Podcast: Two Cents' Worth

Will Covid change forever the things we touch?

Our Two Cents' Worth business podcast answers listeners’ questions around how Covid-19 might change the world. Here: how will it change the design of everyday objects?

A couple of weeks ago, Two Cents' Worth listener David Cohen got in touch with a question we loved: Could we find out from other TCW enthusiasts how they think Covid-19 could change the world?  We did. And for this episode we took two questions. Both are covered in the audio below, and in this article we explore the second, on design of everyday objects.

The first, on sustainable tourism, is here.

“Will the Covid-19 virus result in a change in the way we design everyday objects so that we don't have to touch them, and so germs can’t spread through them. You know, like door handles, light switches, lift buttons or taps - particularly when they’re installed in public places.” 

The question about how everyday objects could be adapted to help prevent infection is an interesting one because it encompasses everything from design and architecture to psychology to chemistry and nanotechnology.

Bill McKay is a senior lecturer at Auckland University’s School of Architecture and Planning. He’s an advocate of what he calls “brown bread design”. That’s design that's good for you; that makes everyday life better for people.

Bill McKay is in favour of utilitarian design. Photo from Zoom call

He thinks about things like accessibility and how design is used in hospitals to help prevent infection and to make it easier for people to get around.

Take doors.

Of course there are already a lot of Covid-friendly door designs. Ones you don’t have to touch with your hand. 

Automatic doors, or ones with a big red button you can push with your elbow, or ones with a flat plate you push with your shoulder. There are even doors that work with a foot pedal, and some hospitals have smoke prevention doors which stay open most of the time, so people can get through easily, but close automatically if the smoke alarms go off.

Those sorts of intelligent door are very expensive, but if they became more popular, possibly because of Covid-19,  people might start mass-producing them, and then they might get cheaper.

In terms of door handles, McKay says a lever handle is much easier to use without your hands touching the surface than a door knob, although it’s less easy if you are having to pull the door towards you. 

Which is why some of McKay’s colleagues at the University of Auckland's Creative Design and Additive Manufacturing Lab have designed a 3D printed attachment for a door handle, which allows you to open the door with your arm

If you want one, they reckon they can print one for you.

McKay says toilet doors are a particular design bugbear, but that isn’t about the handles.

“I always think toilet doors open the wrong way. You can push your way through the door into the toilet, but after you’ve washed your hands you need to use the lever to pull the door to get out again. If someone else has been there before you, it doesn’t matter how well you’ve washed your hands you're still touching what could be a dirty door handle.”

How about taps?

McKay says when he and his wife renovated an old villa early in their marriage they replaced the existing kitchen taps with hospital taps - the ones that are long levers you can operate with your elbow. 

“I put them in because we all eat chicken these days and chicken can be quite lethal in terms of salmonella and so I’ve always been quite careful to put hospital taps in.” 

Copper has really good anti-bacterial, anti-microbial, even anti-virus properties.

What your objects are made of can also make a difference in terms of preventing of preventing the spread of germs, McKay says. 

“Copper has really good anti-bacterial, anti-microbial, even anti-virus properties, and so brass fixtures also have that because of the copper in them.”

Silver is also used widely in the health industry -  in bandages, creams, or as an antibiotic coating on medical devices - because of its antimicrobial properties.

Nanotechnology

The next level is creating artificial surfaces designed specifically for their ability to protect us against Covid-19 or other viruses.

That’s something scientists, innovators and educators at the MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology are specifically looking at, with different researchers taking different paths. 

For example, associate professor Volker Nock from the University of Canterbury is looking at whether we could mimic plant structures to create a protective surface.

“Plants are thought to actively encourage development of healthy and balanced communities of beneficial microorganisms on their leaves, similar to what happens in our gut,” he says. “Such healthy communities tend to be very good at keeping the less beneficial varieties at bay.” 

Nock is talking about the possibilities from biomimicry - innovation inspired by nature. It’s increasingly popular in science. 

Think kingfishers inspiring bullet trains, velcro mimicking the tiny hooks on burrs, or lotus leaves influencing the creation of super-waterproof surfaces.

“It’s not too far-fetched that if we learn that certain nano-structures help plants keep their leaves healthy, we could also copy these structures onto say door handles and other surfaces we touch.”

Meanwhile, associate professor Geoff Willmott from the University of Auckland is also looking at surfaces, in particular whether we can manipulate the chemical make-up or the structure of a surface, from a nano particle level, to stop viruses.

That could either be by making the surface really rough, or by making it really slippery, like the lotus leaf, so droplet-borne viruses like Covid-19 just can’t stick.

“There’s a cool technology coming out of RMIT in Melbourne where surfaces have spikes on them which kill bacteria and don’t allow them to grow.”

Auckland University senior lecturer Dr Jenny Malmström is also looking at creating nanotechnology surfaces that hinder the spread of viruses. This is important because viruses can sit on surfaces for days and infect the next person that comes along.

These surfaces work a bit like a nano-velcro, where the virus attaches so firmly it would be unlikely to be picked up by someone else afterwards.

Malmström says there are three areas of research that look promising.

The first is creating non-stick surface coatings - “think your teflon pan for a virus”, she says. “There is a lot of science already on anti-fouling surfaces used in fields from the shipping industry to the medical field or food technology.”

The second involves surfaces that do the opposite, she says. “They work a bit like a nano-velcro, where the virus attaches so firmly it would be unlikely to be picked up by someone else afterwards.”

The third, and perhaps most obvious, Malmström says, is creating materials and coatings that can destroy or kill the virus. 

“Certain metals like copper and silver are known to kill bacteria and that’s why we often see copper surfaces in hospitals. But there are also chemical coatings that work by punching bacteria, a bit like a nano-sword, and these types of materials are also being explored as anti-viral coatings.” 

So how close are these clever anti-viral surfaces to hitting a door knob, a light switch or a lift panel near us soon?

It could take a while before these things are in commercial production, Malmström says.

“I think it’s unlikely we will have a magic bullet for our everyday items any time soon, but I do think successful strategies are likely to combine several mechanisms. So you might see a coating that is trying to reduce the attachment of a virus, while at the same time it’s trying to destroy a virus that does attach.”

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