MA Eco-Social Design: Project 1 by Julia Sauter, Vivian Rustige, Niklas Blum, Giorgio Groß | WS 2020
An inclusive project for children that leverages compassion, appreciation and care.
We grow trees from seeds over the course of a 12 month period with kids from multiple backgrounds and with or without disabilities. Each month, the whole group comes together and engages in group activities where we build, learn and play together.
Kids don’t judge about the diverse backgrounds and eventual disabilities of their peers. Communitree is a project meant for inclusion where all kids are equally important, yet value their differences while taking responsibility for a baby-tree.
In the end, we aim to not only grow new trees but to also grow the friendships among the kids based on compassion, appreciation and care for each other
In groups of four, the kids take care of a seed that they will grow to a small tree over the next 12 months. Each month, they all meet to build, learn and play together. Building activities include, for instance, building a chest for easier transportation so that our disabled friends can also participate in the project or building a birdhouse. After each meeting, another kid takes home the tree and cares for it until the next month.
Throughout the year, we learn about the forest and our ecosystem. But although we build and learn a lot, we never miss out on having a little fun together and playing some games.
The project is not only promising for inclusion, but also teaches our children valuable lessons. As they care for their tree and participate in the activities as groups of four, they are challenged to work together to keep their tree alive and to succeed in the building-activities. Also, taking on responsibility is something young strollers need to learn, and Communitree offers the perfect environment to do so.
The Research and Design Process
Our initial idea started out with a very different topic: Mental wellbeing. The pandemic demonstrated to us once again how important social connections are for our mental wellbeing. So we set out to discover ways to counterbalance the implications that the pandemic had to our social life and mental wellbeing and created a first version of Communitree. However, probing our initial approach in the neighbourhood of Don Bosco showed us that we were not solving the right problem. So we used our first iteration as a learning to reassess our choices about our target group, project goals and project procedure. This led us to a second version of Communitree which we presented above. The resulting project is now much more focused on and more carefully tuned to our target group.
In the following, we present our research and design process of both iterations. Our workflow resembles the one known from the double diamond diagram by Design Council, UK , split into discovery, definition, development and delivery. Our approach also matches the usual design process made up of exploration, ideation, prototyping, testing and reflecting  which can be seen in Fig3 for both iterations.
With our first discovery process, we aimed to get a general overview about the people that live in Don Bosco. Thus, it was not solely focused on mental health. Instead, we wanted to use this step to explore different possibilities, so we went for a broader approach. Interviews with the residents and participant observation techniques helped us to understand pains of the community such as the displeasure with the housing situation, the need for proper business opportunities within the neighbourhood and the pressure that the pandemic put on the residents, store owners and local farmers and how it impacted social interactions. We also used observation and behavioural mapping techniques to further expose how the residents live, move and act. We further reached out to AIAS Bozen and consolidated Officina Vispa to also get more impressions about the role of disabled people in the community. The resulting stakeholder map shown in Fig2 highlights the stakeholders involved in our first iteration that we decided to focus on after our definition process.
Our discovery process hinted that there is some potential in social interaction and the implications of COVID on it. Also being of relevance to us, we decided to focus on the topic mental wellbeing and how it can be attained during the pandemic. Essentially feelings of being isolated and depressed and the lack of social interaction and responsibility concerned us. After sketching out different proposals, we finally agreed on using a tree-seedling as the central connection point for multiple residents. The residents care for the tree together: Each participant takes responsibility for the tree for three weeks and then meets with another person in public to pass on the tree. At each meeting, people can build new connections and grow both friendships and trees. The tree further imposes a certain responsibility on the care-taker, and gives him the feeling of being needed and appreciated. The found group affiliation also can be maintained through an online platform, where all participants can connect and stay in touch. This should further levitate the feeling of being part of a bigger case and allow people to find links to others with similar feelings.
Developing Communitree for the neighbourhood
To make Communitree accessible for all audiences we had to develop a solution that allows everyone to carry the tree and to install it temporarily on a window. We came up with a design for a chest that makes it easy to carry the tree around, and has an integrated system to install it securely on the window by using straps. For the online community, we created a group on Instagram that participants could use to check in with the group. In addition, we incorporated all the information needed to raise the tree in our chest. All of these assets were meant to be used for rapid prototyping and to learn about how to progress in the project.
Delivering a first version to Don Bosco
We created flyers to check if people actually are interested in participating in Communitree and created a website with a registration form. The flyers should act as a probe to give us insights if the positive feedback that we collected could be trusted. However, we found that the resonance was equal to zero. Noone had any interest in participating, and even asking people directly to sign up did not help.
Reassessing the concept
The unpleasant results from our first iteration showed us: We went down a wrong way. Thanks to our lean “fail-fast” approach, we saved ourselves from investing more energy into the wrong direction. But now we had to reflect on why the resonance was so low and how to pivot the project. Essentially, we found the following three issues: The project does not solve a pressing problem, residents don’t know why they should participate and the target group is defined too broad. So we took the core of our project and pushed transformed it into a new concept in the second iteration, by asking once again “who is it for?”, “what is our goal?”, “what's the most tightly knitted group we can target?” and “what is the minimum viable product?”.
Discovering new ways
We noticed that the basis of Communitree is set up very well, but keeping the focus on mental wellbeing might limit us to find proper alternatives. So we took what we had and tried to figure out in which context the core idea would make more sense. Having already the support from AIAS, we saw quite a potential to focus more on inclusion. To break down the target group, we came up with the idea to focus on children in primary school exclusively. The new stakeholders are marked in Fig2 and now differ from the ones that we picked initially.
Defining Communitree for children
We now adapted Communitree to better fit our new target group: Having such a specific group allowed us to limit the number of potential collaborators, partners, participants and locations and enabled us to pick proper language and visuals that resonate with our target group. The project consists now of twelve activities, one per month, where kids interact with each other to build, learn and play together and to eventually grow their tree. The Don Bosco Afterschool, the city gardening, AEB and AIAS appeared to be good partners for this project that we aim to collaborate with.
Developing Communitree as an inclusive project for children
Given the practical nature of our chest, we figured it would make sense to use the same design to aid disabled children to carry the tree. Our illustration style also got a major overhaul after we assessed the characteristics of classical Italian graphic design, adapted it to children, introduced some details from ourselves and developed a typeface that matches our visual communication. Moreover, we knew that we would need some medium to attract children to the project, so we developed a stop-motion film illustrating the concept and process in a comic style, so kids can grasp what we are up to. To communicate what each event is about, we created a calendar with matching illustrations and short descriptions that guides participating children through the year. Some activities turn the calendar also into a living document which the kids modify and personalize based on their experiences.
Delivering a new experience
We are currently in the process of delivering the latest results to the stakeholders. So far, we were able to establish quite some interest and now have to test our prototype with children. Especially if the chest is usable for disabled children is something that we need to figure out, but also planning the events in detail is aimed at strengthening the connections among the children. The grown trees will be planted in a public space, likely at the edge of the forest near to Bolzano.
As mentioned above, we are now in the prototyping and testing phase of our second iteration. But in the future, the project might enter a yearly repeating schedule that promotes inclusion throughout the childhood of our children. We also put our introduction movie, our calendar and the blueprints for the chest on our website, so that other schools and initiatives can pick up the concept and copy it in different locations. In the long term, the project might also be applicable to grown ups and we hope that more people take up the core values of Communitree.
Julia Sauter, Vivian Rustige, Niklas Blum, Giorgio Groß
Municipality of Bolzano–Bozen (Ufficio Famiglia, Donna, Gioventù e Promozione sociale) Orto Semirurali Garten (Hilary Solly; Mara Lea Hohn; Gerhard Taminini)