In September 2010 and February 2011, Christchurch was severely damaged by two massive earthquakes. These quakes measured 7.1 and 6.3 on the Richter scale, claimed over 180 lives, and destroyed wide swaths of the downtown and eastern suburbs of the city.
From my work in the world of disaster recovery, I’ve learned a couple of hard truths.
- Solutions designed without the survivor at the core rarely succeed.
- You can’t just grab a survivor by the shoulders and ask them what they need. They just want things to go back to the way they were. They’re tired.
So how do you design for the weary? I spoke recently to Ryan Reynolds, a member of a group called Gap Filler, located in Christchurch, New Zealand. Ryan is pioneering a variation on the traditional design-thinking cycle to work with the recovery-weary community of Christchurch.
As always with disasters of this scale, incredible opportunity follows incredible destruction. The question is not whether to rebuild, but rather, what should be rebuilt. That’s where Gap Filler has made its mark. The group pops up small installations, or "interventions", in destroyed and abandoned spaces of the community. Think of a refrigerator full of books as a prototype of a book exchange or a low-res astroturf version of an outdoor cafe. Once the installation is in place, they wait and see if the community interacts with it.
“If it is vandalized or not used, it is a sign," said Ryan. "We call it a failed experiment.”
Ryan calls this a “propositional model of recovery”. It starts with a prototype and uses observation as the primary need-finding tool. If people flock to the installation, their reactions and feedback inform the next iteration of the prototype. If the installation is ignored or defaced, it is a strong signal that the community should not spend billions expanding upon it.
When the public reacts well, the innovation is expanded upon. Even the experiments that do not scale seem to be a source of inspiration. Ryan gave the example of a kitschy public garden.
“We put down astroturf, put up potted plants, and tried to create a welcoming place for people to hang out.”
“People would walk by, look, watch, come in - and then say something unrelated. Like, 'you know, I’ve got an idea to ….’. For a while we were perplexed that people were not commenting on what we had done. Then we realized it was kind of magic that what we built was not awesome, but the fact that someone built it was inspiring.”
I’ve been on the survivor side of recovery -- bone tired and unable to visualize a future beyond rebuilding the old infrastructure. The magic of this approach is that leading with the prototype takes the burden of decision-making off of the survivor. Their reaction becomes the important data, and the experiment itself is an inspiration.