Humane Futures

Prototyping preferable futures in the Italian hills

Students relaxing in the (frankly stunning) surroundings of Urbino, Italy

Humane Futures was a three day workshop held at ISIA Urbino in Italy, with students from 1st and 2nd year BA Graphic Design between 17–19 May 2017.

The purpose of the workshop was to promote fundamental processes used in human-centred design, applied to a conceptual outcome around the current and future use of technology for ageing populations. The unique setting of the University in the rural hillside of Marche, supported the proposal to design for the older generations in Italy for whom often face particular challenges in towns like Urbino.

The workshop in particular, would focus on how technology is adopted and adapted by those who use it. The aim was to understand what opportunities were available to create meaningful, useful experiences that could assist older people in Italy, through the lens of speculative design interventions.

1st and 2nd year BA Graphic Design students, Urbino

The students were first asked to rapidly research and understand contemporary health topics and consider unique Italian attributes and issues around ageing using some particular design research methods. The students would conceptualise themes through filters of provocations, and quickly create visual expressions that consolidate their research and thinking into tangible, communicatable outcomes.

The brief to students was to prototype and sketch an optimistic future; to gain an understanding of contemporary problems and technologies; to use human-centred design principles to understand and materialise concepts; and sketch a preferable future that responded to and catered for the needs for older generations, now and in the near future.

The Black Mirror episode ‘San Junipero’ provided context to crafting stories around technology and old age

Six groups of 3 students were first tasked with desk research and textual analysis. The purpose was to learn rapidly about a set topic, of course with no expectation of becoming an expert. To support a quick understanding of the modern health needs of elderly Italians, the groups were split into specific issues: loneliness, dementia, depression, frailty, diabetes and visual impairment.

Rapid research uncovered key statistics about issues such as depression. Marche — the region Urbino is in — ranks in the middle percentile for depression amongst older people.

The students then took to the streets of Urbino to construct a wider context of how people lived, to reinforce their findings. Armed with interview sheets and cameras, they sought out the eldery population in the town. Meeting them in the street, the piazza, the bar. In a town that often bristles with tension between frantic late-parties held by the young and more sleepy, habitual life led by the old, it was a wonderful chance for the young students to see the town from another perspective. The results were incredibly insightful, given the short time frame.

Students embraced the interview process, learning about the daily lives of Urbino’s older people

The students were asked primarily to consider the older people’s activities, environments, interactions, objects and other relationships to quickly get a grip of the potential issues old people had in Urbino. Over coffee in bars, perching on steps in the piazza, they learned about another side of life.

They then used their desk research and interview findings to construct fictional personas. Creating a fictional, yet realistic, description of a typical person, allowed the students to foster empathy for the specific person we would be designing for, which would help them break away from tendency to try and design for everyone.

These personas quickly become rich in character and personality, uncovering particularly Italian attriubutes which don’t often materialise themselves, but reflected a genuine expresion of a generation that was fortunate to live generally long and healthy lives, but were affected by chronic problems.

Each persona revealed not only important health challenges, but unique, culturally-rich information
The persona of Guidobaldo was influenced by a local with a — very particular — set of problems

Armed with their personas, the students then create a storyboard that showed a day in the life of their person. They would use this narrative format to challenge the respective health topics with possible solutions that utilise contemporary and emerging technologies.

Guidobaldo and his supportive ‘animal’

They were reminded that any technology they utilised, should support their person with their most important needs. Importantly, focusing on not what was necessarily possible or feasible, but rather focusing on what would be preferable.

Using loose sketches, quick drawings and wireframes, they mapped out stories about their elderly person; their life in Urbino with their health needs; and how a preferable future could be described with the help of technology.

Each group tackled their storyboard in a different way, one opting for an abstracted flowchart
Visual toryboarding in progress

The storyboards acted as a foundation with which to create a final concept. Deciding to either create a scenario (perhaps defined as a dynamic, conceptual image); an artefact (mocked up as a physical/digital object); or a narrative (as a time-based visual story) the students spent their last day finessing their storyboards into complete ideas.


The final six ideas demonstrated a great range of rapid research, applied methodology, critical thinking and imaginative prototyping:

To combat loneliness, one group proposed volumetric projections and augmented reality headsets to allow Igino to spend time with his friends in the local piazza and further afield when he was unable to join them physically.
Animation storyboard (excerpt) from the ‘Loneliness’ group
In order to reduce depression for widower Franco, another group designed a basic algorithmic program integrated with sensors to measure his wellbeing, mood and physical symptoms. Linked to a local governmental post-retirement work system, their program – RoutineSystem – helped alleviate feelings of worthlessness for Franco, a highly-skilled but undervalued member of society to lend a hand a few hours a week in his old workplace.
RoutineSystem: An algorithm for depression treatment
To support those living with dementia, one group proposed a radical future: a synthetic bio-engineered animal called M-8 that was given to every child at birth. Growing up and maturing with each invidivual, it would provide assistive support throughout life, providing a bedrock of lived experiences and insight to empower people to live independently when neuro-degenerative diseases such as dementia appeared later in life.
The artifical M-8 would be a companion from an early age
Speculating synthetic biologies, M-8 is prime example of design fiction
Despite its fantastical nature, M-8 is founded upon the need for evolving assistance technology
One group effectively translated their research for people with visual impairments into a set of products that provided rich audio support through everyday objects such as sunglasses (a very typical feature for older Italians), bringing failed technological missteps such as Google Glass, to something more appropriate for specific user groups.
Glasses and shoes would become hubs for assistive technology
Frailty, being a complex set of symptoms and problems, directed one group to transform Urbino’s skyline with a small network of human-powered chair lifts. Understanding that many old people struggle with the steep hills and medieval cobble streets. Overhead communal benches, combined with gentle therapeutic cycling machines, provided both exercise and mobility to those who need face-to-face communication the most. Importantly, the elegant skyline brought the older people of Urbino front and centre, gliding between streets and steeples.
Diabetes, as a chronic disease that affects many millions of older people in Italy was tackled through a highly feasible wearable product. Recognising the clinical value glucose reading has for detecting spikes in sugar levels, and appreciating the acceptance of wearable products amongst many people, the group decided to tackle the problem of adherence for drug delivery. By linking alert notifications with easy-to-administer gas medication, the students created a all-in-one solution that can be discreetly delivered without interrupting someone’s daily life.
Tackling the perennial problem of wearables

All six concepts demonstrated a fun and engaged approach to tackling complex health problems, and the graphic design students at ISIA Urbino are to be commended for being able to tackle them in such a short amount of time, grabbing completely new design methodologies and running with the opportunities that emerge when designers take themselves out of their normal environment and situation and immerse themselves in the worlds of others.

ISIA Urbino

The students were Giulio Galli, Roberto Vito D’Amico, Francesca Martini, Mariavittoria Campodonico, Alberto Malossi, Lucrezia Ghinassi, Alice Picari, Marta Fioravanti, Debora D’Angelo, Vittorio Veronesi, Marika Banci, Tea Bruno, Benedetta Baraldi, Sofia Luzi, Giovanni Abbatepaolo, Stefania Mafrica, Daniele Tommaso Colombo and Giulia Del Zotto.

The workshop was led by Ivor Williams, with the invaluable support of Marco Ferrari.

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