A Case for Productive Discomfort
Meaghan Pohl (M.Arch II '18)
An imagined geography of waiting – the main spaces of contact between refugees and host community residents. A scale of embedded stress based on time, density, and program guide the level of discomfort that will be tolerated. (Image by Meaghan Pohl
What is the agency of designers in addressing complex and far-reaching social issues?
With over 65 million displaced individuals, global forced migration is at its highest levels since World War II. In the face of this crisis, the United States is on track to admit just 22,000 refugees this fiscal year - about half of President Trump’s 45,000 cap and well below Obama’s 110,000 2017 target. It is important to note this is not a particularly unique response:  geographic separation has afforded the country with the luxury of primarily being able to opt in to conflicts instead of having them thrust upon its shores. Presented with endless streams of statistics and stories in digital space, it becomes easy to lose sight of the actual people behind them. Our empathetic capacity has been dulled by sheer volume.
This is only one type of empathy we are capable of. News stories tap into emotional empathy: an involuntary response to another’s situation, or something that happens to people. Cognitive empathy is instead an active process of understanding another’s position – i.e. “putting yourself in someone else’s shoes.” Cognitive empathy does not require you to agree with someone, and it is a skill that can be trained through everyday actions like smiling, learning names, perspective taking, and reading. While the stress of being around strangers shuts down our capacity for empathy, something as simple as a cooperative game can counteract this effect.
Empathy relies heavily on in-person contact and there are actually very few spaces where resettled refugees come into contact with their host communities. Many refugees work “invisible jobs” where they aren’t often seen working. In these environments, language and cultural barriers prevent daily social interactions. In many cases, the only common point of interaction are spaces of waiting. From Walmart to the welfare office, these spaces have an embedded irony in that while they aim to make people as comfortable as possible, they instead set up adversarial social situations. They reinforce perceptions of competition for scarce resources and the feeling of being on the losing end of a zero-sum game.
As designers, how do we begin to create positive connections between people in confrontational, stressful spaces, who don’t speak the same language, and only understand the “other” through remote news stories and embodied stereotypes? I chose to engage this problem with a series of interventions that challenge the banal notion of comfort embodied in spaces of waiting, and instead use this “wasted space” as a vehicle to practice skills of cognitive empathy. A bus stop equipped with a see-saw bench requires users to balance each other’s weight in order to sit down, and maybe share a smile in the process. A giant game of Connect Four acts as a (physical) screen between waiting seats, encouraging people to start up a game if they want to avoid staring directly at each other. 
Physical space is an underutilized asset in addressing the myriad of social issues we face today. Design may not be able to force people to care about each other, but it can provide a platform to foster, rather than hinder empathy.
- Yuhas, Alan. “Trump Administration Set to Admit Far Fewer Refugees than Plan Allows For.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 26 Jan. 2018, www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/jan/26/trump-administration-refugees-resettlement.
- DeSilver, Drew. “U.S. Public Seldom Has Welcomed Refugees into Country.” Pew Research Center, 19 Nov. 2015, www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/11/19/u-s-public-seldom-has-welcomed-refugees-into-country/.
- “Stress Is 'Barrier to Feeling Empathy for Strangers'.” BBC News, BBC, 16 Jan. 2015, www.bbc.com/news/health-30831145.
- Galofaro, Claire. “Maine Community Has Refugees and Resentment.” U.S. News & World Report, U.S. News & World Report, www.usnews.com/news/us/articles/2017-04-19/how-a-maine-community-changed-by-refugees-came-to-embrace-donald-trump.
- Predicting your opponent’s next move is a classic form of perspective taking.