What we can do as individuals and design practitioners
By Butch Carungay, November 10, 2021

         One of the most cliché phrases that has emerged from the COVID-19 pandemic is “build back better.” This means doing more than merely rebooting economies and livelihoods after the massive losses wrought on by the pandemic. Recovery initiatives also need to effect long term commitments, investments, and behavioral changes to mitigate impacts of future shocks and improve a community’s resilience. All this sounds fine and dandy but what does this really mean and how can one contribute to the process?

          To answer these questions, we must approach them with the tenets of holistic sustainability firmly in mind. Too often, sustainability is misconstrued to be just about the environment when in fact, one must factor in the economic and social dimensions — which are both equally important. Utilizing this framework, we should then examine what the key metrics are for each dimension:

          More often than not, initiatives span more than one dimension and can result in multiple positive outcomes but ultimately, they will lead to enhanced social well-being and genuine sustainable progress. If this sounds daunting, please do not let it overwhelm you. To be sure, government and big businesses do have a larger role to play in introducing policies and large-scale initiatives to address these concerns. However, this does not preclude individuals and small businesses from doing their part.

          Before we continue let us first examine the four phases of disaster response so we have a better context of the situation.

REACTION: Also called the mitigation phase, this is the first juncture that immediately occurs after an external shock. It is at this stage that the impacted individuals or communities attempt to limit the adverse effects that come with the particular disaster.

ADAPTATION: In this stage, those affected cope, learn and adjust to the situation by altering habits, mechanisms and lifestyles.

RECOVERY: At this point, disaster victims begin to recuperate and convalesce in the many different aspects of their lives.

RESILIENCE: Long term fortitude is achieved when new habits, processes and systems that were established to initially cope with the disaster become entrenched and are institutionalized.

          After nearly two years of COVID19, the Philippines still lags the rest of the world in recovery as evidenced by the low vaccination rates in most of the country, the erratic new case counts and inconsistent policies on restrictions and mobility. However, most of would agree that, as of this writing, the country, as a whole, is somewhere between phase 3 and 4.

          In order for us to formulate recovery and resilience strategies, it is also important for us to understand the dynamic interrelations among various personal and environmental factors. Called social-economic models, these were introduced in the 1970s as a concept, formalized as a theory in the 1980s and is best associated with the Russian-born American psychologist Urie Bronfenbrenner.

          At their most basic, these systems theories contend that one thing always affects another and nothing happens in a vacuum. It is therefore necessary to take into account all these layers as we explore ways on how we, as designers, can indeed help build back better.

1. Lifelong Learning & Upskilling

In the information age, knowledge is the most valuable currency and accessing it has never been easier. It is therefore incumbent upon us to continue to educate ourselves build on our skill sets and apply them in valuable ways. It is also important share the accumulated learnings with others – whether they be in your family unit, your business or your community at large. The internet has made available a near-infinite amount of information online so there are endless topics and competencies one can learn and grow from. They can be as simple as how to compost leftover scraps and food waste or be as complex as designing a reverse logistics model for your local creative eco-system.

2. Boost Hyper-Collaboration

One good offshoot of COVID-19 is that it has accelerated the rate of digital adoption – leapfrogging development, in some estimates, by about five years. This means that the number of people utilizing all these new apps and tools have reached a critical mass. This phenomenon has ushered in a new era of hyper-collaboration that have no signs of abating. Whether its for knowledge exchange, inspiration or just being part of a support group, these different types of working together have increased exponentially because tech has facilitated the ease and efficiency of gathering people online. It is therefore important that designers and other creatives get on this bandwagon and leverage it to create value for them and enhance their output. This intense sense of collaboration has even given birth to many movements galvanized existing ones that have potential for large-scale change.

3. Leverage Technology

In addition to enabling hyper-collaboration, tech has also hastened the pace and improved the quality of design, manufacturing, evaluation and feedback mechanisms. Industry 4.0 which arrived unevenly in 2016 is in the throes of widespread adoption – computer aided design is standard, rapid prototyping is common and social media feedback is rampant. The advent of digital makerspaces have also improved inclusivity by allowing designers who do no have access manufacturing facilities to realize and actualize their ideas. Entrepreneurs and designers should therefore conduct continuous audits on their processes, identify potentials for improvement, and implement changes so they are more efficient, produce less waste, improve their products or services and ultimately – be more valuable contributors to their communities.

4. Acknowledge and Address the Digital Divide

With technology being so pervasive in our daily lives, it is easy to overlook the fact that not everyone has the same access to information and communications. This gap is getting wider and, if left unchecked, will have dire consequences down the road. It is therefore necessary for designers to introduce open innovations, hybrid approaches and binary solutions so no one is truly left behind.

5. Community-Based Design

Another positive outcome of COVID-19 – especially during its early stages – is that it improved camaraderie and heighted the sense of community. It also demonstrated that almost everyone has the potential to be a designer as most people were forced to respond and pivot when the specter of the pandemic reached their shores. It is thus important for designers to engage with their local communities while the collective memory is still fresh. Activities could include crowdsourcing ideas, building consensus, and recruiting for a movement or project.

6. Designing for Circularity

The concept of circular economies that disrupt the tradition linear model of production and consumption have been around for a while. However, unlike most of the aforementioned topics, the circular economy movement has been adversely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic due to the need for single-use personal and protective equipment and the sure in online shopping and food take-out and deliveries. Even before the threat of contamination is over, it is important that more concerted efforts and research be conducted to address the proliferation in waste. Individual designers must also begin to be more mindful with the materials they use and the processes they employ. This mindfulness also needs to be extended into the consumption phase so consumers are more aware and hopefully, more deliberate, in their actions.

          These are just some examples and frameworks of how designers can play a critical and creative role in helping craft a better tomorrow for our collective futures. We hope that we were able articulate these concepts and inspire you to embed some of these practices in your recovery strategies.