Embassy of Health at DDW23

Creative lead Marleen van Bergeijk on hacking economic thinking about health.

Type Update
Published on 13 September 2023
Part of Embassy of Health
Embassy of Health at DDW23
Part of Embassy of Health

Health may be our most valuable asset, but it is not fully appreciated. At least, not in our current economic system. Marleen van Bergeijk, creative lead of the Embassy of Health, wants to let go of economic thinking about health so that there is more room for a different value system.

We often think about our health in an economic way or from a financial perspective. Care and medicines have a price tag and can therefore be marketed. “Because of that, it may seem like a positive thing that from that perspective we believe we have some kind of leverage over our health,” says Marleen van Bergeijk, creative head of the Embassy of Health. “That is of course partly true. Yet we’ve all been agreeing for years that quick fixes and lots of retrospective thinking don’t work when you’re talking about health. If you zoom out and the timeline you are talking about lengthens and you start looking at the longer term, then suddenly very different values ​​- and therefore also solutions – emerge. Consider, for example, people who say on their deathbed that in retrospect they would have liked to have spent more time with family and friends. When you look at it over a lifetime, suddenly other things are more important than making small gains.”

‘And what language or visual language can we use to shape those thoughts and talk about those values? And more importantly: how do we get this new way of thinking to the decision table?’

Net health

“That economic thinking does, of course, have a function. After all, our entire society is built on it. You’ll probably never be able to get it completely out of the system,” Van Bergeijk continues. “But what if you let go of that purely economic way of thinking and create space for a different way of thinking? What’s left then? And what language or visual language can we use to shape those thoughts and talk about those values? And more importantly, how do we get this new way of thinking to the decision table? Putting a price tag on something is not the only way to look at such a complex situation. I’m not economically literate, but sometimes I wonder whether we ought not to accept that our gross domestic product would fall, if we want our net health to rise. I have no foundation for this challenge, but I do know that if we want to revalue health in our society, we have to think about the values ​​based on which we shape that society.” 

Health benefits

According to Van Bergeijk, the power of design can make it possible to let go of primarily financial thinking patterns. “Of course, we can also hack that way of thinking and turn it to our advantage. What if you viewed health as something you can hand out just like money? When, for example, you talk about profit you are always talking about money. But you can also share out health benefits. By taking other people on a walk, by cooking for each other, or teaching each other something. If you share your health benefits, it can spread like wildfire throughout society.” 

During DDW23, the Embassy of Health ‘hacks’ visual language that we mostly recognise from notes and coins. “We use the visual language of money and translate it into values ​​that apply from a health perspective,” says Van Bergeijk. “You could also think about health in a speculative way,” she continues. “How could you share healthy life cells with each other? Either way, health is a social thing, something that arises between people. We want to create more space for that idea.”


Health is not an end point, the creative head points out. “In recent years in the Embassy we have talked about ‘chronic health’. We have taken the focus on chronic disease by the horns and turned it around: health is not a perfect end stage that you can achieve, but an ongoing process.” You cannot design that process to ensure that nothing ever goes wrong, predicts Van Bergeijk. “Our lives and the world are simply not that manufacturable. Take a care facility for the elderly in which all the thresholds are removed. This is then referred to as fall prevention. While moving around adequately and being able to cope with these kinds of thresholds is actually the best fall prevention possible in the long run. This might involve taking a certain risk, but that too is probably part of the natural course of things.”

Organic Social Capital

Organic Social Capital

During Dutch Design Week, the Embassy of Health shares various progressive and stimulating design perspectives that highlight health as an important value in our society. Van Bergeijk calls this Organic Social Capital. “This is a kind of fictional world created by Cyan D’Anjou in which our highest good is not our work and money, but the way we contribute to nature. In her installation you see plants that are monitored remotely, a bit like a stock market. As a visitor, you can invest in those plants with blood, sweat and tears. Cyan has explored and magnified a different value system. In doing so, she makes us think and proposes an alternative.”

Collective commitment

Another transition that Van Bergeijk mentions is Smoke-Free Living for Everyone (Rookvrij Leven voor Iedereen), in which Muzus, a social design agency from Delft, collaborates with the Pharos expertise centre and GGD GHOR Netherlands. “People who can’t stop smoking are often accused of being stupid,” Van Bergeijk says. “There’s quite a taboo on it, but for many people, it’s a very real support that can never be completely separated from other parts of their lives. It has to do with the way you grew up, your living environment, stress factors, you name it. It is often not just the individual who smokes, but the entire environment. Smoke-free Living for Everyone works at district level, where discussions are initiated in the entire area about smoking and how to quit. Muzus and Pharos explore, research and test a proposal for an alternative together with community and healthcare professionals. The importance of collaboration is also underlined here. In any case, I strongly believe that you can never achieve health on your own, but mainly through a collective effort.”

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