The Designers Hoping to Bring Optimism to Natural-disaster Sites

A group of Israeli industrial designers have created a series of products that could prove the difference between life and death.

Netta Ahituv
Netta Ahituv
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The HopeSpot balloon. Up to 150-meters  high, and can be launched by one person.
The HopeSpot balloon. Up to 150-meters high, and can be launched by one person.Credit: Eran Lederman
Netta Ahituv
Netta Ahituv

Industrial designers may not be the first people you think of when you consider the immediate aftermath of a natural disaster. But one group of Israeli designers is determined to show their importance – literally, with designs including a giant balloon and cell-phone alert system.

“Industrial design is definitely connected both to the environment and people,” explains Eran Lederman, an industrial designer and lecturer at Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem. “Therefore, it is relevant in fragile situations like natural disasters.” Lederman has joined forces with two other product designers and Bezalel lecturers who share his passion, Maya Vinitsky and Prof. Ido Bruno, to found a research group called RDFD – Relevant Design for Disaster.

Designers Maya Vinitsky (L), Ido Bruno, and Eran Lederman.Credit: Nir Turk

RDFD has already had obtained funding from several research foundations and is involved in numerous collaborations with both Israeli and international organizations. Its most well-known product so far is the earthquake-proof school desk: This can absorb an enormous amount of weight without collapsing, so can protect a child in a collapsing building. What began as a final project for Bezalel student Arthur Brutter has since gone on to win a number of design awards and is part of the permanent display at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York. The patent for it was also acquired by Israeli furniture manufacturer AD Miraz. “This is one of the main reasons we started RDFD,” says Bruno. “To enable worthy projects like this desk to move beyond Bezalel.”

Bruno is currently hard at work promoting a project in Bhutan that will see locals manufacturing the desks according to the patent and then sending them to schools throughout the South Asian country, which is in an earthquake-prone region. “Four sectors have to cooperate in order for it to happen: the designers have the knowledge and motivation; the furniture manufacturer has the commercial proprietary rights; the desire for distribution comes from nonprofit organizations; and the local government makes the purchase. As designers, we know how to bridge the different sectors,” he adds.

The earthquake-proof deskCredit: Eran Lederman

Bruno is the oldest of the group. Once up a time he was Vinitsky and Lederman’s teacher, and later their employer. He says Bezalel first officially got involved in addressing natural disasters following the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004. “We decided to start a course called Design for the Disaster Environment, and the students’ enthusiasm showed us it was the right move. This field offers a great motivation for designers – the possibility that, as an individual, you can help many people in the world. Designers aren’t thought of as people who save lives, but with this it’s possible, and the students are captivated by the idea,” says Bruno.

Balloons that offer hope

Another of the group’s projects is called PEP-Capsule. Developed in conjunction with the Hebrew University’s psychology department (with a grant from the Science, Technology and Space Ministry), the project’s aim is to hone a method for relaying vital information to a population following a disaster. One part of the project is focused on developing effective methods for relaying information via cell phone (text is not always the best way; sometimes explanatory pictures or videos are better). The other part involves research on the best way to store that information, since communications networks often collapse after disasters occur. The developers are working on an information capsule that would be inserted into cell phones ahead of time and be available in the event of a disaster. One inspiration for the project came from observing people in the aftermath of earthquakes or avalanches who were still clutching their cell phones, even though all around them was in ruins.

While the PEP-Capsule is meant to work on a small, individual level, the group’s HopeSpot marker balloons are very public. These are huge, aerodynamically shaped helium balloons that can float like a kite, even in severe weather. They’re attached to the ground from a 50-meter (164-feet) line, so they’re high enough to be seen but don’t interfere with aircraft, and are visible from 1,200 meters in daylight and 5,000 meters at night (thanks to lighting). One person can moor the giant balloons to the ground – the entire kit fits into an easily portable pack.

Israeli rescue forces help remove survivors from rubble in Haiti. 2010. Credit: AP

The purpose of HopeSpot is to signal to disaster survivors where the nearest clinic or aid center is, or the location of anything else that rescue workers wish to make known. Lederman says the balloon was inspired by studies that demonstrated the importance of communication between residents and local authorities in order for things to function in the aftermath of a disaster. “Design offers tools for creating trust between the authorities and residents. For example, HopeSpot can also be used in other situations, not just disasters. Imagine if at a massive funeral – like that of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, where there were 800,000 people present – they would have raised eight balloons to indicate where the first-aid stations were. Or four balloons indicating where the exits were at Madonna’s Hayarkon Park concert.

“A few days after the earthquake in Nepal [last April], I flew there and joined a medical team from Germany that erected a clinic in one village,” continues Lederman. “I went to the neighboring villages to inform them there was a clinic nearby, but the reaction I got from most people was, ‘I don’t believe it! The authorities don’t do anything for us.’ Just think what kind of impact this sort of balloon could have, when it’s quickly raised into the air and creates immediate communication with people. The transition from trauma to post-trauma is sometimes built upon small and subtle elements, and a balloon like this could certainly help make that transition smoother.”

Digital simulation of HopeSpot balloonsCredit: Arkadi Kravochik

Several days after are interview, Vinitsky calls to say she forgot to mention the most important thing: “We usually think about natural disasters in tragic terms only, but our designs contain optimism. It’s design that gives hope.”

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