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Our Future Foyle Demonstrates Impact of Design on Mental Health in the Community

Our Future Foyle is a socially transformative urban project along Derry/Londonderry’s six-mile waterfront. The project began in 2016 as a research commission funded by Public Health Agency, Northern Ireland, to investigate ways of improving the mental wellbeing of the population along the banks and bridges of the river Foyle. Through innovative cultural and physical interventions, the project will transform public perception of the Foyle Bridge and river banks into a focal point for celebration.

Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design (HHCD) research associates Ralf Alwani and Lizzie Raby have led the project’s design and research. At the Foyle Maritime Festival in 2016 they carried out a workshop based on the tale of an orca that swam up the river in 1977, a collective memory that is both neutral and idiosyncratic to the city. Visitors were invited to write down their hopes and aspirations for the future of the river on pieces of shirt fabric, which over the course of the festival transformed a wooden model of a whale. Holistic and community engaged approaches such as this, enabled Ralf and Lizzie to establish the issues that local people wanted addressed on a long-term basis.

Our Future Foyle is now ready to move to the planning and delivery of its three key interventions – Foyle Reeds, Foyle Bubbles and Foyle Experience – which will transform the Foyle’s waterfront from a place of loneliness and isolation to a community space with a sense of festivity at all hours.

Foyle Reeds, is a public interactive sculpture and barrier for the Foyle Bridge based on natural reeds that grow along the river’s banks. When realised, this will be the largest public art sculpture in Northern Ireland, creating an iconic and dynamic tourist attraction that can change colour via the control of an app, marking positive occasions in the life of the city.

Foyle Bubbles, is a series of portable and affordable spaces along the riverfront for local businesses. In exchange for reduced rates, business owners will be given mental health training enabling them to act as an on-site community response. It is hoped that supporting the community to care for each other within everyday environments will have a positive effect on the overall mental health of local people.

The third element of the project, Foyle Experience, is a series of cultural and contextual wayfinding points around the riverfront, designed to increase people’s desire to use the space. The main theme of each installation will focus on the integration of digital technology and social media into the city. This will be community-focused, encouraging public participation and civic interaction.

Our Future Foyle is just project among many from the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design that demonstrates how human-centred design research can help solve some of the most pressing social, global and healthcare challenges. Another project directly addressing mental health is gameChange, funded by the National Institute for Health Research in partnership with Oxford University. HHCD research associates Paul Eliasz and Indira Knight are working with psychologists, people with lived experience of psychosis and NHS staff to design virtual reality environments that can be used as part of treatment for those experiencing psychosis. The design will be trialled in multiple sites across the UK, with the intention that the final VR therapy will be adopted into NHS practice.

All of the projects presented at the symposium demonstrate how the HHCD’s innovative approach to inclusive, empathic and interdisciplinary design research can contribute to improving people’s lives. Projects range from tackling childhood obesity in the London Borough of Lambeth; improving access to exhibitions through a curation tool-kit developed with the Wellcome Collection; to reducing the rise in antibiotic resistant diseases through better systems for antibiotic use in various healthcare scenarios.

HHCD research projects include funded research, industry collaborations and affiliated PhD activity across three research areas: Age & Diversity, Healthcare and Social & Global. PhD research presented at the Symposium included Stavros Niarchos Foundation PhD Scholar Laura Salisbury’s project UNDONE, which questions how stroke rehabilitation can be integrated into daily life through the wearing of garments that are sympathetic to the psychological impacts of a stroke on change in ability, behaviour and emotion.

Find out more about the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design.