An earthquake just hit. The internet is down. How do you get in touch with your loved ones? How do the most isolated in your neighborhood get in touch with anyone?
New Deal Design, a San Francisco-based strategic technology design firm, has developed an app and accompanying smart speaker system called Quilt that connects people in the immediate wake of a disaster. It’s like an Alexa for our moments of greatest need. But instead of relaying the weather, turning up the TV volume, or spying on you, it builds a physical community in the midst of chaos.
The Quilt system connects community members in a few key ways. First, people who are willing to help others download the app, while people who might be considered vulnerable install a stationary smart speaker called a Beacon. When government officials declare a disaster, the app is activated, which creates a base mesh network between users so even if the power is out and the internet is down, Quilt users can still connect to one another. The app allows users to send a safe status to loved ones, locate Beacon users who need help, and get notifications for designated meeting points and shelters.
The orange Beacon speakers audibly announce real-time updates based on information from local officials. After a disaster activates a Beacon, it asks if the user would like to be connected with someone from the network. Respond “yes,” and out goes a signal to app users in the area.
New Deal Design began working on this project with San Francisco earthquakes and California fires in mind, but the effects of the pandemic threw new light on the need. “You obviously have first responders rushing to the building and yet life stops for 90% of the population—and many of these are the elderly and the vulnerable and are left to deal with this on their own,” says Gadi Amit, president and principal designer at New Deal Design. “When the pandemic came, it was doubling down on the same argument.” While the pandemic isn’t a natural disaster like a hurricane or earthquake, lockdowns have left many of the most vulnerable isolated, with reduced access to necessities. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, 47% of people sheltering in place reported negative mental health effects. That may be particularly pronounced among older adults, according to that same study.
The biggest opportunity with Quilt is that it connects community members who might not otherwise cross paths because they’re in different age groups or don’t have common interests. It also harnesses the idea that hard times bring people together. “We live in urban centers that are encouraging social isolation,” says Amit. “One of the better phenomena coming from the pandemic is some level of connectedness that is coming back to our communities.”
While this is just a concept for now, Amit envisions setting up a nonprofit that will promote the app, place Beacons, and interface with government agencies. He also sees it as part of a larger mission of his agency. “I believe design has a social component. Much of design over the past 20-30 years has been elitist and top down. We create a concept and give it to the rich first and then after a generation or two it dissolves into the general public,” says Amit.
This project is the result of the studio’s ongoing discussions about how to design products that have a bigger impact. “We want to bring ideas that are different to the public square and have an honest discussion about it,” says Amit. “It allows designers to put their best ideas forward for social good.”