Imagine if there was a condom you couldn’t wait to use instead of just had to. If such a product was available it could not only revolutionize our views on how pleasurable safe sex should be, but would also encourage more people to use condoms. More use would dramatically help to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted infections and improve family planning. While some STIs are on the rise and contributing to serious health issues here in Australia, this is truly a global challenge where the lack of condom use can have dire social impacts, particularly for those in developing countries. Our project is attempting to revolutionize condom technology by replacing latex with new tissue-like materials to make novel condoms with extraordinary properties. The research aims to provide solutions to the lack of condom use, which significantly impacts the health and wellbeing of anyone who uses or will use contraception in their lives.
Hydrogels are a class of materials often described as soft, squishy and wet. They consist mainly of water held together by molecular chains called polymers. Hydrogels also have properties close to tissue and can be designed to feel like skin. Recently, new tough hydrogels have been developed that have mechanical properties similar to rubber - for instance stretching over 1000 times their initial size. They can also be engineered to be effective biological barriers. It’s these specially developed materials that are being used to create the hydrogel condom. Our task has been to identify the right formulations to build a condom that is strong and flexible, provides superior protection, and that offers the potential for improved feel and sensation. In the last year or so we have tested a variety of materials and narrowed to several leading candidates for further development.
Beyond the technology challenges we understand that condom acceptance is a much more complicated issue. There are many reasons – from cultural stigmas to personal attitudes – that influence the use of condoms. Funded in part by a Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation grant and by UOW Global Challenges and the Swinburne Centre for Design Innovation we have attempted to understand the barriers and enablers that influence the use of condoms in Africa and Asia as a starting point for wider research. We are engaging with people from those communities to help develop ideas for improved condom usage and to understand the reasons people do or do not use condoms in selective areas. In addition, we are gearing up to work locally with recent migrants in Australia to provide insight into the factors that influence condom use. This information will be critical in informing a strategy to engage with the communities on this sensitive topic. We aim to co-create effective ways in which condoms should be developed and furthermore marketed appropriately.
Our approach is governed by design innovation methods that look at the consumer first, in order to translate the needs and desires of the communities into solutions that can be realistically produced. Design driven innovation is a collaborative process that brings together design strategy, human-centered research and social innovation principles. We tie the research in materials development and in community engagement, to the theories around aesthetics, function and form. This helps us move beyond purely engineering-driven product development to create insightful and useful products that can be manufactured effectively. In reimagining the condom, we aim to create new hydrogel-based condom concepts that answer the specific challenges in our targeted communities, by providing a design that excites and motivates use.