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The coronavirus problem could be solved with design thinking

This is the web version of Business x Design, a newsletter on the power of design. Sign up here to get it in your inbox.

A central premise of this newsletter is that design is about more than creating beautiful objects. We’ve embraced the broad notion of design that includes “design thinking,” the use of empathy, brainstorming, prototyping, testing, and other techniques to solve practical problems in areas not traditionally associated with design.

One of those areas is health care. I’m pondering design thinking’s potential contribution to that sector because I write from Hong Kong, where the entire city is convulsed by the prospect of a respiratory pandemic originating from the central-Chinese metropolis of Wuhan. At the time of writing, known cases of a mysterious new coronavirus have jumped to 4,515—a 60 percent increase from just 24 hours ago at time of writing. More than 100 people in China have died; the virus has now spread from Wuhan to over a dozen countries, including the United States.

China’s government has imposed a travel ban on Wuhan and 16 other cities in Hubei province. The restriction seeks to create a cordon sanitaire around 50 million people, and might be the most ambitious lockdown in the history of civilization. It may also be too late. The mayor of Wuhan acknowledged that just before the ban, five million of Wuhan’s 11 million residents left the city, most returning to rural villages to celebrate the Chinese New Year.

In combating the Wuhan virus, scientists, doctors, and nurses form the first line of defense. As Annie Sparrow notes in this excellent Foreign Policy essay, experts are still grappling with basic questions about the virus: Where did it start? How lethal is it? How does it spread? And how long will it take to develop a vaccine?

As answers materialize, designers and design thinkers can play a vital role. Among the areas where they might help:

  • Visualizing data: In a Fast Company article, journalist Stephanie Evergreen says graphic designers can save lives by helping scientists and public health officials communicate information about the geography of the disease, how it spreads, and how to stop it.

  • Rethinking China’s health care system: China does not have enough hospitals, and the ones it has are bureaucratic, inefficient, and poorly organized. Videos circulating on China’s social media shows scenes of chaos and squalor inside Wuhan’s hospitals. The government has ordered construction companies to work round the clock to build a six-acre, 1,000-bed emergency hospital for coronavirus patients within the next week. But will facilities thrown up with such haste still function properly, and minimize the risk of contagion?

  • Cleaning up China’s wet markets: Many of the early victims of coronavirus worked in or visited one of Wuhan’s largest wet markets, where a wide array of wildlife species—bats, civet cats, snakes, live wolf pups—were sold as food. Experts say that close contact with these creatures can accelerate the mutations that spawn viruses capable of jumping to humans. Chinese authorities imposed a temporary nationwide ban on the trade of wild animals and quarantined all wildlife breeding centers. Designers may not be able to change a country’s dietary preferences. But they could address the infrastructure around wet market hygiene.

Design thinking’s methods aren’t widely understood in China. Beijing tends to prefer solutions that involve top-down edict and central control rather than “empathy” and “ideation.” The Wuhan outbreak, and China’s struggle to contain it, demonstrates the need for a different approach.

More design news below.

Clay Chandler