Stories & Projects

From Tragedy to Opportunity


The story of how Ilteris Ilbasan, then a student at UID, found hope and opportunity in the aftermath of the West African Ebola epidemic.  

Text: Jens Persson, November 2017

The Ebola outbreak in 2014-2016 caught the world off guard, the global community unprepared for such an explosive epidemic. The response was simply too slow as over 11,000 people lost their lives. A major issue was the lack of hospital beds available. This led to contagious patients returning to their villages, infecting even more people. Amidst the indescribable tragedy, Ilteris Ilbasan, then a student at UID, saw an opportunity to bring about real change. He began sketching the now award-winning containment bed for epidemic outbreaks, Ubuntu. 

"As soon as I did some initial research I figured out that ebola was, to a certain extent, a merciful disease. I saw an opportunity to contribute" says former MFA student in Advanced Product Design, Ilteris Ilbasan. The quote may raise some eyebrows. Ebola, a merciful disease? What Ilteris is saying is that it is only contagious through direct contact. This means that, provided with the resources to deliver adequate health care, you should be able to contain the disease. The problem was, it wasn't being contained. At all. 

16927739642_4ec 88d 63b 3_k'Safety suits for the decontamination team' by  DFID - UK Department for International Development is licensed under CC BY 2.0

During the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014, health care systems in countries like Sierra Leone were completely overwhelmed. Devastating scenes played out as infected individuals, already showing symptoms of the ruthless virus, had to be turned away at hospitals. In addition, people carrying other diseases were not able to get the care they needed, resulting in thousands of casualties among patients suffering from malaria or tuberculosis. This untold tragedy flew under the radar of the international media, as reporting focused on the epidemic outbreak spiraling out of control.

After weeks of research, ploughing through research reports and talking to health care personnel who had worked through the epidemic, Ilteris Ilbasan had identified the most critical issue to address, namely that of capacity. Whichever way he looked at the issue he kept coming to the same conclusion. It was a numbers issue, quite simply. An efficient response to the crisis had to start with increasing the amount of beds in health facilities. In addition, the beds in place were inadequate to cope with the unique circumstances that an epidemic outbreak presented. They were too heavy, to immobile.

22375211988 753A7e2c2c Z'British and Sierra Leonean medics work together at Connaught Hospital, Freetown' by  DFID - UK Department for International Development is licensed under CC BY 2.0

True to the product designer's process, Ilteris now started to narrow down what his key objectives were as he identified weaknesses and opportunities in the area of hospital beds during the Ebola outbreak. It soon became clear that a lot of things were not working as they should. To a product designer, this spelled opportunity.

"It was an easy enough observation to make. The hospital care's capacity was at only 30 percent, people were being turned away at the door. I started to think about how I could develop a more sensible bed in the case of another outbreak, to serve the special needs of this kind of situation. So, I defined the goals of the project, what kind of bed I needed to make and what it should achieve. Then, I started to look for materials." 

It was at this stage Ilteris struck upon an unlikely coincidence. It seemed far-fetched at first. He had started to consider bamboo as a possible material to build the frame of the containment bed. It was a durable, environmental-friendly and relatively cheap alternative. As he looked at the map of countries where bamboo grew naturally, a pattern emerged. Indonesia, Pakistan, India, sub-Saharan Africa and the Philippines. All countries ravaged by epidemics and natural disasters in the past decades. It seemed the world's bamboo reserves were located in the very countries that Ilteris was targeting with his innovation.

Bambusoideae World MapA world map of the regions were bamboo grows naturally.

"It was a eureka moment, really. It was such an exciting discovery. It became a defining part of my entire process. Besides from the obvious geographical advantage, bamboo is also a growing economy and people are looking for different ways to use it because it's such a good alternative to timber. The carbon footprint is lower and it's one of the fastest growing plants in the world. It has the strength of steel and it is far more flexible"

An equally important quality of the bamboo is that it is lightweight. During an epidemic outbreak patients often need to be moved and washed in order to reduce the risk of contamination. The beds used during the Ebola crisis were cumbersome hospital beds, which meant that to wash patients, health care personal would have to either carry the sick or move them onto a stretcher. This became a time-consuming exercise that exposed health workers to further risks of contamination. The bed Ilteris had in mind would be far lighter, so light in fact that it could also be used as a stretcher.

A6Ilteris Ilbasan in the UID workshop building the prototype frame for the Ubuntu containment bed.

But how does one build a containment bed with no previous experience? The answer is, you try and fail. And then you try and fail again, and again. The bamboo sticks that Ilteris had gotten shipped to Umeå became his sole companions for about a month. Day by day, he would get a little bit closer to a solution as he toiled in the UID workshop. The long days at the workbench earned him an inevitable nickname among his classmates, Mr. Bamboo. But as time went by, his fellow students became more and more curious about the unusual-looking structure taking shape.

After a few weeks, he realized something that brought him closer to the finish line. It was a key component in the construction, and it was something that can be found in any supermarket, namely zip ties. Before, he had tried many different ways to bind the structure together, testing everything from bike tires to nylon strips. After this final breakthrough it only took him a couple of days to complete the first prototype of what would later become the Ubuntu containment bed.

"It was a major step in the development that I could use zip-ties to hold together the construction. I tried lots of different lashing methods but the zip-ties, already manufactured and cheap, were strong enough. It also made for a fast assembly which is key in a crisis situation. It's kind of an IKEA style idea really, it takes one person about an hour to build the bed. It was also important for me not to design a humanitarian aid product just to be shipped out in an emergency, I wanted to share the know-how to help empower these communities. We try to do this by using local bamboo as the main material coupled with the self-assembly method." 

A3Here, Ilteris is finalizing the assembly of the Ubuntu by tying the bamboo rods together using zip-ties.

Another main feature of the Ubuntu containment bed is the mattress which is made up of sheets of Tyvek, a biodegradable material with microbial barrier properties. The material, sometimes used for isolation outside buildings, offers considerable advantages to the normal hospital bed. First off, it is easily disposed of. When one sheet gets contaminated, it holds the contaminated fluids and can later be easily thrown away. This reduces both risk and resource compared to the normal procedure, requiring the laboursome cleaning of beds. Secondly, the material is lightweight, allowing for fast assembly and a manageable bed that can also serve as a stretcher. As the bed is put together, the sheet of Tyvek is simply looped around the structure to create a comfortable mattress as well as a privacy barrier. To add to the IKEA-experience, instructions for how to set up the Ubuntu bed is printed directly on the sheets of Tyvek.

A7The sheets of Tyvek used for the matress and privacy barrier has instructions for assembly as well as local artwork printed on it.

Ilteris Ilbasan now finds himself at the business model stage of this long journey. It's an area product designers sometimes shy away from, an area where confidence might be lacking because to many, it is uncharted territory. In the past, it was more uncommon for designers to leave their workshops and venture into the world of business. Most designers simply stuck to designing, leaving commercial affairs to people thought better suited. In today's global market place, if you want to get anywhere, you simply have to get involved. Ilteris Ilbasan is realizing just how important the business part is if you want to execute your initial idea and fulfill the product's true potential. Today, pitching to investors and sketching up financial plans is part of his job description.

IMG 0401A1 KopiaIlteris Ilbasan outside the UID building.

"Hopefully we can get the project rolling soon and make some real impact, not just creating awareness. For me it's important that the project maintains a holistic vision when and if it becomes a reality. I don't just want to mitigate suffering in epidemic outbreaks, I also want to empower the bamboo producers in the affected areas. We want to create jobs and give something back to these communities."

"We are also looking at scaling this up so as the Ubuntu can be useful not only in the case of an outbreak. Today, we have 65 million people displaced on earth, the biggest numbers since the Second World War. Only 30 percent of them are living in refugee camps. This leads to disastrous living conditions for people trying to survive in the shadow of wars or in the wake of natural disasters. Here too, we see an opportunity to make a difference. That is what we are aiming for."

During his work on the Ubuntu, Ilteris bore witness to the tragic fates of people who lost their lives during the Ebola outbreak. At first, the stories were almost to gruesome to digest but as time went by, they started to provide him with fuel in his drive to solve the problem he had identified. In tragedy, he saw opportunity.

"There were many, many sad stories but after a while they just made me work harder, allowing me to see clearer. When I heard these stories, I tried to imagine how I could change them to become better ones in the future."