Rhode Island School of Design Facilitates New Thinking on Opioids, Equity and Systemic Change

Through ongoing collaboration with local stakeholders, RISD’s Center for Complexity taps into the studio process to envision design systems for the state’s first harm reduction centers

PROVIDENCE, RI – As part of an ongoing collaboration with local stakeholders, the Center for Complexity (CfC) at Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) is currently facilitating a design studio course that explores the material considerations of harm reduction centers in Rhode Island, using the process of inquiry, iteration and innovation at the heart of a RISD education to approach the challenges of the opioid epidemic in new ways. 

In July 2021, Rhode Island became the first state in the US to legalize harm reduction centers, places where people can go to use drugs safely. The current spring studio—Design Beyond Crisis—explores the critical questions of implementing harm reduction centers as a public health intervention, from policy to reality, through design processes. The studio is intended to jump-start innovative ways of thinking about the role design could play in stewarding systemic change to the more traditional—and largely ineffective—ways of addressing the opioid crisis. Building on insights from two NIH-funded studios that the CfC facilitated over the last year, and working in collaboration with Rhode Island Hospital’s Center of Biomedical Research Excellence (COBRE) on Opioids and Overdose, RISD Interior Architecture and Industrial Design students are focused on imagining configurations of products, services, environments, systems and materials for the state’s pilot harm reduction centers, bringing compassion into the complexities of managing these sites within a fractured and uneven system of care.

Last year, Rhode Island lost more than 400 lives to overdose—the highest number recorded in a one-year period. As the ground in this crisis continues to shift, last month, the state reached a $21-million settlement with opioid manufacturer Teva Pharmaceuticals USA, Inc., and another $7.5 million will be coming from Allergan. According to the Attorney General’s Office, there is also a bankruptcy deal in process between opioid giant Purdue Pharma and nine states that would require the company to pay out $5.5 billion, with Rhode Island netting about $45 million for opioid treatment and prevention.

CfC’s small team of designers and researchers believe that the time is right in Rhode Island—and by extension, the US overall—to rebuild a system that is caring, healing and compassionate. 

“CfC and its partners in this work are determined that these funds will be applied to build a more humane response to the epidemic,” says RISD faculty member Justin W. Cook, founding director of the Center for Complexity. “The creation of new regulations and new modes of implementation must be rooted in creative ideas and considerations. They will have a profound impact on the health and wellbeing of all who occupy the harm reduction centers and must not be left to chance. We have an opportunity here to do something that could dramatically reduce the harms inflicted by the approaches that came before. But often there is a resilience in the existing systems that stifles innovation. People want to fit the new idea into the old model. Part of this studio explores how to disrupt that tendency.”

“Building on the CfC’s multi-year engagement with the overdose crisis, we’re using the design studio format to bring together a diverse group of people working in this incredibly challenging space,” says Senior Lead Tim Maly, a CfC team member who helped develop the experimental studios. “Students are working with care providers, people with lived experience and policymakers. They are exploring the history of harm reduction centers and similar sites, interrogating the considerations—social, material, spacial, experiential—that shape their design. At the same time, we are confronting the messy reality of the power dynamics at play, the careful consideration that must be taken when engaging in community-based work and the limitations of our own knowledge. We’re excited about the questions the students are asking and the proposals they are working toward.” 

“In a field that has been historically wracked by constant scarcity—not enough time, not enough people, not enough money to meet the scale of the problem—it’s difficult to take a step back and think about what’s really needed,” Cook adds. “As the landscape shifts, studios provide a platform for open, guided inquiry into problems like this for which there are no simple or complete answers. This work asks all of us to be vulnerable, caring and tolerant in our search for compassionate outcomes. The ultimate goal is to continue building a community of practice around addiction and care in Rhode Island to help inform decisions, direct funding and guide priorities.” 

The research the Center for Complexity at Rhode Island School of Design is facilitating is made possible with funding from Infosys. For more information about the research the CfC has stewarded regarding the opioid crisis to date, visit complexity.risd.edu.

About Rhode Island School of Design
RISD’s mission, through its college and museum, is to educate students and the public in the creation and appreciation of works of art and design, to discover and transmit knowledge and to make lasting contributions to a global society through critical thinking, scholarship and innovation. The college’s strategic plan NEXT: RISD 2020–2027 sets an ambitious vision for educating students for the future and bringing creative practices to bear on the creation of just societies, a sustainable planet and new ways of making and knowing. RISD’s immersive model of art and design education, which emphasizes critical making through studio-based learning and robust study in the liberal arts, prepares students to intervene in the critical challenges of our time. Working with exceptional faculty and in extraordinary specialized facilities, 2,500 students from 68 countries engage in 44 full-time bachelor’s and master’s degree programs. RISD’s 31,000 alumni worldwide testify to the impact of this model of education, exemplifying the vital role artists and designers play in today’s society. Founded in 1877, RISD (pronounced “RIZ-dee”) and the RISD Museum help make Providence, RI among the most culturally active and creative cities in the region. 

About the Center for Complexity
Created for an era crying out for systemic transformation, the Center for Complexity (CfC) at Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) offers a platform for project-based collaboration and innovation among a diverse range of external partners—scholars, professionals, frontline workers, subject-area experts and advocates—and creative practitioners in the RISD community. With a focus on systems and complex societal challenges, the CfC team applies design processes and creative skill sets to navigate between conceptual and technical questions across myriad scales and contexts. The CfC’s work is guided by the idea that in order to work within complexity, we must create new knowledge by ordering information according to the changing landscape and needs at hand, not according to the logic or thinking of the past.

About COBRE
Based at Rhode Island Hospital, the Center of Biomedical Research Excellence (COBRE) on Opioids and Overdose supports research essential to understanding the mechanisms underlying opioid use disorder and developing innovative solutions to the problem. The NIH-funded initiative also supports the development of investigators prepared to compete for peer-reviewed external research funding.

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