In late October of 2012, as Hurricane Sandy was bearing down on the eastern seaboard, some important members of the Federal Emergency Management Agency were toying with an idea that was a little bit unusual, at least for members of a government agency in the midst of a huge disaster. They were wondering if designers could help.
That’s how the design consultancy Frog was tapped to become part of FEMA’s Field Innovation Team, a group that brought an unlikely mix of minds into the Sandy recovery process, including experts in fields ranging from art and science to mathematics, technology, and design. According to Desi Matel-Anderson, who served as FEMA’s Chief Innovation Adviser during the period, convening this sort of team and putting them to work during a crisis was not the usual way of doing business. “I don’t know of any time in history where a federal agency like FEMA has tasked a team to innovate in a disaster and to solve in real time like this on the scale that we did,” she told me after her stint at FEMA had wrapped up late last year. “This fundamentally shifted the ideological underpinnings of an entire field.”
By the time FEMA reached out to Frog, a number of employees from the company’s New York office were already on the ground, volunteering their time at Disaster Recovery Centers, or DRCs, throughout the area. Through that exposure and official visits to other recovery centers in subsequent weeks, Frog’s designers got a first-hand look at how disaster recovery worked–and, sometimes, how it didn’t.
Over the several months that followed, Frog and the other members of the Field Innovation Team looked at those Disaster Recovery Centers through the lens of design, drawing up a series of proposals for improving the experience. In January of last year, the team travelled to the White House to present its vision to FEMA representatives and the Secretary of Homeland Security. It was well received. The agency has already put a number of the easiest fixes, like color coded signage, in place, and it’s continuing to refine its operation in light of Frog’s findings.
Government agencies are like large ships in that changing course can be a slow, gradual process. But according to Rich Serino, FEMA’s Deputy Administrator, the agency is indeed looking at things differently in light of the Innovation Team’s work. “They saw things that perhaps we hadn’t seen before,” he told me. “They’ve literally changed the way we do business.”
It’s an ongoing process, but it all started with FEMA going against conventional wisdom. Instead of trying to drum up some new thinking through workshops or simulations, it brought a fresh set of eyes to a disaster as it was happening. That bold decision gave designers a chance to see how FEMA works in the real world, in real time…READ ON