LIFT: The importance of listening in the design process

LIFT, which stands for “Leveraging Inclusive Functional Transfers,” is a project team dedicated to offering support for those who provide care for older adults.

Story by Malin Andersson

In 2023, the team members of LIFT decided to reimagine how they can help mitigate the fall risk of older adults by pivoting toward a socially engaged design approach. Swarmed with questions surrounding the ethics of trying to “fix” the problems of others, LIFT began a collaboration with C-SED. 

During this transformative period, the dedicated members of LIFT have embraced every complexity and question they met along the way without losing sight of their mission to support others.

The LIFT Team during their most recent trip

Who is LIFT/MEND? 

LIFT was established in 2017 under the original name of “MEND.” They were, and continue to be, a project team of the student organization M-HEAL (Michigan Health Engineered for All Lives.) 

The 15 team members of LIFT are divided into three sub-teams that focus on the mechanical, electrical, and business aspects of providing technology and device assistance to adults at risk of falling. 

Though they had a previous community partner, the COVID-19 pandemic brought that collaboration to a close. This change presented LIFT with an opportunity to redefine themselves and their mission – an opportunity they met head-on in Spring 2023. 

An unexpected pivot 

Without their community partner, the team found themselves in a sticky situation. 

Andrea Huang described this period of uncertainty: “It felt like we were designing for no purpose. We didn’t have clear specifications. We were just floating in space. Without that… we felt that something had to change.” 

Lacking the opportunity to bounce their ideas off of the people they were actively trying to support, they were in an all-too-common trap for designers. Although they sought to provide solutions with good intentions, they were simply attempting to guess the needs of others without actively working with them.

But they chose not to feel discouraged. Instead, they saw this pause as an opportunity to think critically about the flaws in the design process and pivot towards a more socially engaged approach. 

Confronting Voluntourism 

LIFT decided to go right to the core of their mission and, as part of this process, educated themselves on the concept of “voluntourism” in an effort to avoid perpetuating it in their own work. “Voluntourism” is a term which describes a naive approach to designing solutions that oversimplifies complex issues faced around the world.  The phenomenon stems from a “save the world” mentality that undervalues meaningful community collaboration in favor of quick and “simple” solutions. This all-too-common approach can result not only in unsustainable results but also in active harm to the affected community. 

By intentionally pivoting their approach away from “voluntourism,” LIFT not only made an investment in their organization, but they, most importantly, made the decision to invest in the wellness of the people they aimed to support. 

A new community partner 

In the spring of 2023, LIFT made a connection with Padre Abreu Hogar de Ancianos in La Romana, Dominican Republic, with the help of another more well-established M-HEAL organization, Project MESA

Padre Abreu Hogar de Ancianos is an assisted living facility based in La Romana, Dominican Republic that provides free care for older adults. 

Even with their aligned missions, LIFT realized that they alone could not decide what it was that Padre Abreu Hogar de Ancianos needed. They may have had the option to choose a solution, but, without consulting those they intended to help, they would just be falling into the “Voluntourism” trap they so wanted to avoid. 

To truly assist Padre Abreu Hogar de Ancianos in their work, LIFT had to listen and let their partner reveal to them how they could provide support. 

Team LIFT in the Dominican Republic

Collaboration with C-SED  

Having decided to make a shift, LIFT now needed to sort through the details of what that shift might look like in reality.

Knowing that they would need to complete a needs assessment, Katie Chang saw an opportunity to work with C-SED. Bringing questions and concerns surrounding the sustainability of short-term travel, LIFT entered their first meeting with C-SED eager to make sure they were leaving a positive impact with their designs. 

“We needed time to think through this. [It was] a good reality check for us.” (Katie Chang) 

As LIFT planned their first trip to Padre Abreu Hogar de Ancianos in the Dominican Republic, C-SED helped them shape the approach they would take when they got there. 

Taking a critical look at their foundation 

LIFT engaged in honest conversations with C-SED during which they confronted the disconnect between their vision and the reality of their outcomes. As team LIFT met with C-SED, they remained eager to stay open-minded. 

They found particular inspiration in the essay titled, “The Reductive Seduction of Other People’s Problems” in which the essayist, Courtney Martin, identifies the problematic nature of traveling to a community with the intent to “fix” the problems of that particular area. 

An aspect of the piece that LIFT found particularly interesting was the story of the PlayPump – a cautionary tale that has stuck with the team and reminded them of the importance of recognizing and taking into account the deep and difficult complexities that are attached to their mission statement. 

As the members of LIFT sought to identify where the phenomenon of “Voluntourism” was present in the foundation of their group and at the core of their approach, they were able to confront their discomfort and assumptions – all through the support of C-SED and the inspiration of Martin’s essay. 

“Don’t go because you’ve fallen in love with solvability. Go because you’ve fallen in love with complexity. Don’t go because you want to talk. Go because you want to listen.” (The Reductive Seduction of Other People’s Problems

Adjusting their mindset 

Before they could begin to think about getting on a plane, a single, central question stood in their way: what is the problem we are hoping to address? 

“It was hard to not impose that need [fall prevention] upon them because that would’ve made it a lot easier and cleaner for us,” said Annika Abramson. “Maintaining that open mindset and the idea that we knew we might have to completely revamp our organization and scrap every piece of progress we had was kind of hard.” 

The more they sat with the stickiness of the questions, the more they realized that they were the ones who had to make a change. 

But, that was okay. In fact, it was welcome. Together, LIFT kept their eyes on their goal of serving their partner.  Annika summed it up rather nicely by saying, “If we don’t have what they need – then we’re the ones that have to pivot, not them.” 

Centering their community partner 

In the months leading up to their long-anticipated trip to the Dominican Republic, LIFT focused on establishing a positive connection with their community partners.

They engaged in Zoom calls during which they articulated their desire to put the priorities of the community above all else. Through this practice of socially engaged design, LIFT grew in their empathy and understanding. 

The LIFT Team posing with brooms onsite

Traveling to the Dominican Republic 

After 2 months of planning,  5 members of LIFT were finally able to meet their community partners in the Dominican Republic in August 2023. 

“Because our trip was only 3 days long, we need to make the most out of every day, no second to lose,”  said Agharnan Gandhi. “Thinking about the community foremost kept us guided on the trip.”

The group learned to adapt to real-time challenges. On the second day of their trip, a tropical storm hit and flooded the community center of the Padre Abreu Hogar de Ancianos. Keeping to their commitment of helping their community partners in whatever way they could, the members of LIFT pivoted to mopping up some of the community’s plugs. 

Learning from their community partners 

As has been mentioned, LIFT did not want to assign their assumptions onto their community partners. Instead, they wanted to learn from them.

After observing them for a few days in August, we decided to orient our mission towards developing a system to more effectively and inclusively transfer patients, such that you don’t need that many people AND you can do it in a confined space.” (Agharnan Gandhi)

Looking to the future 

After their enlightening and important time with the Padre Abreu Hogar de Ancianos, LIFT has been able to move forward with their plans. 

Agharnan Gandhi described their vision for the future, saying: “This semester, we’re really locking in our mission and needs statement so we can determine what we want to accomplish. We’re also aiming to have a concrete set of design requirements we’re building for.” 

As for plans even further down the line, LIFT plans to build a prototype, conduct more research, and reach out to experts in the field. 

“We definitely want to make use of our connections here at U-M. Hear from them to see what we could do, since they have a lot more knowledge and experience.” (Agharnan Gandhi)

Remembering what’s at stake 

As they move forward in providing assistance to caretakers in Padre Abreu Hogar de Ancianos, LIFT will take everything that they have learned with them.

At the heart of this is to remember those whose lives are directly affected. 

Andrea Huang sums it up perfectly, saying, “These are people who have things to do and other priorities. We’re just kind of there. It’s an honor for us to be involved with them; not the other way around.”

Learn more 

Interested in learning more about and supporting LIFT? Check out their website or email for more information. 

If you have an idea of your own you’d like to explore or, like LIFT, are looking for support in developing your project, the Center for Socially Engaged Design is here to help. Check out C-SED’s Consultation service to get started.

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