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The stories and moments that keep us going

Diving Deeper into the Effects of COVID-19

In the hustle and bustle of day-to-day life, we can easily dismiss the importance of personal time. Kicking off our session to explore COVID-19 effects on our communities, we shared a couple of positive moments from 2020. Despite the grim circumstances and havoc COVID-19 has brought to our country, we identified that we appreciate the time gained from working from home to see our families and strengthen our bonds with those we love.

This second session built off our previous discussions where we utilized a Lighting Decision Jam to identify four core frames. Utilizing both an Affinity Diagram and Rose, Bud, Thorn, design thinking exercises centered on exploration, CoAct was able to create a solid, detailed, and categorized list of new perspectives and potential problems that could be faced with building a project centered on each of these frames.

The Four key frames that this session built from included:

  1. The potential of shared community safe spaces to address social isolation.

  2. Exploring ideas to relieve and address grief.

  3. Exploring ideas to address the effects of declining mental health.

  4. Exploring ideas to give communities more personal time.

One. The potential for shared community spaces to address isolation has been a long-standing point of contention throughout the entirety of the COVID-19 pandemic. Through using the Affinity Diagram, we identified a strong desire to create shared spaces to reconnect with people authentically and naturally. However, with the limited options available to meet we explored the potential of creating public spaces to fulfil these desires. Discussions reveal another consideration; what constitutes “safe”? How do we restore confidence in meeting person to person? This opened up the dialogue to explore digital environments and their potential as a viable tool for harboring authentic connections. As we learned in our opening exercise, we cherish the connections with family. These connections represent an authenticity and comfort that has become recently foreign. It spurred memories of the random visit and the subtleties of a guest knowing where and when to make themselves at home. Something as simple as a friend coming by, grabbing a beer from the fridge without asking, and knowing where the glasses are located in your house because you have a mutual understanding of comfort, are cherished moments now. We have be deprived of these small moments, and for those living alone this lack of interaction fuels our feelings of isolation.

As we explore solutions, we uncover the idea of creating multi-generational spaces. Diving deeper we explore how we could take intentional efforts at creating spaces that allow us to share experiences, stories, and emotional burdens across multiple generations. Could we develop public spaces that foster this sense of community? Could public spaces be set up as an on demand service such as a mobile library or chat room? It raises the question of the future of public spaces. Should they be permanent spaces as we currently think of them, or like a pop up, do they get used when needed and return the space back to its original use when their function is completed?

Another iteration could take the form of large living spaces that accommodate multiple generations and extended family. Having the additional support at home could help alleviate the emotional burdens and build a sense of connection. This idea is the anti-thesis of the nuclear family which is explored deeper by David Brooks in a recent article in “The Atlantic”. Communal families have higher resilience in times of crises as compared to a traditional nuclear family. However, they also require a lot more patience. They allow little privacy and individual choice is diminished.

Revisiting the random visit, we explore the idea of creating spaces to have random encounters. Think of Forrest Gump on the park bench sharing his iconic phrase “life is like a box of chocolates”. There is a magic with the random encounter that we lost with COVID-19. In Fort Worth, it is a charming element to know at any given moment we could run into a friend or business colleague. There was an excitement of going to a bar, just to watch people or possibly discover a new friend or date. However, on the digital spectrum it is very difficult to create this. Every Zoom call is a scheduled event. You must plan for it ahead of time. Its not an open door where anyone could walk in. This raises our curiosity in how this might be recreated on the digital front. We can only engage 2 senses at best with a digital meeting unless we take efforts to recreate the other senses. Knowing this, how do we create digital spaces that are engaging, exciting, and allow for those random moments? Outside of the bar or the restaurant, what could an intentional and dedicated random meeting space look like? What features are present and how do we utilize it both intentional and unintentionally? Lastly, how do green spaces play into this strategy? Are parks the bastion of hope for creating community or do we need to reimagine the role and design of parks? How do we integrate nature into our livelihoods, and what forms does it take?

Two. Everyone experiences grief in some fashion. Rather it be the loss of a loved one, losing a pet, a job, or personal holding. Grief is normally shrouded in solidarity and confinement. People will bring you flowers but, in a week or two, will expect you to feel better and the feelings of pain to subside. But the experience of grief is as unique as the individual. Seldom does it just vanish. Rather, we undergo our own journey of experiences. For some it is working long hours. For others it is a sabbatical. Understanding grief revolves first around normalizing it . This can be through sharing experiences or leaving lessons and inspirations for others.

We explore Rock Cairns, as a ceremonious way to honor those with loses, but also metaphorically to leave lessons, experiences, artifacts behind for others to use for their grief journey. Symbols like these give people something to physically grab and imbue in the presence of the departed.

Stigmatization is also a huge barrier with discussing grief. This can be a taboo topic to discuss at the dinner table and social gatherings. We tend to want to celebrate the positive aspects of life, without giving the darker moments the attention they need. Grief can cause a multitude of symptoms including a complete feeling of hopelessness. As reported by recent article in the Harvard Health Publishing. The isolation and inability to share emotions in a healthy way can lead people to disconnect completely with society or head down a road of unhealthy vices. Additionally, the inability to host funerals in a safe manner hinders our ability to grieve and heal from a significant loss.

We explore this in more depth discussing the applications of 3rd party interventions to host healing conversations on grief. Other ideas circulate around creating focus groups to talk about grief or sharing resources such as NAMI’s COVID-19 guidelines. It comes back to the desire to connect and the power people can offer in their most selfless and vulnerable states.

Three. The decline in mental health is not an invisible enemy. It is an issue that effects 44 million Americans and 18% of the adult population. Even before COVID-19, the prevalence of mental illness among adults was increasing as needs remain unmet.

The pandemic has exacerbated these pre-existing problems compounding with other heighten areas impacted by COVID-19. Using the Affinity Diagram, participants basked in the idea of creating natural spaces to build a connection with themselves that can ease the effects of anxiety and depression. In a recent article from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, research informs us of the benefits green spaces offer to improve adolescent mental health. As we have become more entrenched in technology, our mental framework has been altered to accommodate the unnatural and robust amount of information and distraction. As stated by the Center for Human Technology, this has led to an increase in mental anxiety and many cognitive disorders. For youth this abundance of technology has result in increased cyber bullying, which in turn can result in riskier, more destructive habits as adults.

Over the past 20 years, an increased emphasis on standardized testing has led some school districts to reduce recess in favor of more in-class instruction. Despite research, some of which is shared by both Time Magazine and Harvard Health Publishing, that shows the medical benefits of recess for youth development, outdoor time is becoming increasing infrequent.

Outdoor time is beneficial to youth development which is why programs like Real School Gardens have seen a growth in popularity. In our work environments, the lack of public green spaces can be hit or miss depending on where we work. Studies indicate that artificial blue light, often found in LED Lights, computer screens, and cell phone screens can harm the body’s equilibrium, leading to restless nights, anxiety, and even premature heart conditions.

Aside from the changes in curriculum, modern neighborhood designs are not conducive to playing outside. The constant fear of abduction, limits outdoor time to the confines of home, assuming home has ample yard space. Spaces are design around the convience of automotive travel, not connecting with neighbors. Even though urban neighborhoods can provide some remedy to this, we discuss the importance of integrating more green spaces that are accessible within our urban environments. This would give residents and youth more daily interaction with nature, animals, and the benefits each brings.

We discuss the importance of advocacy in addressing this issue. Specifically, policy could be created that mandates recess and outdoor time for employees and students. Incentives could be a tool to encourage schools to prioritize wellness. For example, a sliding scale of funding could be developed to award school districts that make positive impact on their student’s mental health and wellbeing. Additionally, we discuss the idea of using tax breaks or subsidies to reward businesses that prioritize the mental health of their employees. This of course would require metrics that are supported and guided by peer reviewed research.

Four. Personal time is an important aspect that we often take for granted. The time available for personal use can vary depending on the type of work and how many jobs are required to maintain one’s livelihood. As a country, paid time off is not federally mandated. As a result, employers are not required to give paid time to their employees. Recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics illuminate the decreasing amount of time workers take off. Stigma is a probable component that encourages workers to forgo their vacation time, opting to pursue work and the dream of advancement. Though COVID-19 has allowed an unparallel amount of mobile working options, it is difficult to break away from work. There are limited options to escape as discussed, and the pace working from home can be intense. The small breaks we get from meeting to meeting or to step away with a co-worker in the breakroom are not available. Common with working from home, we can string ourselves in endless cycle of zoom meetings without a break to regain our clarity.

As we explored further, participants stressed the need for an employer-based relationship with mental health practices at its core. This framework would prioritize mental health and allow for clarity breaks in addition to shortened work days to allow employees to take time to do what matters to them. Personal time can be a sticky topic, as the value of time can be rather subjective. Having time to decompress without a doubt can help improve productivity. However, outside of economics, how might we measure the value of personal time? How do we come to value the promise of happiness that comes with personal time?

Consequently, this lack of personal time has strained families. As two working parents has become a normal for the modern family, children find themselves being raised by caretakers not related to them. Parents juggle priorities, and often sacrifice time for personal clarity and building closer bonds with their family to pursue financial aspirations. Considering that at the current minimum wage rate, you would need to work 100+ hours per week many families in Tarrant County find themselves in a situation where personal time is excessively rare. Alleviation will require a system overhaul with matching policies to normalize and prioritize the importance of personal time and wellbeing.

As we kick around ideas, we explore the potential of creating programs or resources sites to share time saving tips and collaborate on our efforts to help with freeing up time for ourselves. We discuss developing a resource bank to loan time in exchange for time. Skills could be traded to help free up time and allow work to be distributed more evenly. With enough time saved up, you could offset some of your daily task to allow for a proper clarity break.

The botanical garden could also become a local space to reconnect with nature and enjoy peace and quiet. Perhaps there could be efforts to explore new natural spaces designed specifically for personal time. Affordable urban environments also have the potential to shorten commute times by offering new places to work and socialize that are close to home.

Thinking about working families and single parents we discuss the importance integrated childcare and adult care would play in giving families piece of mind, especially for families that have members suffering from chronic illnesses. As a wildly ambitious goal, we discussed the potential Universal Basic Income (UBI) could bring to families. The New Leaf Program in Vancouver highlighted the benefits of a UBI program, and The Mayors for Guaranteed Income have combined their efforts to develop UBI programs in their cities. As this approach becomes more commonly accepted, it could provide an ideal vessel to prioritize personal time and growth.

What Works, What’s New, and What’s Negative. There are many possibilities along the way of discovery. You may run into good things, other times bad things, and sometimes brand new ideas. This design-thinking exercise helps to give lanes to different thoughts and categorizes them as a rose (postive outcomes) buds (new insights or neutral takes) or thorns (negative outcomes). All of these may arise and make themselves known as CoAct continues to explore the effects of COVID-19.

What Works. It is likely that as the importance of mental health is explored and new legislation is proposed and implemented that people experience less stressed. Suicide rates could decline, rates of hapinesses increase, and people could reconcile moments of grief openly. Society could normalize and realize the importance of each individual human in our best and most vulnerable moments. We identify the potential to create authentic connections and normalize our vulnerability. We imagine a welcoming education system that produces educated, happy, and mentally healthy students.

What’s New. We identify a few unknowns that we could encounter along the way. How does the vaccine help with COVID-19? Does it exacerbate class problems by being available only to the super wealthy, or does it serve as a ‘light at the end of a tunnel’ in an unprecedented time in human history? How do people react after the pandemic? Do we expect this yearn for connection and new systems to continue? Or do we try to stay anonymous and go back to the old societal ways? With a new strand of COVID-19 floating around, how safe will we feel with congregating in physical spaces? Is it possible that these new connection spaces usher in a collective spirit of a community or will they fail due to concerns of personal safety?

What’s Negative. Problems become inherent in any search for solutions. Identifying them helps with priortizing efforts or taking neccesary shifts to address. As we explore potential challenges, we discuss that people’s grief could be exploited through unhelpful business and blackmailing. Excessive privacy laws or certain grey areas could create additional conflicts with getting pressing information on our communities or to decrease the spread of COVID-19. There is the potential for affluency to influence the prioritization of resources and programs. Funding is limited, and given the current divisive climate and the extremity of needs ideas could be easily overlooked or shut down.

In Conslusion: The thoughts collected offer a plethora of insights, many of which we would have not thought of ourselves. It showcases the power of design to evoke ideas and actions from the communities most effected to a common cause.

Building on the insights gathered, COACT will conclude this discovery series with a final session to further examine these fore core areas and hone the ideas discovered into actionable steps. From these actionable steps, CoAct can prioritize the its efforts and identify the actions that lead to impact.

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