This week, as part of the 10-day DesignPhiladelphia event series, a 20-foot-tall monument occupies the plaza at 10th and Locust Streets on the Thomas Jefferson University campus. Called the Beacon, it's made of laser-cut steel and light-emitting yarn, with an outer skin to be woven by a pair of drones performing a nightly 30-minute ballet choreographed based on how visitors respond online to questions about urban regeneration.
This futuristic totem is, on one level, a symbol of an idea that's recently become trendy among medical school administrators: bringing creativity and, with it, empathy back into medical education.
At Jefferson, signs of that directive include MEDStudio@JEFF, the research group that developed the Beacon; this year's merger with Philadelphia University, known for architecture and design programs; creation of an innovation accelerator within the health system; and a new design studies program, based in a maker space, that invites medical students to develop prototypes (and even patent) everything from medical devices to a reimagined clinic exam room.
"There's a poetic balance in bringing architecture and design back into medicine," MEDstudio director Peter Lloyd Jones said. "It used to be that it was one subject, and that eroded in the early 20th century and gave us this pharmaceutical and insurance-driven system we have today."
To Jones, the Beacon, a collaboration between Jones and Cornell architect Jenny Sabin, unites those disciplines: It's a data visualization incorporating in its various components visitor preferences expressed online, Medevac flight patterns, and real-time data from sensors on plants along the site of the planned Rail Park in the city's Callowhill area.
"What I would like it to be is a sensor for what people think and need . . . particularly in health and wellness, and responding to that," Jones said.
In this iteration, he said, the Beacon is oriented to the Rail Park, which he'd like to see designed in ways that would support public health. But it can be adapted to other sites and topics of conversation.
Jones, wearing a "Meet Me at the Beacon" button, described 10 days of talks and activities at the plaza for DesignPhiladelphia (listed at medstudiobeacon.com). He said his larger goal is to create a new, common language among doctors, scientists, artists, and architects. He thinks interdisciplinary - he prefers anti-disciplinary - connections are key to innovation.
A biologist, Jones came to Jefferson from the University of Pennsylvania, where he and Sabin ran a collaboration called LabStudio. His MEDstudio projects include working with Drexel's Shima Seiki Haute Tech Lab on smart wearables as part of a national advanced-fabrics research institute created and funded by the Department of Defense.
The studio is open to Jefferson staff and students. But Jones likes bringing in outsiders.
"It's hierarchy smashing," he said.
He mentioned Drexel biomedical engineering undergraduate Michael Koerner, who "walked into the emergency room and within three hours spots two major deficits, and created solutions and filed for patents with us."
(Koerner later corrected him: It's three patents, one to curb hospital-acquired infection, an ergonomic fix for doctors, and a device to ease the process of drawing blood.)
Jones said doctors were starting to pay attention to design as they learn of quantifiable health effects. For example, after James Dyson turned his design acumen to the neonatal care unit at Royal United Hospital in Bath, England - reducing background noise and increasing natural light - the infants slept 22 percent more, got 20 percent more face time with nurses, and were far more likely to be breast-feeding successfully by the time they went home.
At JeffDESIGN, a two-year-old design track for Jefferson medical students, the goal is to address those types of everyday health care shortcomings through design thinking.
The program includes hands-on workshops co-taught by doctors, designers, architects, and engineers, and a maker space is being furnished with everything from 3D printers and microelectronics to glue guns and foam-core boards.
Students so far have developed a lighting system to help patients sleep better in the hospital, and a device to monitor airway pressure for intubated patients. And they've reexamined the design of Jefferson's primary-care clinics, teaming with furniture manufacturer Steelcase Health. They came up with a model exam room they think will improve doctor-patient interactions and presented it to Jefferson's Family Medicine Department, which is considering implementation.
"These are real, everyday problems we see as practitioners and providers, but currently medical school doesn't prepare us to deal with them," said Bon Ku, an emergency physician and director of JeffDESIGN. "These rapid cycles of inquiry, discovery, prototyping, and testing will help future generations of doctors and give them the tool kit to address these problems."
He also sees this work as an antidote to physician burnout. Daily problems can seem intractable, he said. "What's inherent in design is there's this optimism: You can design a better way."
He experienced that burnout himself working in the emergency room. Now, he's exploring how to improve that noisy, intense environment. He brought in architecture firm KieranTimberlake to help create a heat map of how people use the space, the first step to a new design for improved staff and patient experiences.
The hope is all this will cultivate empathy: that future doctors will listen to patients and codesign with them.
So: What does that have to do with a 20-foot monument enrobed in a drone-knitted photoluminescent sheath in the middle of the plaza at 10th and Locust?
Sabin, the Beacon's architect, said it's a demonstration of what's to come in the future of drone-delivered medicine, of smart, high-tech fabric design, and of architect-as-maker. And, it's visitor-directed, evolving based on feedback from passersby.
But, she said, it's a playful expression of all that.
"Whether or not people understand didactically how it was formed is not important. What's important is that it draws people in and inspires new connections."