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It is December 10th, 2032.

You open your eyes. Your first breath takes in the comforting fragrance of freshly-baked baguettes.

That reminds you. You’re in your local hospital. You reach up to tap the right side of your face, where the curb met your eyebrow in the hectic cycling-dominated promenades of midtown. Your face is still numb and you return your attention to your nose. The smell makes you suddenly nostalgic for 2020 when everyone around you was baking bread, staying home, endless Zoom. COVID times. It feels like a dream.

While hospitals in Singapore have intentionally piped the smell of freshly baked goods in their HVACs for decades, just as they’ve always followed other proven design interventions like access to sunlight and a view of nature, New York City was never Singapore. It was the gritty and divided city of rich and poor that never prided itself on equalizing access to the really good stuff, the important stuff in life. But it was your dream before you could even remember to live there. …


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My son, Rui, on a play date in Zoom (2020)

Artist and educator, Kay Liang, talks about squashing “Zoom Gloom” with dog bands, friendly robbers, and disco breaks

It was April 6th and my six-year-old son, Rui, had his first Zoom meeting. He was both anxious and annoyed that he had to do something he neither fully understood nor signed up for. These were the early days of lockdown and as a parent, I was pretty desperate for ways he could stay engaged with his friends and teachers (and also give me time to answer emails, eat a sandwich, and cry in the shower all at the same time). One of his teachers, Kay Liang, a recent RISD grad in printmaking and computation, decided she would venture at staging a remote version of Gem Land, her after-school art class. Rather than transpose the same play pattern and collective crafting activities onto Zoom, she created an entirely new, multi-player experience using a simple story arc, a lot of PNGs, and a locally-hosted web page. The premise was both dramatic and relatable: the children of Tiny Town had suddenly woken up to the news that they were not allowed to leave their house. They didn’t know why or for how long, and there were no grownups around to provide answers. …


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Photo: Matthew LeJune

An interview with Tara Pham, Co-founder & CEO of Numina

Cities are products of design. In the last century, the urban planning and design fields often prioritized the mobility of cars over people, and efficiency over community (think: Robert Moses and the post-war demolition of New York City neighborhoods in favor of highways). To address this legacy of a top-down gaze and framework, we need street-level, people-centered perspectives that inform how our cities are designed. This is where human-centered design, equity design, and ethical technologies can be harnessed to champion urbanism in service of people — not cars, politicians, or planners. An example of how street-level data is shaking up the power dynamics of urban planning is Numina — a standalone sensing platform to measure all kinds of curb-level activity anonymously and in aggregate. Working with city agencies, urban planners, and mobility companies, Numina provides dynamic volume counts, paths, and traffic behaviors that disrupts traditionally costly, cumbersome ways cities collect data. …


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A snapshot from the first day of the studio, where students explored different areas of San José in small groups. One team was delighted to discover a wall around the Museum of Contemporary Art and Design that doubled as public seating to the neighborhood. (Left to right: Ana Acevedo, Diana Pang, and Majo Tamayo; Photo: Sammy Creeger)

A reflection on leading a remote design studio for the Copenhagen Institute of Interaction Design (CIID) in Costa Rica

How can we continue to study our streets, talk to people, and test prototypes during a public health crisis? How can we identify opportunities to design for more inclusion, equity, and even joy in the everyday life of our cities? And how can we share these new research and design methods with others?

Last month, the Openbox design team had the opportunity to lead a one-week studio course for CIID’s Interaction Design Programme in San José, Costa Rica. It coincided with the moment that COVID-19 cases surged across the country and CIID’s facilities, including the maker space, digital lab, and biological research station, were closed to students. Students now worked together remotely, or masked and physically distanced in person. As the Openbox team was also working remotely in various parts of New York, Marquise Stillwell, Amy Wang, Vinay Kumar Mysore, and I used a combination of Zoom, Slack, Miro, and Notion to convene 27 designers from around the world on the topic of designing for community. …


In the Studio with Vinay Kumar Mysore, Design Researcher at Openbox

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Understanding the lived experiences of communities is central to Openbox’s process. Community research in D.C. ranged from the experience of erasure in gentrifying neighborhoods to the desire to ground action and activism in the everyday.

How do we design together from a distance? As a human-centered design studio, this was our big question as the coronavirus became a global reality and we quickly transitioned our operations from a collaborative workspace to our individual homes. Our first response was to simply swap in-person interactions with digital ones. But as we continue to grow into our life apart, we realized that as designers we have an opportunity to work with physical distancing constraints to explore potentially even more inclusive, engaging, and impactful ways of co-designing with people, communities, and cities around the world. As a studio, we’re excited to kick off a series of conversations with our multidisciplinary team on evolving our practice during this time. …


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Left: Mask for a “Ko-omote” character in Noh theater. My son and I started researching and making traditional Japanese masks. We recommend this TV documentary as good places to start: Begin Japanology’s episode on masks.

My friends and students ask me: Are you okay? How is your son dealing with all this? How are you holding up? It’s been six weeks since we’ve been staying home and I think: Yes, we are okay. There are times at the end of a long day of playing, making art, baking bread, and doing the things that fortunate families like us are doing that I weep. I am exhausted and like everyone else, have no answers on how or when things will change. As parents, we are never processing emotions for one, but for two or more. We are mirrors, luggages, punching bags, and giant stuffed animals to our children. Our job is to be flexible, forgiving, funny, and fuzzy. There are days when I tackle difficult conversations about disease and pollution. And there are others, when I’m just trying to convince a small person that he doesn’t actually want to watch three movies in a row. I am not perfect, but I do have to show up each day and try. Here are some things that have helped us feel okay, and even happy, during this time. (p.s. …


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Wooden spoons and metal bottles ready for collective clanging at 7pm to celebrate frontline workers (Image: New York City, 2020).

An interview with Jon Bernstein, Los Angeles-based composer, producer, and musician

Stretches of quiet pierced by blazing sirens. The two-minute outburst of pots and pans banging at dusk. Apartment hallways filled with the smell of baking bread and simmering stews. With the Coronavirus pandemic slowing and stopping cities around the world, as a human-centered design studio, we at Openbox have been reflecting on how our senses are adapting to quieter, interior-oriented lives. We’re also exploring how we can continue to engage our senses (beyond eyes glued to screens in video calls!). To better understand the nature of sound and how it shapes our lives, we reached out to Jon Bernstein, L.A.-based …


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Home and hopeful.
  1. I take a deep breath: I want to give this breath to everyone running out of air.
  2. I look out at other apartment windows: I see you, I love you, we’re here together, we’re not alone.
  3. I sift through my sock drawer: I can’t believe I would be annoyed when one disappeared in the laundry. I would give away all my socks along with everything I own to give everyone health and safety.
  4. I hear my son’s question of when he can go back to school: I think, for many people, there is a pandemic every day and it never ends. …


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Although most of us are home and apart, we can still fill our days with projects to connect and help our world.

This is an intense moment for us all. Every day, we’re taking in new information, figuring out how to adapt to new constraints, and learning new ways to manage our own fears while supporting those around us. And at the same time, we need to consider how we might apply these difficult experiences to carve out a better long-term future for everyone. …


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My son asks me to make him protest signs. This one in “Babyish” language is for his animals and robots to carry. It reads, “Wash waah waah waah waah,” which translates in English to “Heck no we won’t go.” In our world, toys have rights too

How human-centered design is good for everyone.

I usually write about cities, design, and technology. But I have another interdisciplinary practice — raising my six-year-old son to be a kind and connected human being. A few weeks ago as my son was going to bed, he made a quiet request: “Mama, tomorrow can you make me a protest sign that says ‘Kids matter too’?” I’m not sure what was fully on his mind as he quickly dozed off, but this moment was a good snapshot of our relationship and his journey of discovering his place in the world. He had a very clear idea about what he wanted to express, along with a sense of agency and courage. But as someone beginning his literacy and activism journey, he needed help implementing his vision. …

About

Adriana Valdez Young

Urbanist, design researcher, teacher, mother. Currently strategist at @openboxNYC and faculty at @TheNewSchool

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