Can collaborative design be the answer for disaster relief?

By Mechthild Rombach, Katy Hartley, Sean Carney 10 September 2015

Victims of the earthquake in Nepal receive shelter kits supplied by the Red Cross. Collaboration is essential in achieving improved disaster relief operations. Photo by: Pierre Grandidier / CC BY-ND

There is only one way to get better at making things better, and that’s getting better at getting together.

Collaboration. It’s not just “a” way to make sure this world has a future, it’s “the only” way.

This philosophy will come to the fore in two weeks, when the U.N. Sustainable Development Summit 2015 discusses the adoption of the 17 sustainable development goals, first proposed three years ago at Rio+20.

Naturally, the detail of the 17 goals is intricate, diverse and a little daunting, but luckily, behind them all is one simple, universal and attainable driving force: global partnership.

The official U.N. statement says they will not be able to reach the goals without it, and many agree.

This is why the Philips Foundation has brought together the best of Philips Design, one of the largest design groups in the world and the Red Cross, represented by the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Netherlands Red Cross, to co-create innovation that could enhance health care for those in need with the ambition of making a real difference.

And we’re not just talking physical resources. Inevitably, those matter, like in the wake of Nepal’s twin earthquakes, when Philips and the Philips Foundation immediately contributed cash and medical equipment to those in need. But supporting disaster relief doesn’t end with material things. To be honest, it’s barely even started.

Because at the crux of effective humanitarian aid — and at the crux of Philips and the Red Cross — is people. People who know, who care, who are experts in their field and who want to use that expertise to create innovations for the thing that matters most: people in need.

What they need is vast and varied: housing, food, water, shelter, safety, medicine, psychological support, emotional support, schooling. Obviously, no one organization can offer the whole spectrum on its own, which is why you need the collaboration we’re talking about, and why you also need a sense of self-awareness.

By this, we mean the ability to realize what you’re good at, focus on that, then let go of the rest. There’s no point in a company like Philips saying they’ll offer food parcels; that’s not what we know. What we say instead is, “We’ll offer the best of our health care innovations and our people.”

This week we are celebrating 90 Years of Philips Design and our people wanted to do just that, bring their design way of thinking and creativity to two of the Red Cross’ most important focus areas: mother and child care, and data management.

Why those two topics? Mother and child care is not only a key focus of the U.N. sustainable development goals, it’s also already at the very heart of what both Philips and Red Cross do every day in their daily work.

With data management, it’s less so. Philips as a technology company has been innovating in the area for some time. However the Red Cross, like many humanitarian organizations, has many colleagues still working in the field and in disaster areas by hand, with no automated backup. Disaster relief is always focused on the immediate task of saving as many lives as possible, and in circumstances where there is may be no water, power, food or mobile phone network, gathering data is particularly hard. But of course, if done the right way, this can help save just as many lives.

What exactly is “the right way” for Red Cross? It might be using data to better identify vulnerable households and measure the impact of interventions; or it might be designing systems enabling quicker and more reliable registration of patients; or it might be advancing tools to better identify, aggregate and interpret data about a humanitarian disaster from social media.

But whatever “it” is, as with the “right” innovations for mother and child care, we will have found it because we worked together.

In a microcosm of what the U.N. sustainable goals will achieve, Philips and the Red Cross will have brought together a diverse collection of people — all with their own vision, skills and capabilities — and we will have united them in one ambition: to make things better.

Sustaining Development is a three-month online series exploring the post-2015 development agenda hosted by Devex in partnership with Chevron, FXB, Global Health Fellows Program II, Philips, Pfizer, UNIDO, U.N. Volunteers and the U.S. Council for International Business. We will look at the practical steps needed to move the sustainable development goals from concept to reality. Visit the campaign site and join the conversation using #SustainDev.

About the authors

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Mechthild Rombach

Meggi Rombach works as corporate partnership manager at the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva, Switzerland. She is responsible for the corporate partnerships including the Philips Foundation, the Swiss Re Foundation, ABB and LafargeHolcim. Prior to joining the ICRC, Meggi worked in brand management for about a decade; mainly at Procter & Gamble. She holds a MBA in international organizations management at the HEC Geneva.


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Katy Hartley

Katy Hartley is heading the Philips Foundation, which is a registered charity aimed at bringing innovation to those most in need. She joined Philips in 2007 and was responsible for creating and managing The Philips Center for Health & Well-being. She also started up Philips' ongoing partnership with the World Economic Forum. Prior to joining Philips, Katy worked at Royal Dutch Telecom between 2002-2007, eventually heading the consumer division’s communications team for the Dutch-based company.


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Sean Carney

Sean Carney is chief design officer for Philips and chief design officer for Philips Consumer Lifestyle. As the head of the design competence across the company, he is leading global teams delivering insight-driven, meaningful innovation which bring value to people and business.


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