Losing a limb, your eyesight or your memory are life-changing events that only some of us will experience, but we can all sympathise with. Years ago, conditions like these would have been lifelong struggles but with technology, everyday problems can be helped by extraordinary solutions.
Big Life Fix, a brand new RTE series, will bring together some of Ireland's most groundbreaking designers, engineers, computer programmers and technology experts to create tools that will radically improve people’s lives. We’ll follow their year together, watching them brainstorm, test and feel the highs and lows of transforming lives.
Between them, they can build everything from space satellites to life-saving medical devices and military hardware and will work on everything from preserving a voice to building a prosthetic limb for an aspiring athlete.
"It doesn't matter what's set down in front of him, he doesn't see anything as an obstacle. There's not one person in this world that will stop him!"— RTÉ One (@RTEOne) March 4, 2020
This kid is AMAZING. 😍#BigLifeFix starts tonight at 9.35pm. pic.twitter.com/BYeCT9LRMY
On tonight’s episode, designer and innovator Lorna Ross tries to build a tool to improve the life of 68-year-old grandmother Jacinta Dixon, whose life has been torn apart by a rare form of Alzheimer’s. Unable to make sense of the symbols and shapes she sees, Jacinta’s case was particularly challenging to a team pushed to use their empathy and intuition to find a solution.
Here, Ross talks to RTÉ LifeStyle about the need for empathy in design, her astounding career working for the United States Department of Justice and in the prestigious Mayo Clinic, and the "rollercoaster" of emotions she experienced on the show.
"I don’t think anybody understood fully what it was going to feel like, not just the time commitment but the emotional commitments. It’s much more impactful than just turning up", she says.
Having spent eight years in healthcare as the Design Director of the Mayo Clinic, Ross was used to hearing harrowing stories of suffering from patients, but facing the "moving target" of designing tools for someone with a degenerative disease was a true challenge.
It’s a different task to helping someone with a missing limb, Ross explains. "You can estimate what they can and can’t do and if you go back and see them a week later it’s unlikely that that’s changed." With a degenerative disease like Alzheimer’s, "it’s hard to know if you’re designing for the next couple of months or for a year from now."
"I want to keep going and moving and doing and being".— RTÉ One (@RTEOne) March 3, 2020
Tomorrow night in new series #BigLifeFix, the team will try to create some practical solutions for 68-year-old grandmother Jacinta Dixon whose world has been torn apart by a rare form of Alzheimer's. pic.twitter.com/0z9FJEI76f
Intuition becomes paramount, as does empathy as in the early days Ross’s team would need to test the tool with Jacinta, who would become frustrated with herself for not being able to use it. It "was horrible to watch, because it wasn’t her fault", Ross says.
"People say that good designers have a pronounced or strong empathy and that helps them tune in and cut through the noise."
Developing tools for better living is the next logical step for technology and design, and one that many have been working in for years. This is true of everything from the wheelchair to the iPhone, as we’ve consistently invented items to make our lives easier. "We don’t biologically evolve or adapt, we don’t grow an extra limb or learn to fly but our greatest evolutionary tool is our capacity to build", Ross says. "Rather than adapt ourselves to our environments if they’re hostile, we adapt our environments to us."
This makes our tools important to us "culturally", she adds, but it also "questions our identity, like 'we used to do that, now a machine does it for us. Does that change who we are?’" However, Big Life Fix proves that in its best state, technology and design helps us be more fully ourselves.
Such a project is a balm to the tech-anxiety of our times, when people are torn between welcoming the latest innovation into their homes and worrying about the amount of data they’ve already handed over, unwittingly or not. It cuts to the core of how we interact in our newly technological society, and each step forward seems to agitate another fear.
"The worry is we’re just really bad at agreeing what’s right and wrong", Lorna says. "I think that’s not the technology itself doing that. We get challenged to agree on ethical questions."
While big tech is skilled at manipulating users’ behaviour, with implications for our governments, education and daily lives, she says "the anxiety is in our paralysis versus the technology". She adds that research done by The Dock on smart homes showed that people felt less afraid of the technology and more guilt about having literally opened the door to it.
I suggest it’s a bit like getting annoyed at the wheel the first time a car knocks someone over, and she agrees. It’s about regulation and guidelines and our inability to agree on them, she says.
"This is the child that you wrote off when he was a day old. And look at him!"— RTÉ One (@RTEOne) March 2, 2020
In brand new series #BigLifeFix, Ireland's leading inventors create ingenious solutions to everyday problems for extraordinary people. ❤️️👏 pic.twitter.com/faP3kuGnH5
Someone doesn’t spend 30 years working in a field without believing in its power to do good, and this is what Big Life Fix champions. When asked if she has any utopian ideals for what design can accomplish, Lorna’s sight is fixed firmly on the future.
"I think it has a bigger role to play in thinking about how we live in a more respectful way with our environment, and with more humility."
If design could do anything, she says, it can be used to bring people back together. "There’s an awful lot of abstraction that’s happened with life. We’ve never had more mental health problems and a sense of isolation and unhappiness ever, particularly in the younger generation. The tools we have are discouraging us to connect."
"We haven’t really learned to be collaborative and it shows in what we’ve created. The problems that we’re addressing are so big that no one person’s going to fix them."
Watch Big Life Fix on Wednesdays at 9:35pm on RTE On