Your role in the transition to chronic health

On a stormy Friday afternoon, with traffic jams for miles around and train jams, about two hundred people found their way to the Embassy of Health conference. The hall is packed with people from the medical world, entrepreneurs, designers, technology makers and simply interested citizens. This is good, because according to the Embassy, ‘everyone plays a significant role in the transition to a healthy society’. The aim of the afternoon is to reflect on the question: what does it mean if we choose to cooperate on the basis of our own role?

Type Update
Published on 24 October 2021
Part of Embassy of Health
Your role in the transition to chronic health
Part of Embassy of Health

There are enough competencies in the room to make this “the most interesting conference of the whole DDW”, the moderator of the afternoon, Natasja van den Berg, discovers. She makes the attendees raise their hands if they recognise themselves in a role. “Who are the designers here? Who works in the medical profession? Or who says: I deal with what health is every day in my profession? Who is mainly involved in creative and design-oriented research? Van den Berg: “Today, we use the wisdom of the crowd.

Frank Kolkman, speculative designer, Sabine Wildevuur, director DesignLab University of Twente, Marleen Stikker, director Waag, and Peter van Burgel, CEO of AMS-IX, take their places on the stage to explore the role of artificial intelligence (AI).


Technology is imagination

Together with students from ArtEZ Arnhem and UT Twente, Kolkman made YouTube videos with future scenarios about the role of AI. “It is mainly how you define AI. That makes it so complex. It is not some magical technology that solves everything. It’s much more in the nuance and naming of what it can do, what it’s trained for and what data goes into it.” According to Kolkman, technology is imagination. “What technology can you imagine and from what values do you design? What are the implications of that? There is no one way to look at technology. We have to look at it with each other.”

“I am always fascinated by technology,” says Wildevuur. “Many people here have that love too. But you have to design it in a responsible way. You don’t just design the technology, but also the interaction with that technology. You have to include those social, ethical and legal aspects in a design. That’s why you can’t just leave it to engineers.”

With or without

Wildevuur works at one of the four technical universities in the Netherlands. There she usually asks whether a problem can be solved without technology. “Then they look at me as if I’m throwing my own glass through it. But I think the most important thing is that if we can do without it, then we don’t need to. Technology has a lot of potential, but mainly to support.”

Stikker: “When it comes to data and technology, everyone thinks that this means we have an objective reality. Data means measuring, it’s mathematical. Whereas the creation of data is in itself a socio-economic action. Processing something into data means that someone spends money on it, finds the data interesting to collect. A dataset is preceded by a world view. Who decides what categories we give it? A non-neutrality precedes it. And what bothers me is that everyone is saying that we are going to solve this with AI. Then I think, what problem are we solving? According to Stikker, there is an invisible layer over technology that is not transparent. “That’s why it’s good that AMS-IX has joined the Embassy as a partner. We need an internet party.”

Producer of data

Van Burgel: “That was absolutely the reason for our entry. The company played an important role in the growth of the internet, he explains. “What we do is ‘internet exchange’. Think of the ports of Rotterdam or Schiphol Airport where people, goods come together, transfer and leave. That is what we do on the internet. The ‘Facebooks’ and the ‘Googles’ also buy content from us and we offer content.”

“The Internet is beautiful,” Van Burgel states, “but we are increasingly concerned about our Internet. It has brought us a lot of knowledge and communication, but we also see the disadvantages. What actually happens to the data, where does it stay? We do not have the solution, but we would like to think along about how we can all organise this technology differently.” In doing so, Van Burgel does emphasise: “It is important to realise that we, as users of an iPhone or Samsung, for example, are to a large extent the producers of the data.”

The audience reacted in a multi-faceted, critical and engaged manner. With a call for more governance and a plea that technology has also brought us much in the medical world. And that there is no objectivity.


As a bridge to the second talk, Stikker states that “our health also depends on our socio-economic circumstances”. “If you live in poverty, you can get a lot of stress. That’s very bad for your health. We shouldn’t just think about technology, we should also ensure that people have good social and economic conditions. It is still not self-evident in this country that you can be healthy. For many people, that chronic health is not going to happen.”

Because of the train disruptions, the second talk is an online connection with Bas Bloem, professor at Radboud UMC, and Lex Burdorf, professor at Erasmus MC. Irene Fortuyn, social designer, will take the stage.

In her project Land & Hand, Fortuyn has intermediate vocational students think about their relationship with the landscape. She teaches the students to see the land as a body. “They no longer know how the products they buy are made and after use we throw them away.” Fortuyn agrees with Stikker that our health is more than just medical questions. “Not only money stress, but also the environment you live in is important.”

Bloem is a neurologist and specialises in Parkinson’s disease. Earlier he was in the news because he fears a Parkinson’s pandemic caused by working with pesticides in agriculture. “Parkinson’s is the fastest growing disease in the world.” The professor of neurology reveals that before 1817 the disease was “bitterly rare”. “Since the Second World War, the disease has been growing enormously. In China it is even exploding; they don’t take it very seriously there. Air pollution plays a role, a solvent used by industry, but especially pesticides in agriculture.”

Work as medicine

According to Fortuyn, it starts at the bottom. “If you understand what the land is, how you deal with it, what the opportunities are, what is complicated about it and what are the different tasks. Then you can also consider that if you work differently, you won’t need pesticides anymore. Everything is connected, the whole chain is connected.

Work also affects our health. Research by Burdorf, professor of social health, shows that work can be a medicine. In a scientific experiment, people with serious mental illness were guided towards work. “In the people who started working, we saw a jump in mental and physical health, in self-esteem and happiness. That’s when I started shouting that work is the best medicine. Especially to emphasise that good health is not a matter of good medical care.”

Burdorf therefore invariably tells his students that the “most important medical invention ever” was the sewage system. “That environment determines a lot of individual health. More and more attention is being paid to the right to good health. The environment has to help with that.” Burdorf lets his students experience this by walking with them through Rotterdam. “We talk about health, but you also see that the number of fast-food eateries has increased by sixty per cent in ten years.”

The last thousand days

In a concluding two-way conversation between curator Jetske van Oosten and Stannie Driessen, director for the Board of Health & Society, Driessen suggests a nice assignment for designers for next year’s exhibition. “What can we design for the first thousand days of someone’s life and the last thousand. We often talk about the former: a good start, nutrition, being outside. You don’t know when your last thousand will be, but if you’re healthy, can you think about how you envision that ending? What do you need then?”

During the conference Sabine Willdevuur presented the Manifesto Chronically Healthy to Robin Koops, inventor and developer of an artificial pancreas. The diabetes patient is “our icon”, according to Wildevuur. Wildevuur wrote the manifesto with 35 others. You can sign the manifesto via this link. In the exhibition of the Embassy of Health, there is a construction of the manifesto.

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