Care in the time of COVID-19

A sign in a neighbor’s garden offering help to those who have to self-isolate

I can’t believe that my last two blog posts from Germany were written only a month ago – it seems like a lifetime has passed and the world is a very different place to what it was in early March. As well as adjusting to working from a home and keeping up with feeding two teenage boys, I have been trying to come to grips with what the COVID crisis means for my book, which after all focuses on the contributions of creative teaching to better prepare students to address global challenges. After initially being overwhelmed by the huge amount of information available, I am slowly beginning to make some sense of some of it. In this, somewhat meandering, unfocused and tentative post in keeping with the general uncertainty of the situation, I explore what some aspects of design, particularly the concept of wicked problems and the emphasis on care and empathy, can contribute to an understanding of COVID-19. This draws on the design chapter of my book (which is building on longer-standing research on the role of design in development) I am currently writing. This is the first of several COVID reflection posts, with the second one focusing on economic implications.

Wicked problem were first defined by Horst Rittel as ‘social system problems which are ill-formulated, where the information is confusing, where there are many clients and decision-makers with conflicting values, and where the ramifications in the whole system are thoroughly confusing’ (as quoted in Richard Buchanan’s useful overview article of design). In contrast to clearly delimited problems that follow linear processes to a precise solutions, wicked problems are indeterminate because they have no clearly defined limits and more than one possible explanation and are symptomatic of higher-level problems. Many contemporary challenges are wicked problems because of their complexity and interconnectedness, and the COVID crisis is no exception. While medical at its core, it affects many other areas of social, economic and political life. Wicked problems call for different disciplines to work together to understand them and formulate responses; for COVID-19 that has encompassed medical (treatment and public health campaigns), economic (eg. various government wage and business support schemes), social (spatial distancing) and political (closing of borders) responses. According to Buchanan, design as an inherently integrative discipline can enable this cross-cutting approach because it offers an expanded imagination that is not directed towards quick, technological fixes but ‘toward new integrations of signs, things, actions and environments that address the concrete needs and values of human beings in diverse circumstances.’

The Estonian government’s proposal to hack the wicked problem of COVID-19

Another relevant concept is that of care, which is by no means unique to design; Ana Agostino, a Uruguayan feminist academic has written here about the importance of re-asserting care for each other in this collective crisis. In making the design connection, I draw on Bruno Latour’s keynote address to the 2008 International Conference of the UK’s Design History Society. For Latour, ‘designing is an antidote to hubris and to the search for absolute certainty, absolute beginnings and radical departures.’ Design is more humble, modest and cautious because its practitioners realize the complexities of current challenges and the unintended consequences of possible solutions. Design turns objects into matters of concern and care, as the fragility and interconnectedness of humans and the world in which they are entangled become urgently apparent. Latour draws on German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk and his notion of spheres into which humans are enveloped from birth to death, on a personal and collective scale. References to life support systems seems especially pertinent when juxtaposed to images of Corona patients on ventilators and the latters’ global scarcity (but also the grassroots innovations resulting from necessity being the mother of invention). Here breathing – the most basic of human activities – needs intense medical intervention. In the context of the COVID-crisis, Latour has developed an exercise of taking stock of activities that have now been suspended to see which ones we would like to reanimate after the lock down and which ones we would like to abandon for good. Exploring our reasons for these choices will yield insights into personal values and having conversations with others about what choices they would make might open up opportunities for political changes.

While the role of technology in this crisis is a much larger discussion, I do want to finish with a digital initiative I like, which is #BlossomWatch. This is a campaign by the UK’s National Trust to emulate Hanami, the Japanese tradition of celebrating cherry and other spring blossoms and the promises they hold. The idea of #BlossomWatch, which invites people to share their photos, is to allow people who cannot currently go outside to enjoy this wonder of spring. This then brings me to empathy (as practiced by designers, care professionals and many others), as the ability to imagine other people’s situations and feelings. Following calls for spatial distancing, which might be a more apt word for what we are being asked to do and the resulting new forms of sociality, is presented as needing to protect vulnerable groups and the NHS, in the case of the UK. It is also about trying to imagine what it might feel like to self-isolate, to have lost one’s source of income, to have to work from home and care for toddlers or home school at the same time. There have been so many amazing responses to these challenges that manifest our collective capacity to empathize with and care for each other, however small the contribution might be. In the spirit of humble interventions, here is a photo from the splendid blossoms outside our house. Stay well!

Spring blossoms outside our house

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