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June 15, 2020, 1:47 p.m. EDT

20 Minutes With: Artefact CEO and Co-Founder Rob Girling

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According to UNICEF , nearly 900 million children have either limited or no hand washing service at their schools, and 47% of schools worldwide do not have hand washing facilities with soap and water. 

It’s a startling statistic that has direct correlation to the spread and prevention of coronavirus in underdeveloped communities around the world. 

As CEO and co-founder of Seattle design agency Artefact , Rob Girling and his team worked with sanitation non-profit Splash , also based in Seattle, to design a turnkey water sanitation station that was initially meant to improve water access standards, but has quickly become a tool in fighting coronavirus’ spread.

Eric Stowe , Splash founder and executive director, says that children play a vital and positive role in transmitting new behaviors, like hand washing with soap, to parents and other family members. It’s why the group has been so aggressive in scaling production and deploying stations.

To date, 279 stations have been installed in Kolkata, India, and Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, benefitting 34,000 students. By the end of  2020, they’re hoping to install another 2,500 total units benefiting nearly 250,000 children. By 2023, they want to reach one million kids.

Penta recently spoke with Girling, 52, to learn more about the design of the sanitation station and the unique role design plays in global health. 

PENTA: How did your relationship begin with Splash? 

Rob Girling: Our executive creative director had a relationship with them from her previous work in the non-profit space. She introduced us and we were very eager to help. We helped them design the handwashing station in about a month and assisted in organizing a big summit around menstrual health in Addis Ababa. That summit was supposed to take place in March, but due to coronavirus, we had to pivot and convert the entire event to a webinar and brainstorm session. We were able to develop clear, actionable next steps for all 30 participants across several different countries.

Splash has two missions: providing safe, clean access to water, and their other one is around menstrual health. We had all of these global experts around the world coming together, facilitating the conversation around what needed to happen next. Even solely online, it went really well. 

Is there a projected impact this could have on limiting coronavirus exposure in India and Ethiopia?

This is the trickiest part of being a designer: We can’t accurately project impact. We try to predict what we think could happen—and we do have to get better at that—but it’s not something we’re currently doing. Improving hygiene habits has been the goal all along and reducing Covid has been an additional benefit.

How will you measure the success of this program?

From a design perspective, we set fairly achievable metrics, the main one being: How intact is the design when it goes to manufacturing? In that respect, the design was really successful. As we tested the design, one of the qualitative metrics dealt with our old behavioral nudges built into the sink. 

In our close to final mockup, we tested it with kids on the ground. We did a local version with kids (in the Seattle area) to see if some of our ideas were working. Without any prompts or cues, they were doing what we expected them to do and it signaled some interesting data. If kids see someone washing their hands, they tend to do it and it re-enforces good sanitation behavior.

It turns out that if you put a mirror in front of a sink, people end up washing their hands longer. We also found out that handwashing sinks needed to be shallow enough to limit clearance for a water bottle as a method to protect people from putting a bottle underneath the faucet in this case of non-potable water. It’s lots of little design ideas and exploring whether they’re working or not. 

How did the actions of the kids in Seattle compare to those in the overseas communities?

It turned out there were some human truths that spanned cultures, but there are also huge numbers of cultural sensitivities that we don’t even understand as Western designers. We can try to do something universal, but the nuance of that environment is so unknown to you and if you don’t do the legwork, you can’t understand it well. However, our design is very simple and as far as we understand it, it’s been very effective. We worked with the resources and experts we had. 

How does efficient design play a role in managing global health?

The global health space is marked by mostly trying to intervene with global problems that are plagued with poverty and really low resources. It turns out that the brute force in intervening is often not appreciated and is largely ineffective. You can spend billions of dollars and not move key metrics if you don’t have sensitivity to cultural, gender, and other complex issues and the relationships people have with trust and authority figures. 

Large philanthropies try to solve problems from an economic and engineering point of view, but it rarely goes well without sensitivity to conditions and contexts. That understanding has become even more important, and design is the missing link between social science, engineering and health sciences. We bridge these disciplines together.

How does this role need to evolve concerning coronavirus and future global health developments?

The forefront of our discipline in design is starting to overlap. The thing we haven’t been good at as designers is the unintended consequences of our inventions. We have to get good at systems thinking because if you’re going to intervene into something, you have to understand how the system works and mitigate the interventions and options based on insight.

In this particular crisis situation, the emphasis is on short-term, which can be hazardous ethically and sustainably. You can make reasonable decisions in the short-term but it can have a poor long-term impact. In the Covid-19 situation, you’ve seen little access to clean water in certain areas and handwashing stations become a luxury. Splash has pivoted sanitation station use to healthcare professionals, especially in cities like Addis Ababa, where access to basic healthcare necessities are limited. 

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