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Young innovators win Autodesk's PATH Global Design Challenge

November 20, 2017 by Paula Bock

What happened at the global challenge to complete the design of the RELI pump.

Out of submissions from eight countries on four continents, two designs were selected as winners in the global design challenge. Photos: Courtesy of Alex Watson and Devanshi Mehra.

Out of submissions from eight countries on four continents, two designs were selected as winners in the global design challenge. Photos: Courtesy of Alex Watson and Devanshi Mehra.

The idea

Crowdsource for global health. Democratize design. Seek concepts from around the world for a device that will save lives in the world’s most challenging places.

When PATH and the Autodesk Foundation partnered this summer on the PATH Global Design Challenge, we didn’t know what to expect. We believed innovators could be found anywhere in the world, irrespective of social status, religion, race, age, or means. We hoped to convene a diversity of ideas to inform design of the exterior of the RELI Delivery System, a rugged, low-cost, human-powered infusion pump that can deliver intravenous fluid, nutrition, and medicine to people in places with limited or no electricity.

We’d already designed the guts of the pump in PATH’s product development shop with input from Seattle doctors who’d worked in Rwanda, Uganda, and other low-resource settings. We knew the form factor—the look and feel of the RELI Delivery System—would be among the important factors determining how health workers and patients interact with the device, whether they’d use it properly, and whether they’d continue to use it.

So we opened the Design Challenge to the global community.

Eight countries, four continents

Sixteen innovators submitted designs from eight countries on four continents: Brazil, India, the Philippines, Singapore, Sweden, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Entrants ranged in age from 19 to 62.

The care that went into each entry was obvious. One innovator wrote: “It [has] been a pleasure to be . . . in this project, and it would be the third biggest thing in my life to win. (My kids and wife take first and second place.)”

Our team of judges included product designers, engineers, clinicians, global health workers, and experts in public health, industrial design, and commercialization. Entries were evaluated on response to the design brief, with extra points for innovation.

“We were blown away by the quality and content of submissions,” said Mike Eisenstein, manager of PATH’s product development shop. “There are so many features we want to incorporate.” An integrated handle. Gauges that are easy to read in low light. Safety lock features to keep syringes and switches from getting jostled and to prevent accidental changes in flow rate.

“We were blown away by the quality and content of submissions.”
— Mike Eisenstein

Our jurors selected two winners: Devanshi Mehra, a 23-year-old product designer from Ahmedabad, India, and Alex Watson, a 30-year-old design engineer from Southampton, UK.

Both, coincidentally, say they are inspired by inventor James Dyson (of vacuum and hair dryer fame) because his technology company designs revolutionary ways to address human needs. And both designers, perhaps not so coincidentally, took time to understand the context, challenges, health needs, and sensitivities of end users—the same approach PATH takes when we design.

Only one faucet for 50 houses

Mehra is a recent graduate of Unitedworld Institute of Design in Gujarat. To inform her design, she interviewed a surgeon and a gynecologist about how intravenous pumps are used and also drew on her understanding of life in rural Indian villages and construction sites. Mehra, who loves spoken-word poetry and table tennis, focused her energy on the Design Challenge for three intense weeks, working on it six hours a day and taking her design through 20 iterations.

In college, as part of a months-long systems design exploration of housing and toilets for construction workers, she observed that “they had water, but only one tap for 50 houses where they’d take a bath, wash clothes, defecate in the open. Even though toilets were made for them, they didn’t know how to use them and would clog them; they needed repair seven times in six months.”

woman with notebook among shanties in India

In college, designer Devanshi Mehra was part of a months-long systems design exploration of housing and toilets for construction workers. Photo: courtesy of Devanshi Mehra.

So Mehra knew the exterior of the RELI Delivery System needed to be functional, with no fancy parts, easy to use, and easy to learn for people who would not have much training. Her design includes a molded-in handle, an ergonomic squeeze hand pump like the ones on blood pressure cuffs, and a way to stack the pumps on a rod so multiple devices can be used and monitored in cramped quarters. She considered a casing for the syringe to prevent drugs from chemically reacting with sunlight but ultimately decided against it because a hinged part would have detracted from the product’s simplicity and robustness.

Mehra entered the PATH Global Design Challenge to build her portfolio as she applies to graduate school and also because she’s driven to take on tough challenges—including designing for people living in poverty. “It’s more difficult to do,” she says, “but it has larger impact with the number of people it affects and how it could help—saving lives. If things can be done to make their lives better, the whole society benefits.”

From hovercraft to scared patients in simple clinics

Before entering the PATH Global Design Challenge, our other winner, Alex Watson, worked on a range of projects over his nine-year career, designing hovercraft, customized shipping containers, and most recently, unmanned surface vessels often used in rough waters to collect data for science and industry. He decided to enter our challenge to flex his design muscles on a human-centered project. “Whilst I certainly have a lot of experience designing control panels and other safety-critical systems,” he said, “I haven’t had the opportunity to apply that knowledge to address the needs of people in truly vulnerable situations.”

Alex Watson

Alex Watson, designer of unmanned surface vessels, entered the PATH Global Design Challenge to flex his design muscles on human-centered project. Photo: courtesy of Alex Watson.

Googling for design competitions, he spotted ours. “That seems like a noble cause, an interesting challenge, so why not give it a go?” The electricity-free infusion pump reminded him of the wind-up radio invented by Trevor Baylis (another of his design heroes) to communicate information about HIV/AIDS to the people of Africa. “If you can genuinely fulfill a need and break new ground, you should be proud of it and you should shout about it,” he said.

Watson put in many late nights tackling the challenge, shifting into industrial design mode after his young son went to bed. A carry handle on Watson’s design makes it possible to use the intravenous device during transport, when patients are moved from rural clinics to larger health facilities. Watson, a jazz guitarist, chose a universal language for instructions—symbols and pictures of hands. He was keen on a device that could stand alone, with no infrastructure. And he considered human emotions.

“I was concerned to make this thing look as nonintimidating as possible” for patients who had perhaps never spent much time in a medical facility and were already feeling anxious about whatever landed them there. “If it had been a big, clunky metal box with scary industrial-looking gauges, patients might think, ‘What’s this thing about to be connected up to my body? It looks like it’s going to do some damage!’”

Watson’s solution was to create something with curves rather than sharp edges, with the colors and overall look and feel of a consumer product, rather than a piece of industrial equipment. It needed to be something that could be wiped clean, that wouldn’t accumulate dirt, and that looked fresh and sterile, yet reassuring. It also needed to appeal to customers and suppliers both in the West and in developing countries, so he aimed for a modern, eye-catching look.

The future of design in global health

The winning designs of Mehra and Watson will be exhibited in the Autodesk Gallery, a space that celebrates exceptional design and engineering from across the globe, including original works by LEGO, Mercedes-Benz, and Nike. Named a top destination by WIRED magazine and the San Francisco Chronicle, the Autodesk Gallery is visited by 100,000-plus innovators annually.

At PATH, we’re so excited by the innovations that bubbled out of the Design Challenge that we’re figuring out ways to incorporate global crowdsourcing into our end-user design work. “This is amazing,” commented one of our judges, a leader in public health. “This should feed into how we take things to the field.”

Autodesk’s mission is to help people imagine, design, and create a better world. Across the manufacturing, architecture, building, construction, media, and entertainment industries, Autodesk tools give you the power to make anything.

Rooted in tech, PATH accelerates innovations that improve health, especially for women and children in low-resource settings. PATH’s engineers use Autodesk tools in collaboration with stakeholders around the world to design and make products that are efficient, inexpensive, and designed specifically for the context in which they will be used.