RCA Grand Challenge with CERN Champions Design Thinking and Innovation

The RCA’s Grand Challenge in collaboration with CERN, the European Laboratory for Particle Physics, demonstrates how innovative and disruptive technologies can address the world’s most intractable challenges by combining science with design. 

Working in 74 interdisciplinary teams, supported by 16 CERN tutors and 16 RCA tutors, 374 students from across the School of Design, were given four weeks to devise workable solutions to global problems. The four winning teams showcased their projects during the School of Design Work-in-progress Show, visited the Large Hadron Collider and presented their work at CERN in February 2019.

CERN, the European atomic physics laboratory, is the birthplace of the World Wide Web and the home of the Large Hadron Collider. From electromagnetics, to superconductivity and cryogenics, the Grand Challenge aims to inspire students with science to address key social and environmental issues.

‘CERN is the biggest scientific experiment ever at international level, pursuing fundamental goals for humanity, truth, wisdom, beauty and the advancement of human knowledge,’ commented RCA Innovation Design Engineering Senior Tutor Savina Torrisi. ‘The connection between CERN and our students enables this immense source of knowledge to become accessible for our students, so they feel that as designers they can play an important role in shaping both the present and the future.’

Through collaborating with the RCA, scientists from CERN witnessed the power of design to explore and develop innovative applications for technologies through disruptive models of interdisciplinary innovation. ‘CERN has a particular interest in developing technologies in an open way for the greater good. That’s central to our mission,’ said Dr Markus Nordberg, Head of Resources Development at CERN. ‘We at CERN are very interested in the differences and similarities between scientists and designers, and how working together can create new knowledge.’

The mixed-disciplinary student teams addressed four themes: Health and Wellbeing; Digital Disruption; Energy, Infrastructure and the Environment; and Social and Economic Disparity. Each team identified the underlying causes of these grand challenges, determining the needs of the communities most affected and the key stakeholders that could help resolve issues. They then explored technologies from CERN or beyond, to create compelling new solutions. The results demonstrated how design can create an integrated solution that is as much about human behaviour and social innovation as the technological innovation.

The winning teams are:

PLOC is an interlocking brick-cum-tile made from a versatile mould using plastic reprocessed from the established recycling industry in Dharavi, a Mumbai slum. Developed by Eric Saldanha (Design Products), Xiaohui Wang (Innovation Design Engineering), Irene Liao (Service Design), Megan Willis (Textiles) and Oliver Bassnet (Intelligent Mobility), PLOC deals with waste from Dharavi by creating jobs, a new cottage industry and valuable end products to improve housing infrastructure. The project showcases the viability of recycled plastic products that are durable, can be built from a grassroots level, and sustain meaningful purpose in their application.

‘Working within the context of the “Grand Challenges” we face today, really put things into perspective,’ commented Eric Saldanha. ‘Little did I realise, especially as a designer, how what I do affects the world I live in. In every product or process that’s created, it is vital to analyse the context of sustainability and its environmental impact. To take it further, it is beneficial to address the social impact, and how a product or process can improve people’s lives on a fundamental level.’

Nari is a menstrual cup sanitisation device for women in rural India. Developed by Helene Benz (Service Design), Malvika Bhasin (Global Innovation Design), Rowan Vyvyan (Design Products), Ruoxing Long (Fashion Womenswear) and Yichen Shu (Intelligent Mobility), Nari aims to reduce the waste, cost, shame and school attendance attrition associated with menstruation.

Menstrual cups aren’t marketed in rural India due to the importance of clean water for re-use. Nari provides a low-cost menstrual cup sanitisation device for women in rural India to use safely and subtly, on-the-go. Using nanotech filtration, Nari’s sanitisation helps reduce the rate of infections from cleaning with contaminated water.

Discussing working on the project Helene Benz commented: ‘Working in a team of people who have culturally diverse experiences can bring a lot to solving a problem. We each brought different experiences and unique strengths, which contributed to the development of the product. Coming from a Service Design background, I really enjoyed working towards a product-based outcome.’

Knowtrition, developed by Anya Muangkote (Design Products), Yi-Fan Hsieh (Innovation Design Engineering), Agata Juszkiewicz (Service Design) and Zhiyi Zhang (Textiles), is a smart diet system that supports users in maintaining a well-balanced diet to prevent potential chronic diseases. It consists of a scanner in the form of transformable biodegradable bioplastic bag; a skin patch that monitors nutrition data in the body and displays real-time information about food; and an app that calculates the nutritional needs of the user based on food purchasing history and health data.

Discussing working on the project, the team commented: ‘One of the challenges of the brief was that we were not so familiar with the topic of Health and Wellbeing, we've never worked in this area before so it was quite daunting at times. However, our skills complemented each other very well. Being able to learn from each other is very rewarding. We love the fact that we were throwing ideas around all the time, and with the variety of creativity we found there was more value added to our project.’

CureScan aims to combat the risks of consuming dangerous counterfeit medication by empowering consumers to tell the difference between unsafe and safe medication. Developed by Yaqiu Cheng (Design Products), Pinja Piipponen (Service Design), Frederick Phua (Innovation Design Engineering) and Cristiane Chaves (Textiles) it is an easy to use, locally 3D printed scanner that notifies the user of the medicine’s name and safety by identifying its chemical components.

The CureScan app offers information about the dangers of a counterfeit, safe online and offline pharmacies nearby, and guidance for correct storage and dosage in all local languages. While products  using this technology are on the market they are aimed at trained professionals, CureScan is designed to empower the end user with confidence to trust their purchases.

The team reflected:  ‘The four-week schedule was definitely a challenge and like all groups, we also had our challenges to decide on things. But the time pressure also made us work and focus on what we were doing 100%. Learning how other design fields tackle a problem of this scale was really interesting. We used different methods to do research and ideate, and learned how to rely on other people’s strengths. This is definitely something everyone will apply in their future projects.’


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