MEX Live: Samar Héchaimé talks post-pandemic design strategy with Marek Pawlowski

MEX Live: Samar Héchaimé talks post-pandemic design strategy with Marek Pawlowski

On the show

Recorded 6th May 2020, approx. 1 hr. If you prefer to listen to an audio only version, the podcast edition is available here.


Special guest Samar Héchaimé joins MEX founder Marek Pawlowski for a live discussion exploring how we might transform our post-pandemic systems and organisations by putting people at the heart of future strategy. Drawing on deep cross-cultural experience – from the Middle East to the United States – and disciplines from architecture and digital services to consulting and innovation, Samar’s career has given her a unique perspective on balancing collective and individual design needs. Samar and Marek discuss projects ranging from wayfinding in airports to shaping the people-centred, holistic strategy of the Princess Noura University in Saudi Arabia.

What do you think? Post your comments below!

In addition to the interview with Samar, this first livestream edition of the MEX podcast was intended to prompt discussion in the community. In particular, Samar and I asked participants to consider a core question:

“Which of the many systems supporting our way of life have you become more aware of during the pandemic and how might we imagine changing them for the better with the principles of user-centred design?”

We’d love to hear your views on this or any other issue you’ve been thinking about on this theme.

Please post your thoughts in the comments section at the bottom of this page so we can keep them together and encourage conversation in the community (you can also reach me and Samar by email if you’d prefer to discuss in private).

About MEX Live & invites to join future editions

This livestream experiment builds on a series of 70+ interviews with design pioneers I’ve recorded for the MEX podcast. An audio version will be released soon after the event as a podcast in the usual way (search ‘MEX Design Talk’ in your podcast player to subscribe).

To receive an invitation to participate in the next livestream, please send me an email and I’ll add you to the list.

Donate to support

We need your help to keep MEX going! Make your donation today (any amount welcome) to show your support and become a MEX Patron. Your contributions go towards developing the podcast, livestream events and this journal.


Add yours
  1. 1
    Marek Pawlowski

    Our core question is:

    “Which of the many systems supporting our way of life have you become more aware of during the pandemic and how might we imagine changing them for the better with the principles of user-centred design?”

    We’d love to hear your views on this or any other issue you’ve been thinking about on this theme.

  2. 2
    Julian Alders

    Hi Samar, very interesting talk yesterday. Thank you. I’d be interested to get (both) your views as to what you think will become the ‘new norms’ of (global/regional) behavioural change as a result of the pandemic, and where you think design will ultimately play a part in defining and shaping.

    I’m thinking of the obvious ones, such as the discovery by a lot of people of a healthier lifestyle (regular exercise, home cooking, increased leisure time with the removed commute etc.), but also broader characteristics which are likely to lead to changes in behaviour, products, services etc., such as this forced localisation, an increased sense of community and the overall benefits to the environment, as a consequence of this global economic and industrial ‘pause’.

    In essence, what behaviours do you see as remaining , whether widespread or polarised, where there will be opportunities for design to focus.

    Thank you!

    • 3
      Marek Pawlowski

      Thanks for participating in the livestream Julian. Samar’s expansive response above is by far the place to start, but since you asked for some input from us both, I would add only this…

      Each extraordinary thing which happens to someone during this time will make an impact on them. Sometimes the result of that impact will be immediate and obviously visible. Sometimes it will seem to glance off the surface at first but the tremors will be felt deep down and may manifest as change much later…potentially months or years later. It is those latter effects which interest me most.

      Personally, I’ve been trying to differentiate between:

      • Accelerators, which will speed up transitions already underway pre-pandemic, e.g. location independent working (for some!) as an obvious example or the growing reliance on micro media brands (e.g. Youtubers) who, by virtue of being lone operators, have been able to supply people’s entertainment needs better than big studios.
      • Restrictions, which shape behaviour significantly while in place but whose long-term effects will be tangential rather than direct, e.g. children will hug grandparents again soon, but what long-term memory will today’s 5 year olds harbour of that time in 2020 they were told they couldn’t?
      • Consequences, where governments around the world – the UK’s among them – have broadly assigned certain outcomes of the pandemic (e.g. financial cost) to society, but sought to delay them to an indeterminate future point and are yet to clarify how they will be shared.
      • Realisations, where large numbers of people have become aware of facts previously acknowledged only by a smaller group, e.g. that pandemics have, can and will happen throughout history and that some countries’ institutions are better structured to address sudden, universal challenges than others.

      Others will no doubt be able to think of many more such classifications.

      For most who find themselves in design roles (as they exist today) there are going to be some of these challenges which are directly addressable through their day-to-day work – but only some. Others – and these are likely to the most important ones – will cross the realms of public health, finance, government and even our spiritual lives, i.e. how humans relate to purpose. That’s where user-centred design as a philosophy can – and in my opinion, should – play a larger role in the future. If we consider user-centred design as an ongoing desire to understand, include and serve stakeholders towards a measurably better outcome, we should be increasing the prevalence of that approach, elevating the responsibilities of those equipped to practice it and encouraging its wider adoption through teaching.

  3. 4
    Samar Héchaimé

    Hello Julian

    Thank you for attending the talk and continuing the conversation online.

    There are several outcomes and shifts that we are probably going to see coming out of the pandemic. This is not a prediction as I don’t think we should be reading glass balls here but this is based on observation and analysis and understanding potential scenarios. From there this is the role that ‘Design’ with a big D can play which is help shape the strategies of where we want to go both on the macro and micro and develop the tactics that will enable us to get there. Design is not just about designing, places, spaces, products and services, design is also about designing organisations, systems, and interconnections both visible and invisible. Design should not be about narrowing the funnel but about widening the funnel, and changing the lens, turning a human centric lens to all the scenario developments making sure that we include everyone in the ecosystem of users be they visible or invisible.

    – Shift in ways of work and lifestyles. With the pandemic we have seen a stark divide between what has become known as the essential vs non essential workers, and that on some level has coincided with non and low paid work, sometimes even including unskilled work vs paid, skilled or service and intellectual work. We have seen how the essential workers have continued to have to leave their homes and head to their place of work, by necessity or by vocation, and having to put themselves out there in order to provide the services they provide or perform the duties of care. Of course many of the low paid workers who are also essential in many ways, such as factory workers, or retail workers, small businesses have had to stay at home rendering their situation even more precarious. Then there is the group that is able to work remotely and continue most of what they were doing from behind a screen just in a different location. When we look optimistically at the rosy future of work we tend to look at that last category. These are those benefiting from what is seen as healthier lifestyles. It is wonderful to be able to earth healthy, bake your own bread, cook on a daily basis etc. But even then it is not even always balanced within the same group or even within the same household. Many parents have seen a shift of care work be added onto their day to day even more than before. Gender imbalances which were present before become much more stark now where the duties of the home and care get added to a full work load without respite from either.

    The first thing human centric design can do is step back and start mapping out the user ecosystems in order to be able to reveal all the players in those ecosystems, both visible or invisible, essential and non essential, paid or unpaid and start seeing how they interact with each other. Do they collide or coincide. For example the GDP has been the way to map a country’s economy. But GDP is riddled with flaws. First of which is that it doesn’t take into account unpaid, invisible work which ironically is seen as unproductive associating productivity with money generation, though without it ‘productivity’ as it has been defined will come to a screeching halt. Take for example when Iceland’s women strike in 1975. What design can do is reveal the layers of the user ecosystems and map their interconnectivity. This is important in order to look at building strategies for the future that are holistic. From answering the questions of who, then we can start understanding why and eventually start thinking of the how and the what. Those questions can be at organisational and policy scale or at product and service scale. Design, human centric approach or creative/ innovative future shaping has not sat at the decision making table, but now these approached can begin to answer the needs and wants of the different user groups and ecosystems and connecting with each other. Which then can lead to a shift in the way systems are built, evolve and grow.

    – Urban and mobility shifts. We have seen a forced localisation, mostly for those who are working from home or not working at all. The rest of the essential workforce is still having to commute to perform their duties. That forced localisation has a lot of benefits in many ways as it can enable personal connectivities to be built where some had not flourished before. We have seen the emergence of local groups, or neighbours connecting with each other etc. We have also seen the shrinking of our footprints which have changed our consumption modes etc. That has a lot of benefits associated with it on an individual and on a collective level. But is it behaviours only emerging out of fear, and will we be reverting to older consumer behaviours when our fears subside? The answer is yes to both. Prior to the pandemic many European cities had been moving towards a localisation which is why we have seen the rise of micro mobility. Some city mayors had looked at shifting towards the 15min city where you should have access to all you need within a 15min radius, thus minimising congestion, pollution and enabling better access. That still might exclude the commute to work, the commute to school and the commute to other services, which probably would affect those who can’t afford to live in denser areas or don’t want to. With the easing of the lockdown these cities are accelerating their plans to do that in order to help with the social distancing, avoid the surge of car use which is meant to avoid public transport and the jam packing of people within the confines of the tubes/ buses etc. We have heard from retailers about the shift in consumer behaviours both online and in store with there being a rise of online presence and a rise of local buying in supermarkets, markets, and in some restaurants who have shifted their business models to supply raw goods as well as cooked goods. With the easing of the lockdown there is going to be a hesitant return to life as we knew it before. Some of it because we got accustomed and enjoy the benefits of what we have gained. Some of it because our fears are still heightened. In this case the loss aversion is being balanced between loosing a high consumer, fast way of life we knew before or a potential loss of life. As one fear subsides will the other take over and get us to go back to our ways?

    Design can play a big role in shaping the world we live in, of course in the most obvious way. The cities we live in, the modes of transport, the products we consume, the digital platforms that give us access etc basically the visible experience touchpoints. But that is the obvious way we have grown to see the contributions of designers. Human centric design thinking in collaboration with behavioural science can understand the systems that we are living in and the behaviours that these systems create or hinder. What design can do is reveal or shape interconnections within these systems and help shape them better in order to cater to the user ecosystems discussed earlier. If design continues in the role defined to it, designers will still be only looking at designing solutions to problems identified by the ones writing the brief for them. Density, for example, both a great attribute as it enables exchange of ideas and innovations but also a great curse as it make spread of disease easier, for example in the poorest areas such as the favellas in Brazil, the city of the dead in Egypt, the refugee camps , and even the retirement and care homes. We need to think about these issues again in a proactive and system way and bring forth design thinking to connect cause and effect before we bring in the traditional role of how to design the urban fabric or the future, the work space of the future, the cars of the future. Another example designing the tube carriage not the tube system and its interconnection with the city and its effect on the quality of life for the individual and the collective. Or the design of the scooter, the car, the bike and its connection with the individual in its user journey touchpoints but not the interconnection of these modes together, their role in shaping or breaking behaviours and the systems they reside in.
    The first one demands that the change in behaviour of the individual is reactive and adaptive, the second one it requires a more proactive and additive role of the individual, the collective and the system shapers. Thus we need to rethink the writing of the brief where design or human centric thinking needs to be in the decision making space forming the brief though first understanding the users then the systems, their interconnectivities, and gaps and from there imagining what can be the solutions.

    – Climate shifts have of course also taken centre stage in this time of crisis even more than it had before. The industrial pause, the pause in transport pollution, the look at utilities and energy etc. The transport pollution can account up to 1/5 of the urban pollution and that compounded with industrial as well as energy consumption. The only one of the three that hasn’t reduced dramatically is energy consumption. This has shifted from office and work space energy consumption to now being concentrated in households. The good news is that the UK power has gone down to a 16 year low in this crisis. The benefits we have been seeing, are blue skies visible in places where they haven’t been seen in years, less respiratory issues reported across the world and especially in the most industrial and polluted areas, where the poorest and most disenfranchised reside.

    This energy consumption can continued to be influenced in the future and if we stop thinking in linear ways we can start looking at how we can design interconnected systems that answer the needs of user groups and keep minimising pollution as well as provide growth of clean energy production that can keep moving the economy forward in a positive way for it to thrive without it being at the detriment of the planet or people. We can help redesign the system in small and large scale helping harness the power of innovations that have emerged from individuals or small communities for example in micro systems and businesses and connect them in the bigger systems so that their effect and impact is multiplied. We can look at designing financial services that enable these system changes. We can look at designing educational systems that harness the power of the creative thinking in the individual on all levels of the society.

    – Economic shifts, we have seen moves that indicate that it can go in either push towards more profit grab by organisations or towards redefining their purpose and the impact they have, in positive ways, beyond financial gain. The first one can lead to a polarisation in the market towards the larger organisations which were able to withstand the downturn be it through bailouts, mergers, or the ability to grab more market share. The second can shape a different kind of organisation which is based on being human centric.

    This is where design led organisational transformations comes into play. We have heard a lot about the digital transformation being accelerated during the crisis when it has been lagging before or being put on the back burner. But the digital transformation is nothing more than the tip of the iceberg. Organisations are not transformed by giving everyone laptops and permitting them to work from home, just migrating old ways of work into new spaces. This transformation will only really transform our ways of work and our organisations if look at it in an interconnected way, redesigning the organisational structures, the ways of work, breaking the siloes, all based on the purpose and the impact defined. By using human centric design led approach organisations can establish what is their vision, what is their purpose and what is the impact they want to have within the bigger context. That is what will connect them more profoundly to the people who will join them and work within the organisation to build that share vision. This enables organisations and employees to understand how they fit within the other systems and contexts and what impact things they are doing have. When the ecosystem of users of the organisation is then put in connection and context of the bigger systems then decisions can be made that have more understood and designed ripple effect. For companies to say they are digitally transforming for example it needs to become much more than just supplying machines and an infrastructure. It starts by redesigning the organisation to break away from siloes enabling collaboration, holistic integration and harnessing of collective ideas. It is about shifting the ways of work, the spaces of work, the interconnection with the personal ways of life, for example the care and education duties at home, the interconnection of ideas, that emerges from the serendipity of connections and meetings, enabling of these innovations and ideas to grow if they fit within the organisational purpose and framework defined, avoiding the isolation of the work from home to become about ‘productivity’ in repeating defined tasks, and become instead about effectiveness of enabling different perspectives and new ways of working, of different balances etc. That is when design would have played a role in reshaping organisations and systems at the large macro level which then can trickle to affecting changes on the micro level of the healthy living, balance of mental health, increased creativity, etc.

    Starting with putting people first, being human centric, understanding culture and behaviours in connection and context of systems and their interconnectivity, Design thinking and human centric design can power the shaping of visions, purpose and strategies, creating frameworks of growth which can shape our futures, in iterative human centric ways.

    The opportunities for design thus lie at both ends of the spectrum. At the top level policies, strategies, transformations, system shaping, ‘Designing for the collective’, AND the tactical solutions, products, services, touchpoints, ‘Designing for the individual’.

+ Leave a Comment