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Engineering at Home Takes to the Road

A woman’s small DIY design approach makes a splash in the international art world

It all started with a $90,000 myoelectric hand.

Olin anthropologist and professor Caitrin Lynch has a long-running practice of introducing her Engineering for Humanity students to older adults in the community to engage in service-driven design projects relevant to these older adults' personal lives. One such senior was Cindy, a woman who lost parts of all four limbs after complications from a catastrophic heart attack.  

Olin designer and professor Sara Hendren invited Cindy to her class, too. This time, Cindy brought a big bag of low-tech gadgets she’d come up with to use in daily life, along with the sophisticated $90,000 hand she didn’t use.

While Cindy had received top-quality care from doctors, therapists and prosthetists, the tools provided to her didn’t allow her to easily do some of the things that meant the most to her, like writing a thank you card in her own handwriting, feeding herself, putting on makeup and playing cards with friends. To do these activities, Cindy didn’t find gadgets like “Darth Vader arm,” as she calls it, very helpful. So she embraced an everyday engineering ethic that she never thought herself capable of, and started to design what she needed herself.

Cindy enlisted help to create simple constructions, made with a variety of everyday materials and tools. She repurposed cable ties for pulling out drawers, and salad tongs for holding a sandwich. These simple, low-tech devices—many made for only a few dollars—were a far cry from the bionic prosthetic hand, which is recognized as cutting-edge in both design and technology.

Her ingenuity inspired Hendren and Lynch to start an online curatorial project called Engineering at Home to share Cindy’s story and some of the adaptations she created. They also saw the website—which they created with Olin students—as a means to explore the contrast to traditional notions of an engineer, and to explore questions such as, “Who is considered to be an engineer?” and “What counts as engineering?”

Of course, Hendren and Lynch hoped that the website, which they launched in 2016, would find a public. But they never dreamed that the concept would resonate with the cultural zeitgeist. In 2017, a curator who had seen the website invited them to show some of Cindy’s creations as part of The Body Electric show at a small arts center in Sheffield, UK. The exhibition and series of workshops explored ways in which artists, hackers, designers and everyday people find methods to modify their bodies and augment their senses, to help them live well in a difficult environment or give themselves new abilities.

“We wanted to be sure we had a really beautiful website that captured what we wanted to communicate about Cindy,” says Lynch. “I think because we spent a lot of time and money upfront to bring design attention to these objects, people noticed the project, understood it, connected with it and envisioned including this work in their own creative projects.”

Since then, many members of the international arts community have displayed aspects of Cindy’s handiwork and her story, in their exhibitions. A show in California showcased various manifestos, and included the one that Hendren and Lynch wrote on the Engineering at Home site. The manifesto about how Cindy’s story acts as a “campaign to create a more inclusive engineering discipline, where engineers re-open the research paradigm to include high- and low-tech devices, experts and amateurs, labs and living rooms.”

Replicas of Cindy’s creations, as well as photographs of Cindy and her work, were part an international triennial of design and social innovation called Reciprocity Design Liege, which took place at several locations in Belgium last fall. The show brought together expressions of design that explored design’s impact in cultural, economic and social contexts. Engineering at Home was also featured in a show called "How Will We Work" at the Vienna Biennale in 2017.

Curators putting together the landmark exhibit The Future Starts Here at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum also took notice. This exhibit gathered about 100 objects in order to show the expanding role of emerging technologies within the present and their influence on our possible futures. For the Engineering at Home section of the exhibit, the London-based design studio Superflux produced a film showing Cindy using many of her DIY prostheses. Daniel Koff, who has taught at Olin, shot the footage in Cindy's home, and a video sample is available on Superflux's website.

In the exhibition, images of Cindy are projected so it seems as though she’s standing in the exhibit space. Visitors can watch her interacting with the exhibited objects and doing everyday activities, like eating and picking up objects. The exhibition is traveling to Sweden for a show March–August, and then to Copenhagen, Denmark and Melbourne. The architecture and design magazine, Metropolis, selected Engineering at Home’s selection in the V&A Show for a feature called "Best of 2018: The 6 Objects and Exhibitions That Represented This Year."

Engineering at Home is now part of yet another major show, a design biennial in France called Me You Nous, which expects to draw more than 250,000 visitors to Saint-Étienne between March 21-April 22, 2019. 

Photo courtesy Biennale International Design Saint-Etienne 2019 

As venue after venue sees the magic of Engineering at Home, it begs the question: Why is the story of one woman’s repurposed household objects and clever hacks resonating so much with the international arts community?

Lynch wonders whether the juxtaposition of high-tech and low-tech has come at an opportune moment. “In the rush of technology solutions that are so much a part of our lives, maybe it’s the return to basics, and to humanity, that has resonated with people,” she says. “Cindy has found a way to recover what makes her feel most human—connecting to others—by being able to do things like write a handwritten note or eat a meal without Darth Vader at her table. This very human story seems to be a reminder for many about what matters most in design,” she says.

Hendren, Lynch and Cindy herself have all been taken aback by the response. “It’s still a surprise that people find it so much of the moment, and we didn’t envision this,” says Hendren. “It feels like there is evidence that these venues are interested in asking really hard questions about the future of technology and design. There’s a recognition that there are inventive ideas coming from outside of slick robotics and novel software, and that there are instead many versions of the future worth consideration.”

Photos courtesy Michael J. Maloney and Roco, Sheffield, England