Why Empathy is needed? – A new era of universal love values is on its way…

Posted on June 19, 2011


What it is happening in the world? Why people are so cruel to other human beings, or why some people simply don’t care about others? Are they turning off their empathy? That’s actually what states the psychologist Baron-Cohen in his book ‘Zero degrees of empathy’ (2011).

If we are talking about creating a ‘big society’ with new shared values of love, cooperation, community engagement, altruism, and so on, we must start from the ‘basics’, which is the way we relate to others and to the world. It’s about the magic and imaginative tool of stepping into someone else’s shoes, that is empathy. The reason why we are here today in this world, I believe, it is not about ‘conquering things’, but it’s about learning how to live in society, a quality that can only be achieved through our relationships. Empathy is essential for humans to create an egalitarian society, in which people care about one another and about the planet, that’s what says Roman Krznaric in his blog ‘outrospection’.

For this reason, empathy is no longer an exclusive tool for psychologists to use in the treatment of their patients, but it is also a concept needed in the design process of social insertion and social innovation projects. During a brainstorming session at Kingston University in January 2011, we, the MA students of the MA Design for Development 2010- 11, with our course director Anne Chick, realized and identified that empathy was missing in the design process double diamond diagram. This double diamond method was first developed by the Design Council, and further redesigned by Lauren Tan during the execution of the Dott 07 projects in Cornwall. The methodology developed during Dott projects can be seen in a community project developed by SEA  Communications.

In our current projects at the MA in Design for Development, we are trying to use storytelling as a strong empathetic tool for enabling social inclusion, especially to elderly people.

(Melissa at Age Concern. Photo by Paula Ligo, at Age Concern, 2011).
In this picture (above), Melissa was talking to some elderly woman at Age Concern Kingston and listening to their stories for a current project she and Fan are developing in partnership with the institution. They were asking about their life stories and how they would like to share those stories with others.

There are also various others empathic tools and methods that designers have been using in social innovation projects, such as the IDEO method cards, clouded spectacles and weighted gloves , shadowing and observation, role-playing and immersion, which were described in a last year MA student of D4D, AJ Mallari . However, one of the most surprising examples of the immersion method can be found in the life story of the industrial designer Patricia Moore. During the 80’s Patricia Moore dressed up herself as an elderly woman of 85 years old and travel during three years to more then 100 cities around the US . Her aim was of discovering the real needs of elderly people for developing a new inclusive design method, which she then called Universal Design. More of her story can be read at Krznaric’s blog, here.

 “Empathy can bring about revolution… it’s a vital concept for the XXI century, on the one hand it’s an antidote to the narcissistic and individualistic cult of the ‘self-help’ that we’ve inherited from the XXI century, and on the other hand it’s a tool for politica radicals, because it can bring about revolution, not a revolution of new institutions or of new laws and policies, but a revolution of human relationships” (Roman Krznaric, 2009). 

Empathy is needed to create a new world order because, as states Sue Gerhardt in her new book ‘The Selfish Society’, there is no point on keep making more money if we then forget about what is more important in life, which is love.

*by Paula Ligo