design context. The issue of scale has been raised in this article, notably regarding the simultaneous operation of external and internal influences. However, it was also briefly suggested that a temporal scale also needs to be considered. This refers to the need for a sustained and sustainable commitment to the project. Inequality, as discussed, is complex and persistent and it requires a concerted effort to disrupt its processes. Design is capable of doing this but not through one-off, ‘band-aid’ projects. Social design needs to be proactive, flexible and committed as communities are dynamic entities, vulnerable to external pressures. And more than anything a social relation focus approach needs to be unshakably contextual and designed to scale.