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Article in The Guardian Weekend, featuring Ben Strutt
It’s hugely unpopular, worn by an estimated 5% of men around the world: can 11 design mavericks, funded by Bill and Melinda Gates, reinvent the condom for a sexier, safer world?
In 2013, Bill and Melinda Gates announced that their Foundation was making condom innovation a priority (alongside toilets, vaccines and neonatal care): they offered a $100,000 grant to any team with a strong proposal for a “next generation condom that significantly preserves or enhances pleasure, in order to improve uptake and regular use”.
The Foundation received more than 800 submissions, which in 2013 they narrowed down to 11 winners, announcing a further 11 winners of the grant in 2014. The successful proposals ranged from those using Nobel prizewinning materials (graphene) to those with built-in applicators or lubricant. The Gates Foundation also gave money to simple behavioural studies, and to a shrink-to-fit condom dreamed up by the CFHC. Those proposals are now able to apply for phase two funding of up to $1m each – the winners will be announced later this year, with only a handful likely to be successful.
One of Gates’s finalists isn’t redrawing the condom at all. “We decided not to use our money to develop our original condom design, but to do behavioural research in sub-Saharan Africa, to see what would really be practical for people in the places most hard-hit by HIV,” says Ben Strutt, head of design at the Cambridge Design Partnership. “There are so many practical reasons why it’s not easy to just drop thousands of condoms into the region and expect the epidemic to go away,” he says, talking to me on the phone from his laboratory. “Women don’t carry handbags, for example, so how can you expect them to have condoms with them at all times? We were faced with the decision of carrying on with our narrow, technology-focused approach – or to create a solution that is more realistic. Sometimes people become too attached to their idea because it’s their baby, their sacred cow. Sometimes you need to look at the bigger picture, and put the sacred cow down.”
The Cambridge team is looking at 18 different prophylactic concepts in order to create a “holistic condom solution”. They have brought on board a specialist in the Japanese affective design philosophy of kansei, or considering the emotional aspects of a product as well as the functional. “Whatever we create can’t just be functional – it has to be deeply sensory as well,” Strutt says. “It can’t be greasy, oily, thick, or something that destroys the moment.”
Read the full article by Zoe Cormier at www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2015/jun/13/condom-testing-sex-science-gates-foundation
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