Last October, Carnegie Mellon University gave its students a challenge: design affordable outdoor shelters to help the homeless through the winter. Teams got $200 to buy materials, and five days to sketch out their ideas. In all, 35 groups signed up, with 16 completing the “Impact-A-Thon.”
Two winners emerged. In first place was “Green Residence”, a shelter that doubles as a billboard. At night, it folds down to become a plastic tent. During the day, it folds up to become ad space, with revenue generated going towards costs. Inside is a heating element that plugs into a lamp-post.
In second place was “Satellite Shelter”–a sleeping bag made of a reflective “space blanket” material. With its own wheels, the bag is meant to be portable, warm and dry. The first team got a check for $1000; the second $600.
“We thought ‘what if we took on this notion of rapidly solving a problem, but instead of just creating a technology, we solve a hard social problem that is meaningful for students to think about?'” says Jonathan Cagan, a professor at CMU and organizer of the challenge. “You have shelters but a lot of homeless don’t go to them. Why not create a temporary shelter they can bring to them, one that would be technically feasible but also financially feasible?”
Both the winning teams spring from a new masters program at CMU’s Integrated Innovation Institute, a partnership between its engineering, design and business schools.
It’s questionable whether the ideas are really solutions to homelessness (is a temporary shelter any substitute for indoor accommodation?). But the challenge does seem to have taught useful skills.
“It’s a very rapid experience to learn about the practice of innovation and how engineers and designers can use their talents to solve hard social problems and work in a team,” Cagan says.