Connected and Unconnected in New York

29 September 12

Last night I moderated a panel on “Design for the future connectivity of New York” at the new Arup headquarters in Manhattan – a “house warming” for their new digs and the first Penguin Pool1 in the US.

Given my life as a communication designer and Chair of the new MFA Program in Design for Social Innovation at SVA, I came with great enthusiasm for the topic, as well as skepticism about panel discussions in general. But first, the topic itself.

Five panelists had five unique definitions of connectivity – from stories that connect characters to each other and to the neighborhoods where they live, to technology that connects from the bottom up as well as the top down, citizen art and design, food systems, and the connections that businesses make to cities and the people who live there. Each distinctive, yet every one connected to the others.

As cities are living organisms, these are the various kinds of connective tissue that define relationships and keep us all alive.

As I interviewed speakers in advance of the panel, common threads emerged:
The first was access, defined as the invisible walls that either include people in a community or conversation, or keep them on the outside of progress, art, health and innovation.
Reference to relationships, to built environments, governments, neighbors and our own bodies ran throughout.
Place – the hyper local as it meets the ultra global. Connections are all changed by where they happen.
The most interesting and unexpected thread for me was the role that time played in every panelists work. Noah Rosenberg wants to slow down time – and journalism – so that people come to know each other and the places where they live in a deeper and more meaningful way.  Scott Burnham defines city life in terms of “micro-moments”; he unlocks the idea that a city is “finished” and closed to participation from citizens, extending the time it takes to create environments through participatory design of public spaces. Anthony Townsend studies the way technology changes cities, speeding up life for some, making it more efficient, and leaving others out of time. And Ben Flanner changes people’s awareness of time by connecting them to the natural rhythms of nature.
Likewise, the nature of time is also the source of my skepticism towards panel discussions – there is simply never enough. As a moderator, I loved getting to know the panelists – and appreciate the opportunity to think about ideas that are so important to the future and to the way we live. But inevitably, the format of a panel overrides the opportunity to go off schedule, to dig deep when something amazing emerges, to linger in a real conversation and exchange of ideas over clipped sound bites, or, to the point of my writing here, when the questions that burn remain unanswered.
I am left without a satisfying answer to a question that troubles me about design: the talk now is of human-centered innovation, of empathy, of trust and access. These seem like the things that humans did naturally – and that nature does still – before we distanced ourselves from ourselves through stress and technology. My question is, has it now become design’s role to undo, or to fix the things that our society has unintentionally broken?
Thank you Arup, for the opportunity, and for a great party, but let’s keep talking.
Illustration curtesy of Youme Landowne

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