It’s 8:30 AM early September in the basement of the Ann Bourne Building at McMaster University. It takes a few minutes to adjust to the sharp fluorescent lighting in the windowless room.

The students shuffle in and by 8:35 AM all 34 of the Health/Engineering Science and Entrepreneurship (HESE) students have arrived for our second class in human-centred design. Much of the course centres on how as designers we come to create meaningful relationships with people and how the conversations designers have with those they are serving leads towards health.

I’m joined by my good friend Dr. Bill Sutherland, a family doc, osteopath, and psychotherapy GP, for a class on the topic of “What is health?”. Bill is a pioneer in the area complexity medicine and is a scholar on the practice of medicine and healing as a holistic endeavour.

The impetus to explore the question of what health is came from a curiosity I have about a term that is used so frequently, but without any critical conversation about what we mean by it or hope it could mean.

The students have been asked to bring in an object that represents health to them. The idea is that students will share these objects and their stories with each other to generate ideas and questions that could help them start to define some starting points for design projects.

More significantly, Bill and I thought both the process and outcome of the conversation might bring to life an epistemology or worldview about Health as something vaster that we can comprehend, something that is experienced, lived and participated in here in the classroom, rather than to be looked at safely “from the outside” to be understood and controlled.

Bill writes up some words on the large whiteboard wall. Knowing that these students have substantial backgrounds in mathematics and physics, he asks for someone to tell him what an algorithm is. A hand quickly shoots up and a young woman says “a process or set of rules to be followed in order to produce an output”. Bill indicates that the instructions on the board are an algorithm and asks the students to put them into action.

1.Find a way to move towards Bill

2. Global participation

3. No talking

4. Everyone sits down at the same moment

At first, the students seem a bit confused. They shoot glances to one another, but slowly they start to shuffle about, moving chairs and tables. Some students are actively leading the charge as others hang back waiting for space to open up.

Within about 90 seconds the students have huddled around Bill and in a moment that brings the tingle of goosebumps, everyone sits down at the same time. Bill asks us to notice what we’re feeling and students remark on feeling connected as a class in that one moment.

On the board are some other things

  • “Invocation — from invocare “to call upon, invoke, appeal to”
  • Evocation — “a calling forth, a calling from concealment,”
  • “To find health should be the object of the doctor. Anyone can find disease.” — Andrew Still, founder of Osteopathy
  • Health, Life, Sacred, Beauty

Bill asks how we might go about telling and receiving stories in a way, that in their telling, invokes and evokes Health. Health, he says, in a holistic sense is akin to other words like Life, Sacred, and Beauty; words we use to signify that which cannot be reduced to parts. Like the feeling of being connected in the moment we sit down, Health emerges in relationship and is called forth in the circularity of collective giving and receiving.

Bill has brought an artifact with him — a tissue — and jokes that by itself, the tissue may simply be seen as something that one wipes a nose or wipes one’s ass with. A story, however, may bring the object to life. And this Bill does in recounting an early experience of falling off a bicycle when he was 5. In the story, Bill recalls going down a hill and bailing at the last moment to avoid going onto a busy road. He hits the ground hard and gets road rash all up one side of his body. A man comes and offers him a tissue, but quickly departs seemingly unsure and unable to help in any meaningful way. 5-year old Bill walks back up the hill crying tears with tissue in hand to his mother, who comes to his aide and offers a tissue as well. This time, however, the warm care of his mother, touches him in a very different way.

As part of speaking to how we received Bill’s story, I remark how I could imagine myself where he was, having fallen off my bicycle when I was young, and the pain of walking back up the hill, of receiving care from my mother.

We now ask the students to share their objects and stories with each other in small groups, to tell and to listen in ways the evoke Health. As they do this, Bill and I make an adjustment to the first algorithm on the wall and wait for them to finish sharing and receiving each others’ stories. The new statement reads as follows:

  1. Write down one thing that stood out to you from your experience telling and receiving stories onto a sticky note
  2. Arrange your sticky notes onto the wall in an aesthetic manner
  3. Global participation
  4. No talking

After a few minutes we then direct the students to the wall and to get moving. There are fewer confused glances this time around as slowly, and then in a rush, the students come to the wall with their sticky notes. Some take an active role in positioning the sticky notes on the wall as others stand back to watch the action. Finally, we give a final direction — speak freely amongst yourselves — and an explosion of conversation pours forth amongst them. As a sign of their engagement, the tenor and content of their interactions is focused on the subject matter at hand.

Image for post
Inquiry as a self-organizing system

We sat down to debrief what has been shared and collectively created by the class. A few students commented on a heightened sense of connection. Another student, a young man, said he felt love. (We added “Love” next to Life and Health on the board). Someone spoke of their horizons expanding and other noted a sense of feeling excited.

Image for post
Health as an aesthetic expression

Bill asked for someone’s arm so he could feel their pulse. “Don’t worry”, he said with laughter, “I’m a doctor!” As he felt for a pulse Bill indicated the next step forward in our process with a new algorithm:

Heartfelt curiosity + action = inquiry

Because we are alive, we have feeling, awe and wondering in us. Our goal now, as we track and pursue health, is to notice this felt sense of life and connection and allow it guide us.

Assistant Professor, McMaster University

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store