Jeanette M Muñoz Abela

It is all about people… and their wellbeing. We want to be happy and healthy. That is the aim of what we do. The question is how we go about this? What changes are we willing to make to be able to bring happiness and health in our lives?

There are three points that I would like to make today. The first is that people should be at the centre in all decision making; the second is that we need interdisciplinary design to be able to create awareness and communication to enable people to make a positive change; and the third is that once people know what makes them happy and healthy, they will be able to make the demand for these needs to be met.

So, let us start from the first: People. Taking a pure design perspective, there is no easy answer to this million-dollar question as to what and how something can be designed to make people happy and healthy. Is it a question of changing our built environment? Is it a question of changing the way we think about our environment? Our home? Our workplace? The products we buy? How these products are packed? How we dispose of these when we finish using them? Is our lifestyle a product of the visual communication we see all around us in our cities?. It has already been proven that these uncertainties have a toll on our physical and mental health.

It has already been proven that these uncertainties have a toll on our physical and mental health.

Referring specifically to our built (and unbuilt) environment, the design process needs to involve more people than just the urban planner, the architect, and the engineer (and the latter includes structural, mechanical, electrical engineers, etc.). The design process needs an interdisciplinary approach, and this is the second point I would like to make today. A holistic design should not only include all the disciplines mentioned above, but also psychologists, anthropologists, interior designers, graphic designers, economists, landscape specialists and any other professional, in addressing the fundamental understanding of how people interact with and within their environment, and how this effects their happiness and health. As Massimo Vignelli put it ‘Design is one’, and here we can interpret this as design being the sum of all the collaborative work of these professionals.

Let us put this into perspective and take a city or a town square as an example of a public open space – where life happens between buildings; so to speak. We need to ask ourselves – whom is this space for, and how will they use it. A people-centred approach would be fundamental here to understand the dynamics of the flows of people within the space, how much time they spend there and the reason for their visit. Should a square be car-centric? People-centric? Or both? Should the square just be paved? Should it have a playing field for children? Should it be an escape from an otherwise very small home where you have been quarantined? Is it where you will meet your friends? Or perhaps where you could sit to have a coffee from a nearby shop? We will not get the answers to the questions if we do not involve the people who will be directly affected by these decisions.

And have you realised that here we have mentioned many disciplines that through the design may impact your experience while in this square?! The more obvious ones again are the urban designer, architect or civil engineer. The landscape architect that will create and enhance your connection with nature. What about the graphic designer that has taken care of the visual communication which may include wayfinding and signage? Should you be distressed by the quantity of billboards, posters and other visual media that could plague a public square? And what about the products and their packing that are available from the shops with frontage on the square; not to mention the anthropologist and psychologists that have studied the human behaviour and the interaction between people. All these professionals are responsible to then take this information and create an effective visual, tactile, and auditory experience for all users of this public space.

The same principles may be extended to all aspects of our cities – built or unbuilt – green and blue.

All these professionals are responsible to then take this information and create an effective visual, tactile, and auditory experience for all users of this public space.

So human behaviour should really be the starting point for all design. And once people realise what makes them happy and healthy, then the demand (which is the third point) will trickle to all levels of society and economy. In the construction industry it could be the quality of our homes and work spaces being environmentally sustainable as a demand to developers; in industry it could be the quality of the packaging and how we can make this more sustainable as a demand to business owners; in employment it could be the social sustainability, including equity and equality just to mention a few, again as a demand to business owners; in our infrastructure and urban policies as a demand to authorities and decision makers.

Designers will therefore need to be agents to facilitate the change in mindset for people to demand that their lives include sustainable decisions to be made in favour of their happiness and health. Awareness, information, and communication through design should empower people to learn to help themselves and should enter their heart and not just their head. The individual’s discipline, desire, and determination can then cause an effective change to be made.

We all have the opportunity to make a difference in the world. In Hebrew there is a wonderful phrase ‘Tikkun Olam’ which may be translated as ‘to heal the world’. And what a world that would be! But acting alone is ineffective. Let us all be part of this ripple that will cause a butterfly effect on our wellbeing through acting sustainably in all aspects of our daily lives.

And I leave you with the final question: What are you ready to change to make yourself happier and healthier?

Keynote speech presented at the Women Economic Forum (WEF) Summit 2021 in Malta, organised by WICCI.

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