Eli MacLaren

Written by Eli MacLaren @elithechef eli@bif.is

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Earlier this month, I kicked off our new work with Mass General Hospital’s Transformation Lab. On behalf of BIF, I couldn’t be more excited to work with such a landmark and important health care system, helping build core human-centered innovation capabilities.

With the opportunity to spend the day in Boston, I hopped on an early (early, early) train to join Design Mornings — creative morning conversations hosted by the Design Museum. The nomadic conversations are hosted by and for the design community, and topics fluctuate. The last conversation I joined focused on the design of relationships (which is killer subject if you’re designing innovative business models in health care, public service, and education).

The most recent talk was titled:

Play for All: A Boston Story

And it is a very Boston Story. The story begins with the Boston Marathon Bombing in April 2013. Martin Richards, an eight-year-old boy, was one of five who lost their lives that day. Martin’s Park is an inclusive playground, currently in development, nested outside that the Boston Children’s Museum. It will celebrate a message of peace, the mantra of a young boy — taken too soon, too needlessly, and to traumatically — by creating space for all children to play. It is a beautiful legacy.

Martin’s Park is designed as an urban playground to inspire our curiosity and exploration. What if we designed for adult’s curiosity and exploration as well? 

As I was taken through the design elements (at a high-level, at a model level, and at the site level), I was struck by the divide between children and adults. I was struck by the placement of benches (far away from the playspaces), the locus of activity (specific for children), and the opportunities for interaction (limited to play spaces). This is a space designed for children to interact, explore, and be curious, but not the adults who come with them. It invited me to consider how I use play spaces — my kids play, while I sit on a bench; I enjoy the outside but I typically devote more time to my phone than I do to my surroundings.

We answer to many masters and interests when we design, so this is not a critique of Martin’s Park, only a curiosity that the conversation inspired:

Our society is feeling so incredibly isolated and excluded that it is considered a public health issue. It is having staggering consequences on our communities, which are both fatigued and traumatized by the impact of individual disassociation and loneliness. Begging the question:

How might play spaces — which by nature are multi-generational and community placed — be designed to inspire exploration, curiosity, and interaction, and in doing so, cure the loneliness that plagues children and adult alike?


First, let’s examine the problem through two different lenses:

(1) Loneliness as a national epidemic; (2) The importance of play at all age levels.

First, attention to loneliness has been a growing area of study. Kavita Patel, in her 2016 BIF talk, points to the health care risks of loneliness — and the degree to which it is a growing epidemic. In their 2010 Loneliness Study, the AARP reports that 42.6 million American adults over the age of 45 suffered from chronic loneliness — making them at greater risk for heart attacks and making them less able to manage and cope with everyday illnesses. By 2012, that number was estimated to be between 25–45% of the US population. Further, increasingly people are becoming more isolated — marriage rates are down, children per household rates are down, 25% of the American population lives alone, and as our population ages, it becomes increasingly more isolated. In Britain, the epidemic is growing so systemic that they’ve appointed a Minister of Loneliness within the government.

Many studies point to the impact:

  • Infants in custodial care with little human contact fail to thrive and will often die
  • People who feel socially connected are 50% less likely than their lonely counterparts to suffer from premature death
  • Recent studies of middle-aged men point to loneliness as the leading cause of death — greater than heart failure or smoking.

In short, the body of a lonely person is emotionally and physically different than that of a non-lonely person.

Earlier this fall, I stumbled upon this blog post by Charlie Hoehn which connected the dots between the loneliness, play, and mass violence happening in the US. This really stood out to me:

The irony is that loneliness would not be a problem if we all got ample time to play. Not only would we have deeper friendships, we’d also have better relationships with ourselves. Play allows us to enjoy our own company.

There is a strong correlation with play deprivation and mental illness.

When you deprive mammals of play, it leads to chronic depression. When you deprive a human child of play, their mental and emotional health deteriorate. Play suppression has enormous health consequences.


Not surprisingly, play is a regular act and theme at BIF’s Collaborative Innovation Summit.

I had become interested in play when my partner — who designs play spaces — introduced me to some fascinating documentaries and books on the subject. Play then became an area of study as I worked on my thesis, and I explored how the tenets of play contributed to collaborative innovation. One those tenets underscored the difference between play and games.

In games, there are rules and an outcome. Play is more open-ended — driven by curiosity, exploration, and possibility. It is the difference between kids meeting in the street and figuring out how to make use of a random material (empty cans come to mind), and kids meeting for a pick-up game of basketball. Both are important, but the outcome is different. The outcome of play is invariably innovation. The outcome of a game is a winner and a loser. They serve different purposes, but play offers us the opportunity to co-create something new. In his BIF-9 talk, Carl Stormer talked about improvisation through play as the peaceful passing of power in service of creation and transformation.

I can’t imagine a more valuable process for EVERYONE to participate in.


Playspaces are inherently multi-generational. Kids don’t bring themselves to play spaces. They come with caregivers. Parents. Grandparents. Aunties. Nannies. Friends. I love that we design play spaces, and Martin’s park included, for inclusion. We’re designing for most of the right things: social/emotional, physical, sensory, cognitive, and communication needs of diverse children. And in doing so, we’re bringing diverse kids together.


I do believe we’ve missed an opportunity to design for these needs across generations. Playspaces are as ubiquitous as the humans who occupy them.

Why not use this capacity to meet the same unmet needs of our increasingly lonely adult population?

How might play spaces become the civic spaces that bring diverse people together, encourage connection, and shared experiences? What might this mean for healing the loneliness epidemic that alienates us from ourselves?

At BIF, we see firsthand how innovation comes from #RCUS — the random collisions of unusual suspects. We know that magic happens when we get out of our swim lanes and bump into others. Stories are shared, dots are connected, innovation is inspired. We feel braver because we realize we’re not alone, that there are others out there who are hungry for the same things we are.

This is as true for our citizens as it is for our corporate leaders. For corporate leaders, BIF create spaces (i.e. Labs) for next practices and new model development. By design, they bring diverse people together to play with capabilities in new and different ways. How might play spaces become the equivalent for communities? How might conversations on the playground serve as a catalyst for transformation — at the individual, family, and community level?

I, for one, would like to explore what this looks like in the real world. Who is up to a play date?