June Fisher loves tomatoes.
The 82-year-old occupational health physician and Bay Area product design lecturer requires two walking sticks to compensate for knee problems and general muscular weakness. She can’t sling a shopping bag over her shoulder, and that makes things a little difficult.
“A friend of mine said the Civic Center market (had) wonderful heirloom tomatoes at $2 a pound,” Fisher said. “I quickly got dressed and I was ready to go down, and then I realized that I would be unable to go shop by myself. And that was a (moment of) despair because when you say ‘ripe tomatoes’ in front of me, I really salivate.”
But two SF State senior industrial design students created a solution. Brandon Lopez and Eric Renard, both 23, prototyped a portable shopping cart for elderly people with mobility issues. Their “City Cart” has been selected as a finalist in the Stanford Design Challenge, which will be held at Stanford University on April 5.
The students conceived their mobile shopping cart during Fall 2015 as part of the Product Design II course taught by Ricardo Gomes, who invited Fisher to work closely with the class. Gomes tasked student teams with creating a cart that would assist an aging demographic with basic errands, like shopping at the farmer’s market.
“The biggest thing we were focusing on from day one is designing a product that fits the consumer,” Renard said. “Elderly people want their autonomy. They want to be able to do the shopping, and they don’t want to have to be picked up by their kids. They’d like to be able to do it all on their own, and with our shopping cart they can.”
The Stanford Design Challenge is an international competition for university students hosted by the Stanford Center on Longevity, which backs entrepreneurial product design supporting a positive aging experience, according to Ken Smith, challenge director and head of the Center on Longevity’s mobility division. This is the competition’s third year.
“We wanted to get more students engaged in working on issues around longevity,” Smith said. “I think everybody is recognizing that the population is growing older, the demographics are shifting, and this is going to be a really important area as we go forward to the next century.”
Supermarket carts are solid enough to lean on, but collapsible “granny carts” often used at urban farmer’s markets do not provide appropriate support for people with mobility issues, Fisher explained.
“The idea of a cart is not exotic, but (it’s) important to my life,” Fisher said.
After conducting multiple interviews in the aging community, Lopez and Renard realized the need for a supportive personal cart is widespread. Renard said existing carts are generally constructed with weak materials with little attention to aesthetic.
“People put a little bit of thought and design into (portable carts), but they just paint (them) that nasty old-person beige,” Renard said. “Just because people are aging, they don’t want ugly products. They want something that fits their needs but is also stylish – (a product) they aren’t embarrassed to use.”
SF State’s team is one of 12 who will present designs to a panel of industry judges and an expected crowd of 200, Smith said. Each team of finalists, selected mid-January after an open online submission period, received $1,000 for prototyping, industry mentorship and paid travel expenses to attend the competition in April.
“Essentially, (there are) three criteria that we look for,” Smith said. “Number one is impact. Does the design actually address a problem? Is it going to do any good in the world? Second is originality. And third is feasibility – probability of implementation and cost.”
Three teams will win cash prizes to bring their designs to market – $10,000 for first place, $5,000 for second and $2,000 for third. Competitors hail from UC Berkeley, National Taiwan University, National University of Singapore, National Chiao-Tung University (Taiwan), National Taiwan University of Science and Technology, National Yunlin University of Science and Technology (Taiwan) and Virginia Tech.
“You build a prototype, figure out what’s wrong with it, build another one, figure out what’s wrong with it,” Lopez said. “That’s fun for us, especially something like this that’s larger scale. It’s not just a little phone or something, it’s a big walker-type device. So it’s pretty cool making something that is life-size.”
Smith said he is impressed by the SF State design program, which has put forth a finalist in the Stanford Design Challenge each year since its conception.
“It’s a really polished design,” Smith said of Lopez and Renard’s collapsible cart. “They used 3D prototyping really effectively to their advantage.”
The students said departmental support has kept them motivated through back-to-back 12-hour workdays in the design lab. That, and their mutual love of chorizo burritos and Drake. Both recently accepted job offers with a “design slash tech incubator” in Santa Cruz.
“We feel like we have a very good shot at winning,” Renard said. “Hopefully we can make SF State proud.”