Design Plays A Role
In Alaskan Research

Campsite on the glacier.

Masters student Austin Hanslip is promoting a new breed of designer. He’s arguing for it to be standard practice for designers to take supportive roles with scientists, at the forefront of critical issues. This intrepid designer, from the University of Brighton, collaborated with 50 climate change research scientists in Alaska.

Ice scallop experimentation and recording. Participants rely on effective tools and on each other.

The Juneau Icefield Research Program, known as JIRP, collaborates with NASA each year and its members spend almost 3 months in solitude to investigate the condition of the world´s most sensitive glacier complex. Since its initiation in 1946, JIRP has hosted many environmental scientists, but in 2011 it took a risk and accepted a design student.

JIRP are affiliated with the University of Alaska and NASA.

The research team, directed at the time by Prof Jay Fleisher, accepted Austin for a position on the program. Later NASA also awarded Austin with a grant for the work he carried out. Much of this was due to the approach Austin took in his application to be part of the team.

Sample collection.

On applying, Austin felt his efforts would be an environmental achievement, no matter what his project resulted in, as the research that these programs produce is crucial to the political argument for environmental protection legislation.

Glacial recession at the Llewellyn terminus. Evidence collected during the life of the Juneau Icefield Research Program.

Austin’s aim was to identify and tackle the barriers and problems that arise during the research process, whatever their nature; for example, the psychological impact of isolation, the difficulty of handling equipment in wet conditions, the efficient recording of collected data, or avoiding the threats posed by bears approaching the site.

Cumbersome tools in challenging situations was a frequent problem and potential target of a design brief.

Audit and observation results showed waste management was the thing that participating scientists considered most problematic for the program. While developing waste management improvements Austin’s investigations led to the discovery that a lot of resources were being used to ensure emergency equipment was charged and available for the time of need. Fuel was flown to the destinations, with generators, and the empty fuel drums were flown out again. The electricity generated was, for the most part, used for charging low voltage emergency equipment.

One solution Austin developed was a lightweight manpowered charger. Manpower is a reliable energy source for nomadic travel in extreme conditions. A retro-fit product, housing a ripcord and dynamo, was attached to the cross-country skis and boots used by the research team. When the team found its handheld GPS navigator running low on electricity, the scientist could simply pull the ripcord down each boot and clip them to a ring on the skis. The action of cross-country skiing consistently generates power and enables immediate rescue device use. The product creates enough power from a 20 minute 11mph traverse to power the device for 3 hours.

Austin’s stand for New Designers 2012.

Austin presented his final product at the New Designers 2012 exhibition, and has made the design open source. He hopes it will work its way into supporting similar projects in future, through production in the open market. Considering products have diminished battery life in cold conditions, it also has potential for public appeal within recreational activity.

Austin reflects, “At the time of the Second World War British businesses were asked to change the products they manufactured to meet the needs of the war effort.” His grandfather helped design components in the Lancaster Bomber, having previously been an architect. In the same light he feels that design should once again shift to facilitate the realities of today, and that the time is now!

“Today we face threats with great impact again. Current generations are living with the turmoil of economic and global crisis, yet what are the majority of problem solvers up to? Many designers seem happy to continue as arbiters of good taste”.

“There’s an under-utilised source of support if designers want to fight climate change. Designers can find an environmental science program and support their research with their practice, enabling research that assists in the creation of positive legislation”.

“Securing a similar position may enable a designer to alter mass behaviour patterns without having to pass through much politics and legislation themselves. Often legislation is necessary to create change. We cannot all expect to create change by market influence; trends often have a temporary effect, there are many players, with many agendas, and most agendas are influenced by a final goal of increasing profit”.

“Scientists need designers. Scientists are focussed on collecting results. They define the problems posed by their research and the designers solve them. For the environmentally minded designer it is a reliable step towards a greener future, with the potential stability that comes with the effect of law on society”.

Austin is currently studying a Masters at the University of Brighton and wishes to continue in the line of work of supporting research, despite the physical challenges and dangers. He has restricted his job opportunities in some ways, but is content with the decisions he’s made, as he’d like to act as an ambassador for this uncommon approach towards sustainable design.