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Prof. Andreas Kalweit / Industrial Design
Photo: UniService Transfer

A part of society lives "on the fringe"

Prof. Andreas Kalweit on a design project for needy people

"We had a woman," reports Andreas Kalweit, Professor of Manufacturing & Material Science at the Faculty of Design and Art at the University of Wuppertal, "who came from well-off circumstances in Düsseldorf. She was never shown any limits in her childhood, pushed her limits more and more and slipped into complete drug addiction. At the age of 53, her body is broken. But she has overcome the severe addiction, is still in a methadone program and visits schools to educate young people. And she does this in a way that does not make people concerned but shows that she too is a part of society."

"On the fringe" is the name of the project financed by the Visionlab Institute that Kalweit and his colleague Dipl. Des. Anne Kurth in cooperation with the Düsseldorf University of Applied Sciences. The focus was on people who are classified as being on the fringes of society due to their social status. "Our students get to know the design process methodically, from the basics to the methods to the real projects. From the third semester onwards, we regularly have such third-party funded projects and they are linked to the design projects," says the Krefeld-born, explaining the approach. The institute's goal is to develop visionary, forward-looking and innovative products and services that formulate perspectives for the technological, social and ecological challenges of the medium and long-term future.

Designers can think their way around

A good prerequisite for this special project was the designer's different approach. "I believe that designers are good at thinking things through," explains Kalweit, "we don't just design something beautiful, we first see if there is a need for it at all!" That's why the methodical approach also includes the involvement of the target groups as well as research and interviews in order to constantly train perception and develop new ways of thinking.

Streetworker meets designer

The project idea "on the fringe" began with an old friendship, with two men who talked about possibilities of interdisciplinary cooperation in their free time. One, Andreas Kalweit, designer, the other, Thomas Tackenberg, social worker and streetworker. Two professions that are difficult to think of together. But far from it. "You don't think about products at all," says Kalweit, "but when we talked about concrete problems, I thought that you could design for them." His friend, a certified social worker who teaches at the Düsseldorf University of Applied Sciences, works with addicts, prostitutes and homeless people at the grassroots level every day. The problems there are many and varied. From dealing with the authorities, to daily care, to overnight accommodations, there are diverse procedures that are complicated or at least could be improved.
With almost 50 participants, the Düsseldorf-Wuppertal cooperation started in the summer of 2019 with a newly developed approach, because a product always has social components, says Kalweit, it interacts with the environment or people and must above all be one thing: meaningful!

Municipal water dispenser and authority app

A cautious approach was the most important thing, and so the students initially dealt intensively with the situation of homeless people, addicts and prostitutes. Through the mediation of the street worker, who has been looking after the people for years, contact was established and interviews were conducted in small groups. For this purpose, the teams visited facilities every Monday for five months, got to know those in need and built up trust. "We conducted interviews with those affected, we took guided tours of the city with homeless people, accompanied prostitutes and addicts," Kalweit reports, "and questioned the living situation again and again." In this way, the teams gradually recognized the needs that needed to be addressed. Idea beginnings resulted e.g. in considerations to overnight accommodations for homeless people, because "those are locked away usually everywhere", say Kalweit, the cities are rather life-hostile for these humans. "These are hard conditions, because the places are cleared after a short time every now and then. There are no good concepts for where people could really live, and the places that are made available are so far from their sphere of influence that they are not used."
Another problem that needs to be solved is the lack of water dispensers, which are only marginally available in many German cities, if at all. "Homeless people get extremely dehydrated in summer and do not have enough opportunities to wash themselves," says Kalweit, and this is an important need. One student, for example, developed a model that draws on the existing water network of the underground hydrants and the electricity from streetlamps, using the existing infrastructure. The water dispenser designed for this purpose can also be dismantled, maintained and, if necessary, rebuilt elsewhere. The entire concept including the business plan is available in the form of a meaningful documentation of the faculty.
Likewise the contact to authorities with the often incomprehensible form letters, which neither the foreign-language refugee nor the homeless person understands, could become clearer by design. "Two Master's students have developed a multi-level model," the scientist reports enthusiastically. Since most homeless people would have a cell phone, the students developed a communication app that would allow easy contact with employees of public authorities. When contacting administrative experts, however, they also had to realize that the existing structures did not necessarily want to be improved. "First of all, you realize how deeply you have to intervene in systems," Kalweit sums up.

We always look away. How can you look back again?

When dealing with people on the fringes of society, the team repeatedly asked itself the question of how to re-establish contact between fringe groups and society. "We always look away," says Kalweit, and asks: "How can we look back again? At this point, the projects of the two universities make a helpful contribution, because in addition to the concepts already mentioned, shelters in which one can live in an orderly fashion without fear of being robbed, as well as practical, inconspicuous storage facilities for the most important belongings, which fit snugly to the body and thus prevent theft while sleeping, were designed. Even for the four-legged companions of many homeless people a concept was developed. The so-called "Strolchbox", a two-part bottle whose silicone coating is used as a feeding and drinking bowl when folded down, is also equipped with a multi-functional carabiner that can also remove ticks at the same time.
All projects are summarized in a limited documentation, which shows comprehensively, with which approaches existing problems could be solved. "With this I can go into politics or to authorities", explains Kalweit, "I can go to companies and say: 'I have a business plan for the hydrants, I use the structure and it is already legally secured.' One must always include the potential partners in the development. If you do that, the concepts have a very high probability of being implemented".
In the follow-up of the project the initiators could also see that the students continued to work on the topic. Kalweit says: "We have students who went to the Wuppertal Institute with their projects because they found their follow-up project there. Another student has developed an exhibition concept for the clarification of marginal problems and has now gone into the social field because she is insanely interested in it."

Participating again in the network of society

The several months of work of the cooperation team have also changed all those involved personally. "Only when I take a look, I suddenly realize that I am confronted with things that make me insecure and to which I do not know how to react," Kalweit concludes. "Through this long dialogue over several months, we have been able to gain access. And it wasn't at all difficult and very trusting. We were allowed to accompany eight groups of people, from prostitutes to homeless addicts and refugees. They were very happy that they were able to participate in the network of the society with their task again.
The committed design concepts for needy people are a first step towards reintegrating marginalized groups into society. The resulting documentation is an interesting resource for urban planners and companies.

Uwe Blass (Interview on 30.09.2020)


Andreas Kalweit studied mechanical engineering at the Niederrhein University of Applied Sciences after an apprenticeship as a locksmith, followed by industrial design at the University GH Essen and graduated with a diploma in both courses (mechanical engineering with distinction). Since 2012 he is professor for "Manufacturing & Material Science - focus on construction technology and systematics in design" at the University of Wuppertal.