Brief Encounters

Veronica Simpson assesses the importance or otherwise of design and architecture awards.

The frenzy of the autumn’s assorted design and architecture festivals has come and gone.

And each year, it seems, there are more contenders looking to pack out our schedules with more noise and less content. It’s at this point when the jaded observer might think the world has quite enough design festivals. But does it have enough design prizes?

Instead of celebrating endless differentiation as a way of flogging more product, design prizes give us a chance to reflect on what role intention plays in the drive for excellence – what is the purpose of yet another new range of chairs/tables/lamps?

There is a difference, of course, between prizes and awards. Awards are a nice boost of recognition for those whose projects have punched above their weight in style and impact, or brought fresh thinking to established categories. I’m thinking of the kind of design prize that can be far more directional, focusing attention on left-field, low-profile or embryonic projects that aim to improve people’s lives as well as our use of planetary resources.

Winner of the community category was Ethereum, an app that enables people to trade with each other via bitcoinWinner of the community category was Ethereum, an app that enables people to trade with each other via bitcoin

The Design Museum has been flying the flag for meaningful design innovation for the past decade, through its Designs of the Year scheme and exhibition. Hosted in its swishy new Kensington premises for the second time, this year’s show opened in October with the top 60 shortlisted projects. It concludes in January when the winners will be announced.

However, some design prizes actually include enough cash to help innovations get off the ground, as well as ongoing mentoring and support. The biggest in this field is Denmark’s INDEX Award. Launched 15 years ago, it now offers a share of €500,000 to the five winning projects. No wonder it received a record 1,401 entries this year, from 85 countries.

One of the most potentially far-reaching inventions to emerge in 2017 is Ethereum, the ‘community’ category winner. It is a new app, using bitcoin, that allows people to trade with each other on an individual basis and organise their finances while maintaining complete control of their own data, thanks to a blockchain-based platform. Invented by Canadian-Russian programmer Vitalik Buterin, it could help usher in a new internet era where individuals can dictate the terms of usage rather than having their identities, movements and profiles harvested by internet hosts to be exploited by global corporates.

In the ‘work’ category, the award was given to Greenwave, a revolutionary ocean farming system designed to restore (rather than pollute) ocean ecosystems and create jobs for small, local fishermen, assisting them as they move to greener fishing and supply practices.

It was developed by American commercial fisherman Bren Smith, together with Emily Stengel, an expert in sustainable food systems. There is always plenty to impress in the medical – ‘body’ – category. This year’s winner, Zipline, uses military drone technology to send critical medical supplies, like blood and vaccines, to remote regions. A multi-partner initiative kicked off by Harvard and Stanford graduates Keller Rinaudo, Will Hetzler and Keenan Wyrobek, it has been supported by the Rwandan government, with trials currently being conducted that place the country’s most at-risk seven million individuals within a 15-35-minute delivery range of essential medical supplies. Next year, Zipline will start trials in the rural heartlands of Maryland, Nevada and Washington (pending any last minute reversals by the Trump regime).

Medical innovation also creeps into the ‘play’ category this year, with the invention, by Stanford graduates Manu Prakash and Saad Bhamla, of a diagnostic tool inspired by the centrifugal power of a child’s spinning toy, known as the ‘whirligig’. One of the problems with tackling the big three infectious diseases – malaria, HIV and tuberculosis – is diagnosis. Powerful machines are usually required to spin samples of possibly infected blood fast enough to separate plasma and blood, to facilitate diagnosis. Customised paper versions of the simple whirligig toy can spin fast enough to do this, cheaply and without electricity, giving local health workers the chance to treat disease far faster through ‘frugal science’.

Paperfuge is a cheap, paper alternative to expensive medical equipment that assists in the diagnosis of deadly diseases such as maleria, HIV and TBPaperfuge is a cheap, paper alternative to expensive medical equipment that assists in the diagnosis of deadly diseases such as maleria, HIV and TB

In the ‘home’ category, the winning project tackles the world’s estimated four billion ‘address-less’ citizens. What3Words is an addressing system that divides the planet into 57 trillion 3m x 3m squares by assigning them three unique words. It means that everyone can be on the ‘map’, whether needing an airlift off a mountain, taking delivery of mail or ordering takeaways in a field at a festival – one of the starting inspirations for its founding inventor, music industry professional Chris Sheldrick.

INDEX Award co-founder and CEO Kigge Hvid says one of the differences with this award scheme is that it tracks the winners, checking in with them every six months over a five-year period to see how they are faring, and whether additional help, mentoring or networks are needed. In this way, it has been able to help past winners – such as last year’s winning Peek Retina project (from the UK), a smartphone adaptor for retinal imaging – which was trialled in Kenya and has just received the green light for roll-out as mainstream eye scanning technology across the UK. Says Hvid: ‘I love this reversed innovation. We used to see stuff developed in our part of the world and a cheaper version rolled out for the developing world; now it seems to be the other way around.’

INDEX has also just launched a small venture-capital fund so that ongoing investment can be offered to maintain a start-up’s momentum. Index has drawn some useful conclusions from monitoring its winners over the past decade, which highlight the crucial role of three factors: networks and cash are two. ‘But money is not the most important thing,’ says Hvid. ‘It’s ability.’ A heartening thought for any budding inventors.

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