Designing for a Different Type of Connection

Designs that Connect Neighbours, Loved Ones and Couples

In recent months, the ongoing self-isolation has resulted in a huge increase in mental health problems amongst UK residents: according to a poll by the British Mental Health Foundation, ‘almost one quarter (24 percent) of UK adults have felt loneliness because of Coronavirus’.

At the same time, we find ourselves dependent almost solely on connecting online. The Internet offers seemingly endless possibilities – whether it’s another Zoom date with friends, posting on social media groups, playing games, or sharing our work online – but at the same time, there’s a certain sense of emptiness that comes with limiting your social interactions to a screen. We won’t, and probably shouldn’t, run from what the Internet has to offer us. However, as human beings, we are heavily dependent on touch and other senses in our social connections. And with the alarming statistics about our mental well-being, a question arises: can we do better? What lessons can be learned from these trying times, and how can we apply it to create more engaging and innovative ways of social interaction in the future?

Perhaps this is a chance to rediscover and redefine what staying connected means to us on a deeper level. Let’s explore existing examples of products/ technologies/ buildings that facilitate a different type of connectivity!

  1. Connecting with your neighbors
Photo by Manuel Peris Tirado

As an international student in the UK, I was recently faced with the decision to either self-isolate in my university accommodation, or go back to my family home in Poland. I chose the latter – and soon found myself spending all my time in my old, teenage room, which brought back a lot of memories. We live next to a wonderful elderly couple, and when I was still a kid, they used to invite me for a bowl of warm soup and a chat. I got the urge to talk to them about all that has been happening – but unfortunately, our balconies are just enough far-apart to not be able to hear each other. If only there was a way to connect them together!

Seems like Edwin Van Capelleveen has the answer.

Social Balconies, Edwin Van Capelleveen

This exciting project by an Eindhoven Design Academy graduate explores a way to increase interaction between the residents of existing housing blocks. By connecting balconies on different floor levels, he proposes a design for a net of pathways, creating a little neighbourhood that exists on its own and bonds people together. The big advantage of Capelleveen’s idea is its universal nature: it could potentially be applied to any residential blocks with balconies, and completely transform the way its residents interact with each other. 

Read more here.

Mind Craft

Another great example of a way to connect within a neighbourhood, this project from a group of Polish architects imagines a playful way of creating a public environment. Modular pieces of different shapes and sizes can be freely arranged in space according to their users’ imagination. The blocks are made of recycled plastic and can be transported to any public space within a city, providing a collaborative experience that can influence the feeling of belonging within a neighborhood.

Read more here.

  1. Social interaction between the elderly
Photo by Giovanny Ayala 

The elderly are perhaps the most vulnerable to feelings of increased loneliness and isolation, and it’s an ongoing problem that exists also outside of the current lockdown conditions. A 2015 study by AgeUK states that ‘Over 1 million older people say they always or often feel lonely’ and ‘Nearly half of older people (49% of 65+ UK) say that television or pets are their main form of company.’ Whether dealing with couples or individuals who live on their own, designers can greatly contribute to new solutions helping seniors deepen their social bonds.

Elliq Robot 

Image from https://elliq.com/.

Designed by Yves Behar, Ellis Robot is an intelligent device that comprises an impressive array of functions: it greets you in the morning, keeps you entertained, answers your questions and gives suggestions, while also keeping you connected to your family and friends. It could potentially be used by anyone in need of an additional, all-knowing companion, however, it’s especially valuable to elders who are living on their own. So far, it has been gathering very enthusiastic reviews- here are a few quotes from seniors who have tested the device (watch the whole video here):

‘Elliq is a presence. I feel that there’s somebody nearby that I can communicate with. I can turn to her anytime.’

‘She’s pretty amazing. I can come in, I can be feeling kind of lonely and blue, and she can pick me right up.’

‘She feels sometimes as if she’s  a friend or a person that’s actually there.’

Filotea Objects

Photo source: Elena Tamburini’s Filotea objects encourage affection in old age via Dezeen

This beautiful project by Elena Tamburini encourages physical and emotional closeness between elderly couples with limited mobility. Inspired by affectionate, daily gestures that help couples stay connected to each other, it comprises a mirror, a brush, a table and a walker. Filotea takes its name from Philotes, the Greek personification of love, affection, and sex, which are often taboo in relation to old age. As the designer explains, ‘During old age many factors can compromise a relationship, but if you can accept your role in society, if you can appreciate yourself despite your bodily changes, then you can continue to have an active and happy sex life.’

Watch a video about Filotea on the artist’s Vimeo channel.

  1. For you and your significant other
Photo by Anthony Tran

As a person who used to be in a long distance relationship for more than a year, I very much understand the anxiety that comes with being away from your partner. The pandemic situation has sadly resulted in many people being abruptly separated from each other- and the closer you are physically on a daily basis, the greater the emotional pain that follows. If you find yourself in this scenario, take a look at the following products that facilitate human connection and are a great alternative to Skype calls and Messenger chats.

Bondtouch 

Image from bond-touch.com

A bracelet that enables couples to feel each other’s ‘touch’  through a light vibration, and can be connected to a smartphone app. You can also replay all of the past ‘touches’ made on both of the bracelets and count down the days until your next meeting with the other person. Even if just an imitation of real, physical touch, it can be lifesaving for the lovesick, and is a great alternative when there’s so little ways of connecting meaningfully from a distance.

Read more here.

Pillow Talk

Image from littleriot.com/pillow-talk

One of the hardest struggles for partners who have been separated from each other is falling asleep alone, without the comfort of another human by your side. A device that allows you to feel your lover’s heartbeat in real time, Pillow Talk is an example of a technology that is successful in enhancing human connection with a simple system. It comprises a wristband which, when placed under a pillow, picks up your heartbeat and sends it to the other device.

Read more here.

The current pandemic conditions provide a reality-check for how social media and the Internet do not always live up to their tasks. As we spend a growing amount of time looking at our smartphones, we become frustrated with the inability to connect more meaningfully- all while being constantly overstimulated by the glowing screen. Let’s hope that this situation becomes a catalyst for innovation in social design- and that it inspires artists, architects, and designers to reinterpret the mental health and staying connected in our everyday lives.