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InnovationSpace students design for resilience

October 09, 2007

John Hall and Alex Zautra are studying a question that is as old as the Bible’s Book of Job: How do people rebound after life breaks their stride with a destabilizing setback, such as physical disability, chronic illness or the loss of a loved one?

“Our goals, objectives and hopes are challenged from time to time by some pretty severe events that can interrupt the flow of life and the future that a person envisions for himself,” says Alex Zautra, an ASU professor of psychology. “Part of resilience is sustaining one’s interests, motivation and direction. It’s also the ability to bounce back, regain one’s momentum and find one’s footing after having lost it. Resilience is measured by the speed and fullness of the recovery from difficulties.”

Hall and Zautra are members of a group of ASU psychologists and social scientists known as the Resilience Solutions Group (RSG). Thanks to a $20,000 grant from ASU’s Student Pathways Award program, students in the InnovationSpace program will have a chance to test some of the RSG’s ideas during the 2007-2008 academic year.

InnovationSpace is a transdisciplinary education and research lab in which students learn how to develop products that create market value while serving real societal needs and minimizing impacts on the environment.

Under support for the Student Pathways grant, Hall and Zautra have joined this year’s InnovationSpace faculty. They will deliver lectures on some of the latest resilience findings, as well as help guide the development of student projects that range from improving the function of healing environments to helping elders cope with common maladies, such as dementia, arthritis and social isolation.

Taking a resilience approach provides students with a new – and potentially revolutionary – methodology for product development. Most design processes, for example, start with defining a problem and then crafting a solution. Hall and Zautra advocate a more fundamental reframing of this approach. Rather than simply search for problems in need of solutions, the RSG researchers will urge student teams to design products, environments and systems that instead “recognize the strengths and acknowledge the capacities of the people you’re working with,” Zautra says.

The participation of the RSG team gives InnovationSpace students access to some of the most seasoned – and well-respected – research in the field of resilience. Zautra’s work, for example, has long focused on how older adults survived the crippling pain of arthritis. Specifically, he has looked at how these people found a way to manage their pain effectively without sacrificing pleasure, productivity and meaning in their lives.

On the other hand, Hall, a public policy professor in the School of Public Affairs, studies resilience on a community level.
“Resilience is not something you do alone,” Hall says. “Social cohesion is vital to resilience. People need to feel that they’re a part of something larger, rather than just atoms in the universe.”

Facilities, programs and activities on the community level all contribute to helping people rebound from adverse events, he says. It can be something as simple as people knowing they can count on their neighbors to help in an emergency. Or it might involve redesigning a community’s infrastructure to make it more navigable for elder residents.

In 2005, the National Institute on Aging awarded the ASU group a $2.2 million grant. The plan is to study an ethnically diverse group of 800 baby boomers between the ages of 45 and 65 in the Phoenix metro area. The RSG’s goal is to determine what factors contribute to and enhance resiliency. This capacity for self-righting has been shown to be vital in sustaining physical health and emotional well-being.

“One developmental psychologist called resilience ‘the ordinary miracles of people,’ ” Zautra says. “We need to have our finger on the pulse of those natural capacities.”