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Innovate blog: Can we design out drowning?

Seen the sand signage in Cornwall? Here's how we got the idea!

Safety messages on the sands of Perranporth beach

Photo: RNLI/Will Dax

Any life lost due to drowning is one too many.

Despite the very best efforts of the lifesaving and prevention community, people are still finding themselves in trouble around our coasts. That’s why it is vital that the RNLI continues exploring new ways to prevent this tragic loss of life.

Enter Design Out Drowning, a programme led by the RNLI and supported by our community partners. It helps us adopt a different approach to problem solving, so we can look at the drowning problem differently. This can lead to innovative ways in which we can disrupt the drowning chain. 

The drowning chain - the common chain of events that lead to drowning

Photo: RNLI

Getting started

This approach is centred on three core principles:

  • We put people and the community at the heart of the challenge and the decision-making process.
  • We make the challenges we identify open to solve by people from all disciplines and walks of life.
  • We test ideas on a small scale, seeking to learn as we go through experiments and collaborative learning.

In the first phase of the project, we collaborated with local design team Made Open and Arts University Bournemouth. We also worked with our partners and subject matter experts from south-west England to develop a list of challenges that, if solved, could help save lives. 

These challenges were prioritised according to impact during a series of workshops. Then, in early 2019, creatives were invited to help us solve them. The stakeholders included South West Coast Path, Devon and Cornwall Police and Cornwall Council's Public Health Team – to name a few.

Newquay Beach in Cornwall

Photo: RNLI

Shortlisting our creatives

After launching the challenge, we were humbled to receive many high-quality proposals from creatives across south-west England. Architects, choreographers and designers expressed their interest in helping make the south-west coastline a safer place to live, visit and enjoy. 

With our representatives from the water safety community, and using a set of strict criteria, we shortlisted those who could have the biggest impact.

As the shortlisted teams were just beginning to develop their ideas, it was important for them to meet our subject matter experts – and each other! By sharing their ideas, they could help each other out and find ways to collaborate. We achieved this by running a ‘collaborative sprint’.

A briefing during the collaborative sprint in Cornwall

Photo: RNLI

A collaborative sprint

The aim of the collaborative sprint was for the teams to strengthen and remove risks from their proposal ahead of a final pitch on day three. 

The sprint was held in Newquay Rowing Club, and helped teams to:

  • develop collaborations and synergies
  • discuss proposals in depth with subject matter experts and get feedback
  • strengthen proposals submitted in their expressions of interest. 

On day one, we gave everyone an introduction to water safety. We believe that anyone who works with the RNLI should know how to keep themselves and others safe around the water.

Teaching CPR to the sprint attendees

Photo: RNLI

On day two, teams shared their projects and worked with subject matter experts to improve their proposals.

Design Out Drowning sprint

Photo: RNLI

On day three, teams pitched their ideas to a full house, with representation from all the project stakeholders.

Making a decision

After the pitches, the teams were asked to vote on who they thought best represented the values of the programme, which were to be:

  • open
  • candid but kind
  • generous
  • to always find the good.

The winner of this community vote was David Revell from Imagemakers.

Following the pitches and a spot of lunch, the assessment panel began deliberating. Who should receive funding for their project and progress to the next stage – to build, test and learn over the course of the summer? 

While it was an extremely tough decision, the stakeholders unanimously voted on which projects should be moved forward.

The idea? Sharing the RNLI's safety advice with coastal visitors in a new and captivating way – with sand art. You may have seen the striking sand signs on the news recently.  

Swim between the flags

Photo: RNLI/Will Dax

Safety messages in the sand at Perranporth Beach

Why this approach?

This might sound like an intense procurement exercise, but that’s the thing: it’s not a procurement exercise. It’s the building of a cohort of talented people and providing an environment where they can channel their creative energies to benefit their practice, their community and their place.

For more information about Design Out Drowning and other projects, please drop the team a line at [email protected]