Mobile telephones really only came to the fore a little over 10 years ago. And smart phones have only become prominent in the last few years. Who knows what information and communications technology (ICT) developments will have taken place in 20 years time – or even nine, for that matter.

Fujitsu – the Japanese multinational computer hardware and IT services company, offering a diversity of products and services in the areas of personal computing and telecommunications – always likes to keep its finger on the pulse of technological developments.

However, technological innovation is one thing, but how it affects our daily lives is another completely. This is what Fujitsu wanted to explore in its inaugural design competition – the Fujitsu Design Award 2011.

“The design of the computer consists of both technological and lifestyle aspects. We are an IT service and manufacturing company and are proud of our advanced technology, but we need to expand ideas more from ‘lifestyle’ observation. Therefore, we set the award theme ‘A LIFE with Future Computing’ to the global market,” explains Kenichi Kimura, design director of the System Product Design Department at Fujitsu Design.

The competition was officially launched last October – during Tokyo Designers Week in collaboration with Designboom, a global design portal, and Design Association, an events organiser – with the aim of promoting the pursuit of ‘human-centred’ design.

The two categories were Lifebook, focused on notebook PC design concepts for the year 2013, and Life-Design, centred on next-generation computing concepts for the year 2020 that help bring innovation into people’s daily lives.

Over 1000 design submissions were received from both professional designers and students in over 100 countries around the world. A well-respected judging panel had the task of selecting the winner.

The judges included UK industrial designer Ross Lovegrove; Chinese architect and founder of MAD Architects, Ma Yansong; editor of Designboom, Birgit Lohmann; French designer, Gwenael Nicolas; and founder of Team Lab, Toshiyuki Inoko. After three rounds of judging, the winner was officially announced in May.

Runner-up prizes were awarded to Crowd (from the Lifebook category) – a PC design that can be operated to fit a variety of usage scenarios; and Integral Cord (from the Life-Design category) – an ICT-cord enabling a wide range of uses and communications applications.

The overall grand prize was awarded to The Aid, an ICT-enabled cane from the Life-Design category, designed by Lithuanian product design graduate Egle Ugintaite. Essentially, her concept provides mobile navigation and health-management services for users who have difficulty leaving their homes, therefore allowing them to become active members of society once again.

For Ugintaite the competition was perfect timing as the brief was very close to the ideas and concepts she had been working on at the time. With all the new ICT technologies that are constantly being developed, she had been thinking about how they can be utilised by people to improve their lives in our changing world.

“As a designer it comes as second nature to look around, observe, question everything, gather information and wonder if there is a way to make something better and how possibly it could be done and what effect it may have,” she explains.

The competition provided the ideal platform for her to explore her ideas further and hopefully gain some feedback. The fact that the competition was hosted by such a big player in the ICT field with such an impressive jury, consisting of people she admired and respected, further motivated her to enter.

“I decided to take a chance to share my idea and vision in order to find out what it is worth,” says Ugintaite. “It is a huge competition that would attract a lot of great designers from all over the world, so it was challenging yet really exciting to be a part of.”

Ugintaite’s inspiration for her project came from observing elderly people or those who had suffered a trauma. She felt sad at how isolated many had become due to fear, low self-esteem or being anxious that they may hurt themselves if they left their homes due to weakness or health issues.

“Lack of mobility and isolation often leads to loneliness, depression and even further deterioration in health. It is a big problem, especially nowadays with the pace of life being so rapid and most of us not always being there for our elderly relatives,” she says. “So, I wanted to create a solution that could help provide independence and help the user enjoy life more.”

Having observed the problems and feeling inspired by the possibilities that new ICT technologies could provide, she set about conceiving something that could make life better for these users.

She didn’t start off by thinking about a particular product, but, rather, by focusing on human beings and what their needs were and what solution she could come up with to meet those needs. Support became a key word, both in a physical and mental sense.

“Having all this in mind, I came up with the idea for The Aid – a smart and considerate assistant,” she explains. “This ‘helping hand’ is a personal mobility device able to provide a versatile support, and help elderly people or those with restricted lifestyles to become more active.”

Having identified that her solution would be a supportive device, she then started to give it shape. As she wanted her concept to support the user both physically and mentally, she needed to design features that would address those needs. A cane was an obvious solution.

“But the problem is that a cane is seen by many as a symbol of illness, weakness and disability. I know that often for people it seems less painful to deal with physical pain or limit their mobility than use such a product,” says Ugintaite. “My goal was to do my best at eliminating or reducing that feeling as much as possible by offering a personal mobility device that would be both good looking and easy to use.”

After a series of sketches and models, and consultations with a doctor and elderly people, she created her ICT-enabled walking device, which would guide, nurse and encourage users through a number of features. For instance, The Aid has an integrated GPS navigation system, which prevents users from getting lost as it provides simple directions through a wireless headphone.

The cane also acts as a health-monitoring system with sensors in the wrist area that can check pulse, blood pressure and temperature. This data is then displayed on the cane’s LCD screen.

Another handy feature is an SOS button, which both connects the user to a health centre and also sends their current health data and location. This provides a sense of security to the user, knowing that help is available at the touch of a button.

Also, with a wider area around the user’s palm, it means that the cane is more comfortable to lean on and more comfortable to hold, especially as the user may have reduced dexterity or a weakened grip.

For the jury, this concept really ticked all the boxes set out in the brief and was the best solution in terms of focusing on how ICT technologies could enrich a user’s life.

Although its viability as an immediate product seems highly conceivable, The Aid was envisaged for the year 2020. “I wish it would be a real product as soon as possible,” says Ugintaite. “I really believe it could make so many people’s lives brighter, safer and more enjoyable.”

Ugintaite – who was awarded the prize of €30 000 for her design – is pleased that she received such a positive response to a concept she put so much hard work and passion into. “I think that it is really important that a big, powerful company like Fujitsu is open to new and innovative ideas that are orientated around human-centred design,” she says.

“It’s important because designers may have good concepts and ideas, but without cooperation and a mutual willingness to work together for the better, those ideas may stay where they are – only as a concept.”

The Fujitsu Design Award 2011 was certainly a success in showcasing cutting-edge technological innovations. “We found the possibility of computing toward the future from many ideas,” concludes Kimura of Fujitsu. “It is hard for us to create such wonderful works in our company. We wish we could continue such an activity.”  

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