Transforming Trash into a Hospital
Celebrating the product and design principles that led to an accomplishment in sustainable technology
The first words out of my mouth this morning were, “Oh sh*t!” Never mind that my 5 and 7 year old were cuddling up against me in bed and I try not to swear around them. I was startled awake by our smoke alarm calling out “FIRE” and jumped out of bed! Only after checking each room in my house and confirming it was not on fire but just a false alarm was I able to breathe a sigh of relief.
That’s the reality of living in California these days though. We’re in the middle of yet another heat wave, in the middle of a mega drought that puts wildfire danger on a constant high alert. In 2020 alone, the state experienced 6 out of 20 of its largest wildfires ever recorded. Living through these wildfires drove me to write about “Is our digital clutter killing the environment?”. Even though we were lucky that our area wasn’t in any immediate danger from the wildfires, ash from a hundred miles away covered our cars parked outside, we learned to check air quality before going outside, and the smoke was so thick that the sun never came out one day.
While we on Earth are feeling the effects of the global warming crisis, Richard Branson added to global warming by burning up a million gallons of jet fuel to blast off to the edge of space this weekend. He compared the amount of carbon emissions from his Virgin Galactic flight to that of a flight from London to New York. While both produce around 1200kg of CO2, their impact is very different if you look at CO2 emissions by passenger by mile, according to analysis done by the Financial Review. Virgin Galactic is a stunning 12 kg CO2 emissions per passenger per mile, vs. a business class flight from London to New York produces only 0.2 kg CO2 emissions per passenger per mile. That is 60x less efficient!
So excuse me if I’m not excited that Richard Branson got to experience weightlessness this past weekend or that Jeff Bezos will actually cross the Karman line and reach outer space next week. In fact, it makes me mad that we celebrate “accomplishments” like these. What does this accomplish but bragging rights? At what cost? Based on a quick scan of the Twitterverse, it looks like I’m not alone in my thoughts.
Instead of celebrating technology for vanity, let’s change the narrative and celebrate technology for sustainability. Let’s talk about Arthur Huang and Jarvis Liu, structural engineers and architects who co-founded MINIWIZ in 2005 to “show the world the unlimited potential of trash by taking the recycled material to the highest form of product engineering.” Their latest achievement: building an entire hospital ward out of trash. Now that is an accomplishment worth celebrating!
Not only did they transform waste into a 93 bed hospital ward, but MINIWIZ exemplified the principles of product and design thinking. First, they started with a real world problem. During the pandemic, there was a great need for more intensive care units (ICUs). Hospitals were running out of bed space and struggled to keep up with the influx of patients during COVID peaks.
Many governments dealt with the ICU shortage by setting up temporary hospital wards in unexpected locations. Everything from stadiums to temporary tents to aircraft carriers became makeshift COVID sites. These alternatives marshalled resources that were easily available, so they were quick to activate during the crisis.
While the alternatives offered speed to market, MINIWIZ saw an opportunity to show the world another option, a greener option. During the pandemic, they had also noticed that there was a lot of waste being generated by personal protective equipment (PPE). They had a lot of experience working with recycled materials, but they had never built anything like a hospital before.
So, they leaned into their user, Fu-Jen Catholic University Hospital, to co-create the design of the hospital together. After quickly getting a prototype together, they spent two months on the phone with doctors and nurses — gathering feedback, iterating on the design, and perfecting every detail of the space. They gained important user insights, like how the intubating tool rack needed to be two centimeters higher so that nurses would not hit their elbow on it while performing CPR. Throughout the design process, MINIWIZ emphasized quick prototyping cycles and user feedback.
In the end, MINIWIZ was able to address both problems of PPE trash and more hospital wards together in one solution — the Modular Adaptable Convertible (MAC) kit. They buy medical waste from medical suppliers, recycle those materials, and create a modular kit that can be assembled within 24 hours from component sourcing to functional wards. They turned speed to market into a table stakes benefit and differentiated their product on superior technology: a COVID ready, environmentally friendly product that is highly configurable into various types of wards.
The MAC kit is truly inspiring. In the words of Richard Branson, “To the next generation of dreamers: if we can do this, just imagine what you can do.” If a hospital ward can be built from trash, just imagine what you can do by using creativity, technology, and product and design thinking.
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