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Water shortages are not only a worry for our future – they’re a real burden for millions of people on a daily basis. A real challenge that calls for truly imaginative ideas.

Unilever Design Strategist Robert Pietrzyk, who supported and judged the Water for All brief in the 2014/15 RSA Student Design Awards, reflects on emerging designers’ responses to this issue ahead of the awards celebration at the RSA on Thursday 11 June. 

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During my work as a Design Strategist for Unilever, I’m often faced with the grim reality that – especially in developing countries, the collection of water alone forms a significant part of people’s daily routines. People in Sub-Saharan Africa for example, spend 40 billion hours a year collecting water (this equates to the entire annual workforce of France), and it is largely women who bear this responsibility.

While my daily work focuses on imbuing our brands and innovations with a transformative purpose – it’s through truly creative enterprises, such as our partnership with the RSA Student Design Awards, that we can dream up the big solutions we all need; disruptive ideas like the ones I saw at this year’s student design awards. 

These design ideas came in response to a creative brief to reduce the amount of time and effort women spend collecting water. Having had the honor to review and judge over 50 of these submissions, I’m delighted to say that the amount of diverse thinking was staggering and the creative intervention methods were truly inspirational.

As with any creative competition, the entries themselves ranged from the mundane to the miraculous. Yet overall, there was a refreshingly tangible desire in all the work to create change. The amount of research, passion and development work that the vast majority of students put into their proposal resulted in ideas that oozed a true desire to improve people’s lives.

Many ideas revolved around the usual themes; natural water filtration devices, cleverly designed ergonomic carrying bags and community water sharing installations. And yes, some of these might sound like the typical thinking exhibited in design exhibitions and art magazines for years. But there were also a few exceptional concepts in the mix that managed to separate themselves from the crowd by thinking bigger.

University of Nottingham student Christopher Rothera’s winning water purification solution, which produces high quality carbon from local scrap wood to filter water.

The shortlisted, and ultimately prize-winning projects all exhibited a high level of lateral thinking. These entries were able to combine the water collection challenge with similarly vexing opportunities that the students identified in these communities. Some found success in combining water collection solutions with ways to address public education challenges (through ideas such as a water-filtering schoolbag or school-based water tanks) while others were notable for their interesting use of new technologies (such as for example the bio-mimicry of fog-harvesting beetles, electromagnetic water-purifiers or rainwater-collection possibilities of solar rooftop tarps.)

Aalto University students Karina Jensen and Selim Özadar’s winning service design solution, ‘Guardians of Water’, which uses live open data on water sources to enhance local knowledge around water management.

The winning ideas however, took design thinking to another level – by not just creating an engaging design solution for people but also using the design to empower the community faced with the water-shortages — so they can overcome but also profit from the situation. Karina Jensen, Selim Özadar and Christopher Rothera found magical ways to envision tools and digital services that bring people closer with their existing water resources and convert them into seeds of meaningful social change. Their work won the affection of the judging panel and more importantly potential to make true impact. Take a look at their amazing work here

For me personally, this experience was a fantastic reminder that we have more than enough creative capital to dream up the answers needed to solve our collective environmental challenges. It just takes the right platform, incentive and stimulus to convert it into transformative ideas – and the RSA Student Design Awards is just the right place to see it all happen. 

The 2015 RSA Student Design Award winners will receive their awards at a special event at the RSA on Thursday 11th June: Aspiring Design - Celebrating the 2015 RSA Student Design Awards + Design for Social Innovation

For more information about Unilever, visit ProjectSunlight.co.uk

For more information about the RSA Student Design Awards, visit sda.thersa.org and follow @RSADesignAwards

 

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