MDES 18 - Now We Are Serious Because We Have a Tea Kettle, Citizen Participation, Ethics, and Other Design Lessons

02 Banana Peel Attempt

This week Master of Design for Social Impact students explore power relations in urban planning, run prototype workshops, develop future speculation analysis, and start questioning ethics in design. Oh yea, and we finally got an electric tea kettle.

Thanks to Amy we finally have a kettle in our classroom. It was such a sweet communal gesture that it inspired a little sprucing up. Painted a corner shelf, got a lamp, folded some paper cubbies, cleaned with tea tree oil and voila! Come on in to room 102. The space looks warm, friendly and downright hygge. Just in time too – no sooner said than bam! We’re in Week 3 of the spring semester and thick into our studies.

We have this brilliant class Mondays and Fridays called Social and Urban Governance. In class, we talking about power relations in urban actions and discuss Shelly Arnstein’s ‘A Ladder of Citizen Participation.’ I think back on a college internship on Capitol Hill with Congressman Serrano (NY-D, Bronx). I remember the work I did as a diplomat abroad. I think about governance theory and the fragmented ways in which government systems actually work. In all, I find myself thinking cynically (because I’m old enough to know better) but hoping fervently (because I’m also young enough to believe in change.) I hope this class helps me dream about what design can impact in the urban/government sector.

Research and Methodology class in the afternoon turns into another writing workshops so we can develop our thesis outline. This week my research buddy Rica and I scribble all over our outlines. We are trying to make everything clean and easily understood. Our session dissolves into back-o-the-class laughter. Inevitable. I’m lucky to have Rica as my partner because he cracks me up all the time. And for someone like me who takes things WAY too seriously it’s one of the best reminders to chill out and enjoy the small things in life.

I bustle home in the metro rush hour to skype John Shneider:  cofounder of a company called 3DFuel. They make biodegradable filament for 3D printing from all kinds of bio-waste including beer, coffee, trash, and hemp. He’s a classic hipster in a Fargo warehouse. Kind, quick, eager. I’m nervous and I ask too many questions. He links me to a project where the brown coffee filament they make is actually helping to create prosthetic limbs in matching skin tones for kids. There’s a lot of good in this world, eh?

Tuesday morning I wake up early with my partner’s alarm clock. He’s off to work. I’m off to the gym. I pump on the stationary bike, catch up on political comedy skits and see all the hype about the upcoming State of the Union speech back in the U.S.A. Political positions fascinate me as a beautiful and inevitable part of identity and culture. I cannot help wanting to know more – especially since I have so many colleagues and friends who continue to work the political/diplomatic ring.

Home again I set up a series of recipes that I’m testing for my edible packaging concept. I’m extrapolating lessons from raw food cuisine dehydrating into design sealable edible food packaging concepts. Some of my designs are downright wacky (check out this lattice weave of a banana peel plate.) But that’s part of the experimentation phase. I’m hoping to develop a catalogue of my different designs. But I’m certainly no chemist! Let’s just see what happens.

By Tuesday afternoon I am back in 3D Lab class practicing new tricks on Rhino. This semester we have three new classmates from the Interior Design degree and they are wizard-fast with the software. I feel silly with my rudimentary skills in comparison (last semester I barely worked out how to make a box print properly, see Week 14) but the goal is to just keep learning. Alessandro, who teaches the class (and just agreed to be my thesis advisor!) is hella patient. He reminds me that I can only get better.

Tuesday evening I create a photo shoot in my office/spare room and hang paper craft bits for a scene promoting my prototype creations. I spend a happy couple of hours cutting, gluing, arranging, and testing the scene ready for the prototype. (It’s still baking in the dehydrator.) I need to make a presentation that appeal to both adults and children, so I decided that paper craft images could be an easy way to entice people into a whole new colorful and playful world. Plus, I can’t help myself. It’s so cute! Ooh, and check out the event for my upcoming artist residency at Living Lab.

Wednesday morning I open up the dehydrator and pull out the newest prototypes that have been setting and dehydrating for 24 hours. They look good and I pack them into a box carefully and cross the city of Paris via metro to MakeSense headquarters. Once there, Solene gives us an update presentation on the ways in which MakeSense is changing due in part from our class experience with their massive open online course (MOOC). They have fortified their programs for each volunteer level of participation.

More interestingly they are trying to reconcile their blursing (blessing/curse) of being a vague international entity. “MakeSense is… Tools? A playground? A social thing? A movement?” They’ve been able to survive on a whole range of descriptions precisely because MakeSense can be different things for different people. But now they are heading into a rebranding to simplify how they present themselves. Good luck, and go make sense of those things.

“Have you eaten yet?… Would you like to have lunch with me?”

Its time for my mid-week, mid-day workshop testing my prototypes in the PCA Espace F15 gallery. My workshops do triple duty:

1 – Test how the packaging holds food

2 – Test how the package gets handled by users

3 – Compensate my workshop participants (students love free food)

And since very few people know what I’m up to, it’s a wonderfully confirming moment to watch their shock and surprise when they open the bag and pull out my packaging. Ta-da! It’s confirming for me that there is a place for edible, compostable, biodegradable takeaway packaging in lieu of plastic.

Hanna reminds me later that food waste is also a problem that I exacerbate with my designs. And maybe my design is not circular at all since it doesn’t become renewable material. She’s absolutely right – I’ll have to acknowledge that my packaging wastes food. I’ll also have to figure out how to explain that it’s not circular design, but it does have a circular mentality. I have to be smarter about my designs and keep trying to do better. Maybe there’s a way to use more food scraps in the design of my prototypes? Hmm… Back to the drawing board.

In the afternoon I head to the pool at Neuilly-Sur-Seine for a lengthy swim to clear my head. The water is heated and laps in the pool feel effortless. I find in France no matter the pool I go to and no matter the lanes I pick (and they have plaques reading from slow to fast), the entire pool is filled with leisure swimmers paddling around. Fascinating but frustrating. I try to leave a gap for the swimmer ahead of me, forget the workout and just enjoy the swim.

Sara Martí

In our second SPROUT workshop session on Thursday afternoon with Maurizio and Laureano, we test our observant eye for signals. “Look at the next image for 10 seconds, no writing and then tell me what you see.” And we learn to pay attention to visual information and to categorize and title each with a concept. We’re not trend-hunting here. We’re future forecasting. It goes beyond the “cool” and into future realities with a subjective point of view.

One of the 20 slides shows a 3D printed ear floating in a glass cup of pink liquid. Another shows metallic medical tattoos printed on wrists. Yet another features cars that drive you according to your mental state and not your destination. Each slide makes me wonder what I know about the future. Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore.

In Professional Practices later that night we meet Mathieu Merlet Briand, an artist who frames his work around the digital and technological perception of reality. He shows us his portfolio with marbleized glass created by algorithms of digital material [iceberg] to integrated iron sculptures on the loom [Google Dark Matter]. His generic advice “You will find a solution” sounds vague yet true. Sometimes all those questions we have cannot be answered, you just have to trust yourself to overcome that difficulty when it arises.

At home again I watch a documentary called Urbanized (2011) as homework while munching dinner. It showcases the plight of urban planners, politicians, residents, city-dwellers, etc. The documentary highlights 12 different cities and the social impact created or ignored based on planning. I think about all the places I’ve lived in city-wide project launches. Luanda’s marginal construction, London’s empty Olympic city, Buenos Aires 9 de Julio bus. Design is integral to social impact in city planning. It feels more grounded to finally study practical applications that affect people’s day to day lives in an architectural way.

Friday afternoon: we skype Thomas Watkin for Social and Urban governance class – this time about “What is public?” We compare our insights on the readings/documentaries and then talk about how to make a project public. How do you design a public space that allows people access? Allows them to be an audience? Allows an environment that fosters sharing? It’s part of understanding the conditions laid out by Kevin Lynch in building Image of the City. We look at fun graphs showing walking spaces, architectural spaces, and public transportation studies.

I leave just a little bit early for a private meeting in the Espace F15 gallery hallway by PCA’s entrance. Her name is Emilie Prattico and she clips her words with a slight British accent but has a very down-to-earth conversational speech style. She’s our professor for Designer’s Social and Ethical Responsibilities. I pose a question to her about how to design without using necessarily Human Centered Design (HCD). To me, HCD doesn’t seem to be proactively supporting environmental needs. She pivots my question and asks why not include environment when considering an optimal human experience? I’m intrigued but not convinced I understand. I see so much displacement of nature in pursuit of human interests that I struggle to make sense of what is ok and what is not. And how do we know that we are doing ok when only hindsight is 20/20? More questions, less answers… Sigh.

We climb the stairs and enter the classroom. A quick shuffle of papers (we have about 5 minutes between one class and the next in the evenings.) We spend the first rounds of conversation talking about our program, what we’re doing, and what we are studying. Emilie works full time and she teaches on the side. She confirms that she is passionate – Friday night/Saturday all-day classes means that all of us will have to be committed too. Considering my question earlier, I feel grateful that we’re finally talking about the ethical issues.

When class lets out early Rica invites everyone out to eat at a tiny Italian place around the corner from his place. Pizza? Yes. The music bips in the background, sourdough bread wafting, and we wait impatiently for our orders. We scoff down dinner while talking about Palermo, Italy (Hanna has a new job there potentially), New Zealand (Vaila is considering doing some back-packing), and Berlin, Germany (Rica is intending on going straight back to his company who he desperately misses.) I’ll be in Paris for the foreseeable future. But you never know where a project might take you, eh?

Saturday morning I head to the gym with my partner. I love lifting weights and he’s a great gym partner. Doesn’t yell, doesn’t compete. Just does his bit and helps me when I ask for it. I love working out together. I shower at the gym and then head right back to PCA where we have a second lecture in Designer’s Social and Ethical Responsibility. We go through a slide deck, watch a documentary, talk about theory, watch conference lectures on Youtube, talk some more, and of course, have some tea.

Here are some quotes I pulled from our conversations in ethic class:

“Theory can be a bummer”

“Your experience of your values is NOT the same thing as your values”

“If you blindly accept then you give up your rights”

“Now you have tools to analyze very complex problems that arrive”

“What you do with the lenses is to focus on different parts of the situation”

“We generate reason from rational discourse with each other. Doesn’t come from on high, doesn’t come from a book. Everyone generates it through dialogue that is honest, equal, respectful…”

Afterwards, I walk into drizzles of rain towards the St. Martin canal. I’m meeting my partner for noodles at Tien Hiangs. This place is always hopping, but class ended early and we’re able to make it before the rush comes through at 8pm. A vegan bowl of pho, a gorgeous basket of dumplings and my darling partner to share it with! What more can a girl ask for?

Sunday is studying, reading, writing, etc. I jump through 17 new articles related to composting, recycling, packaging, plastic, etc. I’m drowning in sources but I still cannot get enough to capture all the information I’ll need. I’m sending in my first draft of the thesis today. I know it will go through many revisions, but I want it to be as close to finished as possible.

This whole month of February is going to squeeze us like a sausage factory. Both Social and Urban Governance and Designer’s Social and Ethical Responsibility are front-loaded so that we finish the course requirements March-ish. This would give us time to create our thesis and individual projects afterwards, except that due dates are also front-loaded so that our theses are due early April. So right now it feels rushed and hectic, but it will slow down as the weather gets better and the semester winds down.

Just gotta keep on track – which reminds me I feel like going for a run. It would be a nice way to rinse out my mind this Sunday afternoon. A long run always feels good. So I head to the neighborhood athletic track with my partner. We bounce on the rubber path and fall into rhythm of step. Just gotta keep on track and moving forward.

SMarti out.

f t g p

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