January IxDA Chicago Meeting Recap

Event Description

Natural disasters are disruptive: physically, socially and psychologically. Governments and NGOs devote significant resources to provide basic needs such as food and shelter but little to facilitate social development and psychological recovery. In underdeveloped nations, the results can be devastating. The poor are further marginalized and psychological scars can have deep, long-lasting implications.

At this meeting, we explored in multidisciplinary teams the survivor experience and search for ways to improve the delivery of social and psychological aid services in the 6 month to 3 year time frame after a disaster. We weren’t here to redesign government preparedness or the NGO model, but to supplement their work with considerations for a more humane response that helps the affected move from victim to survivor status. I presented an overview of the situation in Chile and divided IxDA members into four small teams. Each team tackled a different issue.

This was a great opportunity to contribute to a social response project while networking with others outside of our respective disciplines.

Meeting Agenda

6:00 Arrive, mix and mingle
6:30 IxDA welcome and introduction
6:35 Presentation: design context
6:45 Improv (warmup) exercises
7:00 Brainstorming sessions
7:30 Presentation of results
7:50 Debrief
8:00 Meeting adjourned

Design Context

About every 25 years, an earthquake of magnitude 8.0 or greater hits Chile. Since the 1960 Valdivia quake, building codes have improved, but has preparedness?

While improvements to buildings and infrastructure minimized the loss of life, the 2010 quake still severely damaged 500,000 buildings and displaced over 2 million people. Hospitals in the immediate vicinity were crippled. Civic activities were cancelled. The school year was put on hold.

Heroic Stage: In the immediate aftermath, victims experienced intense emotions and behaved altruistically. While the media sensationalized riots and lawlessness, it was far more common to see people helping each other. Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) set up tents to provide temporary shelter.

Honeymoon Stage: Over the next few months, these are replaced by slightly more permanent quick build shelters. Things seemed to improve as promises of aid provided hope that lives and neighborhoods would be rebuilt.

Disillusionment Stage: When aid proves insufficient, cramped, temporary shelters become more permanent. Hopes for recovery diminish.

Reconstruction Stage: Real reconstruction begins when people rely on existing community resources rather than foreign aid.

These post-disaster stages map to Maslow’s Heirarchy of Needs. Maslow believed that a person needed to fulfill lower level needs before moving onto higher level needs. Ultimately, people seek self-actualization but few attain that level of fulfillment. In the first week after a disaster, people seek physiological fulfillment: first aid, food and shelter; then safety to secure their immediate environment. These map back to the Heroic Stage. While governments and NGOs often address physiological and safety needs, they rarely address the socioeconomic and psychological needs that allow a person to move up the pyramid.

How can the Chilean community economically address love/belonging, esteem and self-actualization needs in the 6 month to 3 year timeframe?

Improv Exercises

Byron led the group through 3 improv exercises that helped reinforce the rules of brainstorming: renaming things in the room, passing a metaphor ball, and collectively saying the alphabet without simultaneity.

1. Defer judgment
There are no bad ideas at this point. There will be plenty of time to judge ideas later.

2. Encourage wild ideas
It’s the wild ideas that often provide the breakthroughs. It is always easy to bring ideas down to earth later!

3. Build on the ideas of others
Think in terms of ‘and’ rather than ‘but.’ If you dislike someone’s idea, challenge yourself to build on it and make it better.

4. Stay focused on topic
You get better output if everyone is disciplined.

5. Be visual
Try to engage the left and the right side of the brain.

6. One conversation at a time
Allow ideas to be heard and built upon.

7. Go for quantity
Set an outrageous goal for number of ideas and surpass it! Remember there is no need to make a lengthy case for your idea since no one is judging. Ideas should flow quickly.

Design Briefs

Four teams were given one of two possible design briefs:

1. Children

Challenge: Considering the social and psychological touch points for children, how can we design a an experience that: a) establishes a psychological sense of safety and support, b) encourages acceptance/dialogue of what has happened, and c) facilitates positive meaning making?

Situation: Over half of those affected in the 2010 quake are children. Parents and guardians are injured or killed, disrupting family routines. School is cancelled until temporary schools are built or children can be assigned to other schools. Social networks are fractured as children no longer see the familiar faces that they rely on to talk through their problems. Relocations and temporary classrooms create new stressors. Friends move to other schools. Children act out. Teachers must reconcile inconsistent curriculum between school districts. Some teachers whose homes were destroyed choose to relocate. Adults are too stressed from logistical, social, and financial burdens to attend to children’s emotional needs.

Children often lose verbal skills after a traumatic event. Once a sense of safety is established through environment and routines, primary activities such as drawing, clay modeling, and acting are access points to empathy.

Positive meaning making refers to the process of accepting what has happened and looking forward rather than dwelling on the past. Moving from victim to survivor status requires processing. Part of that is memorialization. Most of it is working towards a future that’s brighter. Creating opportunities for children to participate in the community and the rebuilding process is a positive step.

This quote from an elementary school teacher (after a different disaster) provides a good summary of the post-traumatic recovery process in children across cultures:

Post-Katrina, I worked with kindergarten and fifth grade students. Art turned out to be one of the most beneficial aids in addressing and even diagnosing PTSD in children. Crayons, markers, paints, finger paints, and even creating clay sculptures of jewelry all helped. In some cases, the jewelry was sold and proceeds went to developing a playground. Since so many schools lost their play equipment, just having outdoor play equipment (or not having it) impacted the children and their behaviors tremendously.

Acting/drama/singing was another tool that proved useful. At first, it was serious stuff dealing with the storm. Later, acting became their outlet to relieve stress and help others understand their personal views and emotions.

Free writing and topical writing helped children address issues they were facing (such as living in FEMA trailers) or dig deeper into issues that were important to them.

Children like to feel like they are a part of the recovery process and are making a difference. We did things like toy and clothes drives for students who lost everything. In some cases the kids who lost a lot of “stuff” still wanted to share what they had with friends who lost more.

Any sense of normalcy is also helpful. They liked special treatment and privileges, visits from dignitaries and media, but one thing that almost all of the children said they really liked about school was that it was predictable, familiar, and had a sense of normalcy. Some students said that their favorite times were those spent at school because they could forget about living in a FEMA trailer (with eight other people) and about what had happened.

2. Community Rebuilding / Social Learning

Challenge: Considering the technology limitations of developing nations, create an information platform and system of incentives to: a) communicate and demonstrate a commitment to rebuilding the neighborhood, b) pool resources and exchange local goods and services, and c) support a sense of community.

Situation: After the earthquake, the Chilean government and NGOs stepped in to provide tents, then more intermediate-term shelters while reconstruction was to take place. Case history tells us that funds are limited and reconstruction of civic spaces and infrastructure will take place, but those directly affected will likely be stuck in these shacks until they themselves raise the funds to rebuild, leaving the middle class with a new, lower standard of living.

Community resources exist in the form of experienced labor, contractors, salvaged materials, and pooled donations from NGOs but there is no effective way of communicating individual, family or small group needs and resources and matching them with other needs and resources in the broader community. In addition, the disaster has created opportunities for fraud: not all builders will honor their contracts or use appropriate materials.

In Santiago, the internet is widely available. However, many of the affected regions are more rural and rely on radio and television for information. Regular cell phones are ubiquitous and smart phone adoption is rapidly growing but currently limited.

This quote from an interview of a Katrina survivor summarizes the feelings that people have (across cultures) in the aftermath of a disaster:

When we returned, there was NOTHING normal. Mornings were spent waiting in line (usually two hours) for our daily rations of MREs and ice. Many spent the days standing in lines, trying to figure out how to get money, compensation, weed through the red tape, and to have SOMEONE, SOMEWHERE tell them it would be ok. Afternoons were spent trying to clean, repair, and get back to normal. There was no tv when we got home. The lines were knocked down. There was no internet or land lines. The air was still very still, thick with mosquitoes and nothing else. We had electricity and plumbing, though many still did not.

Schools started to reopen, but teachers were not back yet. I decided to take a job teaching (though uncertified).
Money was tight. Everyone had to pay out of pocket for evacuation, no one knew when we would be compensated, how we were all going to get everything fixed, and if life would ever be normal.

There was, however, a good in all of this. EVERYONE was friendly to each other. It was amazing. Strangers were helpful, friendly, people CARED. It was like this disaster brought us all together as a community in an US AGAINST THE WORLD mentality. The donations started pouring in, and things started looking more promising.

Sparks

Two sparks (embodied personas) walked around to each of the teams to mix up the conversation. One was a local community leader that asked teams to consider the cultural context for which they were designing. The other was a CFO of an NGO that wants cost-effective solutions.

Feedback on the sparks: While useful, this could have been information included within the case itself. Given the 30 minute brainstorming-to-suggestions format, the teams were probably not quite at a stage where new insight was going to help.

Results

The four teams came back with some great suggestions and avenues for further investigation.

Team A (Children)

Objective: create a safe place for children to come to every day to help them cope with feelings of transience

1. Community garden that is run and managed by children
2. Bakery to teach children vocational skills / make them feel useful
3. Bike delivery service for things from the garden and bakery / bike repair service

Other ideas to help children regain verbal skills: storytelling wall/journal, improv troupe (as a distraction), pet therapy, older children mentoring younger ones

Team B (Community Rebuilding / Social Learning)

Objective: Create a central hub for a low-tech information exchange

Find a central location (perhaps an existing church) to serve as a community hub. This hub could connect to other hubs to aggregate information. Set up a bulletin/white board that collects information on name, skills, and needs, with a slot if you want to fill that need. The bulletin board could have a column where people could leave feedback on whether that person fulfilled their obligation. It’s sort of a low-tech Angie’s list. For example, if one person goes to help rebuild a house, they might then need someone to watch the kids. Maybe someone is good at cooking for large groups. There could be that exchange. Maybe the central hubs could be equipped with computers that have internet access to facilitate a service clearinghouse with other hubs and to organize more complex multiple-party exchanges.

Team C (Children)

Objective: Allow children to express themselves through activities, routine, and empowerment.

Organize kids and schedule events for them to help in the reconstruction. Maybe they can paint murals. Maybe they can recycle material from disaster for use in reconstruction. That would serve as a metaphor that memorializes what happened and serves as a building block for the future. By contributing to the rebuilding, they can see the progress in their own communities in parallel with government efforts. In order to get things on a schedule, a community center or church could serve as an organizational hub.

Team D (Community Rebuilding / Social Learning)

Objective: Create a mobile community hub of trailers with seating and a stage where people can exchange information.

The mobile model can be duplicated and moved throughout the week to serve a broader community base. One trailer would have internet access, one would have first aid services, one would have administrative services to help complete paperwork and organize community efforts. In addition, there would be vocational training to help those with limited skills to develop skills to help others. Maybe there’s a concert here each week or some event so that people want to show up.

In terms of incentives, set up a microfinance system where you get small amounts for certain achievements and future loans (for next steps) are conditioned on performance. Given that people may not have computer access, the internet station would provide access to other towns to match needs with resources. Before the internet stations get set up, perhaps someone could make the rounds through various towns to aggregate the information and coordinate a collective relief effort. A major obstacle to this is building trust. How do you know that others will perform their end of the exchange? That’s where the microloans come in: to provide monetary incentives to perform.

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