Lara Penin and Eduardo Staszowski

Lara Pen­in is the Prin­ci­pal Inves­ti­ga­tor and Eduardo Stas­zowski is the Direc­tor of The Par­sons DESIS Lab — which advances the prac­tice and dis­course of design-enabled social innov­a­tion toward more sus­tain­able cit­ies. The DESIS-Lab con­ducts applied research into the ways in which design can enhance com­mu­ni­ty-led ini­ti­at­ives in the devel­op­ment of more sus­tain­able ways of liv­ing and work­ing. The DESIS Lab brings togeth­er fac­ulty and stu­dents from across the dis­cip­lines at The New School, led by Par­sons The New School for Design and Mil­ano The New School for Man­age­ment and Urban Pol­i­cy. One of Lara, Eduardo and The DESIS Lab’s recent pri­ma­ry projects has been “Ampli­fy: Ampli­fy­ing Cre­ative Com­mu­ni­ties, award­ed with a grant from Rock­e­feller Foun­da­tion Cul­tur­al Inno­va­tion Funds in 2009” 
For those unfa­mil­iar with Ampli­fy (Ampli­fy­ing Cre­ative Com­mu­ni­ties) what is it about?
Lara Pen­in: Ampli­fy: Ampli­fy­ing Cre­ative Com­mu­ni­ties is about cast­ing light on exist­ing pos­i­tive exam­ples of sus­tain­able lifestyles. We are iden­ti­fy­ing and doc­u­ment­ing a num­ber of sus­tain­able ini­tia­tives, or social inno­va­tions around the city.

The prin­ci­ple idea is — if we want soci­ety to change, we should look at our­selves, and learn from what­ev­er is already work­ing. If we learn from the exist­ing pos­i­tive and suc­cess­ful ini­tia­tives, per­haps we can pro­pose new mod­els alto­geth­er for oth­er peo­ple, based on those suc­cess­ful ideas. This can make sus­tain­able lifestyles more acces­si­ble to a larg­er audi­ence.

What loca­tions with­in the city were explored? 

Lara: Until now we have focused on two bor­oughs: Man­hat­tan (in 2010) and Brook­lyn (in 2011.) In par­tic­u­lar, we looked at the Low­er East Side in Man­hat­tan and the Williams­burg and Green­point neigh­bor­hoods of North Brook­lyn.

What is your process?

Lara: We do a lot of research and doc­u­men­ta­tion about inter­est­ing sto­ries which become the start­ing point for every­thing. We col­lect nar­ra­tives from peo­ple, often by pro­duc­ing short films, which are then show­cased in an exhi­bi­tion.

Exhi­bi­tion is a main tool that we have used in both years and both loca­tions of the project. We have explored dif­fer­ent strate­gies on how we would pre­pose and curate the exhi­bi­tion. In the Low­er East Side, we used the exhi­bi­tion as a research tool in of itself. It con­tained a lot of points of inter­ac­tiv­i­ty. We want­ed to hear from the pub­lic if they knew of any sto­ries about social activism and social inno­va­tion in the neigh­bor­hood, and if they could leave any us any infor­ma­tion about it; from those inter­ac­tions we col­lect­ed a lot of data.

In North Brook­lyn we explored a dif­fer­ent strat­e­gy. We pro­posed an exhi­bi­tion that was sort of a work in pro­gress. It was designed as a “com­mu­ni­ty design stu­dio.” The exhi­bi­tion itself was a half emp­ty space with half emp­ty walls because we intend­ed, through a series of work­shops dur­ing the two weeks of the exhibit, that the space would devel­op a life of its own. Ampli­fy orga­nized one of the work­shops, but the oth­ers were devel­oped by oth­ers with dif­fer­ent exper­tise on how to con­nect with the com­mu­ni­ty; they explored dif­fer­ent “ampli­fi­ca­tion strate­gies.” From there we incor­po­rat­ed the results of the work­shops in the exhi­bi­tion, fill­ing up those bare walls. The con­tent of the exhi­bi­tion kept evolv­ing and chang­ing through­out the days and weeks, which is what we had hoped for! Alto­geth­er, it was about explor­ing dif­fer­ent ways in which we could engage with the local com­mu­ni­ties and publics.

Did you col­lab­o­rate with any oth­er local groups?

Lara: In both Ampli­fy iter­a­tions we worked with orga­ni­za­tions to help us con­nect with com­mu­ni­ty groups in the Low­er East Side (LES) and North Brook­lyn. In the LES we worked with orga­ni­za­tions such as the LES Ecol­o­gy Cen­ter, and in North Brook­lyn, we worked with ioby (In Our Back Yards.) They were incred­i­bly help­ful in shar­ing their own net­work of peo­ple and orga­ni­za­tions. With their help we con­nect­ed with peo­ple, con­duct­ing 30+ inter­views in the sum­mer of 2011. We did a lot of sys­tem­at­ic analy­sis of results, and our pile of tran­scripts became the basis of the work­shops and the work we pro­duced lat­er.

Who do you think the audi­ence is for this type of project? Do you intend for it to be broad­ly defined or focused?

Lara: In my view, there are many lev­els of audi­ence.

1) The pri­ma­ry audi­ence that we have are the com­mu­ni­ty groups that we have reached out to.

2) Sec­ond­ly are stu­dents and our com­mu­ni­ty at The New School, who all have been super involved (with all the asso­ci­at­ed cours­es, and impor­tant ped­a­gog­i­cal aspects of the project.) We bring stu­dents to work with us as research assis­tants.

3) Anoth­er lev­el is the extend­ed net­work of the design com­mu­ni­ty and oth­er rel­e­vant aca­d­e­mic areas. For exam­ple: one of the work­shops involved a com­bi­na­tion of design­ers and social sci­en­tists, not only from The New School but from oth­er insti­tu­tions. There is this com­mu­ni­ty of peo­ple who come to the events we pro­mote, ser­vice design peo­ple, social design­ers in gen­er­al, and cre­atives involved in activist work.

4) There is also this oth­er lay­er of pub­lic, which would be the “pub­lic at large.” Those peo­ple who came to the exhi­bi­tions who per­haps con­nect­ed with us via the orga­ni­za­tions we had worked with, or those who had host­ed our exhi­bi­tions. For exam­ple in the LES, Ampli­fy was exhib­it­ed at the Abrons Art Cen­ter which is part of the Hen­ry Street Set­tle­ment — a very impor­tant local com­mu­ni­ty cen­ter. Through them we reached out to a dif­fer­ent com­mu­ni­ty, the local com­mu­ni­ty, local activists, peo­ple of dif­fer­ent age groups includ­ing schools.

So you were ulti­mate­ly able to tap into the com­mu­ni­ty that you are high­light­ing through the sup­port of the venues?

Lara: Very much so!

Eduardo Stas­zowski: I think this rein­forces the series of stake­hold­ers, and those inter­est­ed in this sort of thing. Ampli­fy was nev­er meant to draw this enor­mous crowd that one would see at a large muse­um exhi­bi­tion. Our exhi­bi­tion start­ed to become alive when some­thing was hap­pen­ing with­in it, such as a work­shop. We regard­ed it more as an “exhi­bi­tion as stu­dio.” We moved out of the design stu­dio and the uni­ver­si­ty — into the field, arriv­ing at a neu­tral envi­ron­ment where every­body could come togeth­er to work on the­se issues. Of course it was open to every­body but we nev­er chose to sit­u­ate it in some­where like an art gallery, which would bring us away from the com­mu­ni­ty. The exhi­bi­tion was a space where we could work with com­mu­ni­ty groups, lead­ers, and peo­ple who are inter­est­ed to make that space func­tion as a work­shop. From there we hope that the audi­ence, and par­tic­i­pants take what they learned and con­tin­ue to do good work.

We are aca­d­e­mics, we research the­se issues, we try to imag­ine and com­mu­ni­cate this vision, and to edu­cate and train design­ers who will be able to con­tin­ue this work. Let­ting them know that their is a space for them to work on projects like this. We engaged with the design com­mu­ni­ty, such as groups like IDEO, let­ting every­one know that this work should be done and that there is a mar­ket for it.

Have you noticed any con­trasts between your work in the two neigh­bor­hoods you explored in this project?

Lara: We have indeed real­ized sim­i­lar­i­ties and major dif­fer­ences between neigh­bor­hoods. In the LES the sit­u­a­tion was very par­tic­u­lar. We soon real­ized that social inno­va­tion occurred there in a very par­tic­u­lar way in speci­fic loca­tions. The most evi­dent social inno­va­tion was the com­mu­ni­ty gar­dens. Because of the his­to­ry of the LES, relat­ing to real estate devel­op­ment in the last 50 years, the poli­cies chang­ing, build­ings being torn down, emp­ty lots, crime and the city’s bankruptcy…at some point the pop­u­la­tion took over those spaces and devel­oped the con­cept of com­mu­ni­ty gar­dens. Its a very par­tic­u­lar urban sit­u­a­tion. After iden­ti­fy­ing the com­mu­ni­ty gar­dens as inno­v­a­tive, we inter­viewed 18 com­mu­ni­ty gar­dens out of 40 or more. If you want to talk about social inno­va­tion in the LES, you have to go and see what is going on in the com­mu­ni­ty gar­dens. There are all sorts of sit­u­a­tions hap­pen­ing relat­ing to dif­fer­ent eth­nic groups and how they devel­op their own ver­sions of the gar­dens, such as lit­tle places where peo­ple would go and play domi­noes… etc. The spaces var­ied cul­tur­al­ly and were dif­fer­ent depend­ing on the char­ac­ter­is­tic of peo­ple actu­al­ly occu­py­ing the space. A very inter­est­ing find­ing.

Things in North Brook­lyn were com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent, the main issue was relat­ing to the areas indus­tri­al past, and very much to the occu­pa­tion of the water­front. Gen­tri­fi­ca­tion was occur­ring in the LES (an has been occur­ring for a very long time,) but in Brook­lyn you see it hap­pen­ing right before your eyes. In 2005 there was a change in zon­ing which allowed the old indus­tri­al build­ings to be con­vert­ed into res­i­den­cies. Chang­ing com­plete­ly the real estate mar­ket and real estate pres­sures, and the whole issue about the occu­pa­tion of the water­front became a key issue… hous­ing, afford­abil­i­ty and every­thing con­nect­ed to gen­tri­fi­ca­tion.
In LES gen­tri­fi­ca­tion has been hap­pen­ing for a long time. They have faced pres­sure from the Vil­lage in the north, and Chi­na­town to the south. There is an inter­est­ing mix but some­how it cur­rent­ly is a bit more sta­ble. Where as in Brook­lyn you can see it hap­pen­ing very quick­ly by the build­ings being built and refur­bished and how the water­front is reshap­ing itself…everything is hap­pen­ing pret­ty fast.

So we iden­ti­fied dif­fer­ent issues, and were able to frame dif­fer­ent ques­tions based on their own speci­fici­ties. One thing in which we saw that was some­thing occur­ring in both neigh­bor­hoods was the great access to fresh, local and organ­ic foods. Over­all their is a lot of activism going on both neigh­bor­hoods.

What par­tic­u­lar­ly moved you to study the­se neigh­bor­hoods in par­tic­u­lar? Was there some­thing that you had rec­og­nized ahead of time before the project?

Eduardo: We def­i­nite­ly start­ed with loca­tions where this type of activ­i­ty was more appar­ent. “Low hang­ing fruit” so to speak. If you went to a dif­fer­ent loca­tion such as the sub­urbs it would be a com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent sto­ry. It is about the den­si­ty, his­to­ry, crit­i­cal mass, effect­ing the­se places. LES and North Brook­lyn became evi­dent as a good exam­ple of this type of activ­i­ty ear­ly on. LES has a long his­to­ry of com­mu­ni­ty activism and resis­tance.

You men­tioned work­ing with LES Ecol­o­gy Cen­ter, IOBY, IDEO; you have also worked with Green­Map. How did the­se col­lab­o­ra­tions come about?

Lara: We def­i­nite­ly built an archi­tec­ture of part­ners and col­lab­o­ra­tors from the get go. There was def­i­nite­ly a dia­logue before the project was start­ed, before we even pro­posed it to the Rock­e­feller Foun­da­tion. We know that we couldn’t reach out to small hid­den forms of social activism and inno­va­tion by our­selves. We would have to work with local peo­ple as medi­a­tors, and agents of trust.

Are you open to new col­lab­o­ra­tions from oth­er groups?

Eduardo: Of course! It is all about col­lab­o­ra­tion. The way we put togeth­er Ampli­fy, it was sup­posed to be a plat­form where dif­fer­ent things could hap­pen. We are show­cas­ing and invit­ing peo­ple to explore dif­fer­ent things. So for exam­ple, our work with ioby was about recipes of change, and devel­op­ing ways to help fur­ther the project. From there they became part of the exhi­bi­tion, and one of the work­shops was also done by them. It is ALL about col­lab­o­ra­tion, cre­at­ing net­works and com­mu­ni­ties of those who are inter­est­ed in mov­ing towards more sus­tain­able lifestyles; while improv­ing our capa­bil­i­ties of col­lab­o­rat­ing, and bring­ing more peo­ple togeth­er to share and become involved. Of course this is very sim­i­lar to how City Atlas is a plat­form to move to a bet­ter future. There are a lot of sim­i­lar­i­ties between the great work peo­ple are doing across the city and beyond.

So whats next for the Ampli­fy project, and what oth­er things does the Par­sons DESIS Lab have in store for the future of a more sus­tain­able NYC?

Eduardo: Ampli­fy was a two year project, how­ev­er we are plan­ning a third. We have plans to con­tin­ue and work on a dif­fer­ent bor­ough. Our cur­rent plan is to work with emerg­ing tech­nolo­gies and how they can help those social inno­va­tions to thrive. Tech­nolo­gies such as mobile tech­nolo­gies, map­ping, sto­ry telling, and social net­works can real­ly empow­er small­er ini­tia­tives, and make them acces­si­ble to larg­er audi­ences.

Also, we are pur­su­ing a “spin-off” that we just launched called Pub­lic & Col­lab­o­ra­tive, which stands for “Link­ing Pub­lic Ser­vices and Col­lab­o­ra­tive Cit­i­zens.” Where Ampli­fy was look­ing at ini­tia­tives that were emerg­ing with­out sup­port from the local gov­ern­ment, we now want to dis­cuss how the pub­lic sec­tor can tap into that resource, and make pub­lic ser­vices more coop­er­a­tive and col­lab­o­ra­tive.

So this is with hope that the pub­lic could have the abil­i­ty to shape or have a say in pub­lic ser­vices?

Lara: Yes absolute­ly!

Eduardo: Ampli­fy will con­tin­ue, talk­ing with peo­ple and con­tin­u­ing to tell their sto­ries, map­ping out projects, and lend­ing design exper­tise: cre­at­ing and imag­in­ing sce­nar­ios that syn­chro­nize small­er ini­tia­tives with­in larg­er sys­tems.

Pub­lic & Col­lab­o­ra­tive is more focused on talk­ing to the pub­lic sec­tors and see how we can increase effi­cien­cy by con­sid­er­ing the cit­i­zen as a part­ner and not as a prob­lem or just a user. Were aim­ing for a way cit­i­zens can lend there own exper­tise and knowl­edge to make the city bet­ter.

Lara: The beau­ty of a project like Ampli­fy is that you start some­thing and it grows, con­nect­ing you to oth­er peo­ple, and you start to real­ize that you should con­tin­ue to per­haps per­form dif­fer­ent actions here and there. It con­tin­ues to evolve. We don’t want to let the project stop where it is but to con­tin­ue to work on it and take it to the next lev­el.

About Lara Pen­in:

Lara Pen­in is assis­tant pro­fes­sor at the School of Design Strate­gies, where she coor­di­nates the Area of Study of Ser­vice Design at the Inte­grat­ed Design Pro­gram. She is part of DESIS Lab. Her work focus­es on Design for Sus­tain­able Social Inno­va­tion and Ser­vice Design. Lara is the Prin­ci­pal Inves­ti­ga­tor of the two-year project Ampli­fy­ing Cre­ative Com­mu­ni­ties award­ed with a grant from Rock­e­feller Foun­da­tion Cul­tur­al Inno­va­tion Funds NYC 2009. The project rep­re­sents a sub­stan­tial new step in her recent research tra­jec­to­ry based on a suc­cess­ful record of research, edu­ca­tion and devel­op­ment projects on an inter­na­tion­al scale focused on design and sus­tain­able social inno­va­tion. Lara has worked in a sequence of projects ded­i­cat­ed to research and mod­el­ing of sus­tain­able ways of liv­ing, through ser­vice design. In par­tic­u­lar she man­aged the project Cre­ative Com­mu­ni­ties for Sus­tain­able Lifestyles (2007–2008), fund­ed by the Unit­ed Nations Task Force on Sus­tain­able Lifestyles, focus­ing on sus­tain­able ways of liv­ing in Brazil, India and Chi­na. She holds a PhD in Indus­tri­al Design and Mul­ti­me­dia Com­mu­ni­ca­tion from Milan Poly­tech­nic Uni­ver­si­ty and a BA in Archi­tec­ture and Urban Plan­ning from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Sao Paulo. Lara has lec­tured in Europe, Chi­na, India and Brazil and has a record of pub­lished papers and arti­cles.

About Eduardo Stas­zowski:

Eduardo Stas­zowski is is an archi­tect, design strate­gist and assis­tant pro­fes­sor at the School of Design Strate­gies at Par­sons The New School For Design. He is Co-Founder and mem­ber of the Par­sons DESIS Lab, and Direc­tor of the Ampli­fy­ing Cre­ative Com­mu­ni­ties, and the new Pub­lic & Col­lab­o­ra­tive projects at The New School. His research at Par­sons focus­es on the use of design to gen­er­ate social change and the improve­ment of the local envi­ron­ment. Eduardo holds a PhD from Milan Poly­tech­nic Uni­ver­si­ty.


Pho­to by Mau­reen Dren­nan


Explore more about Ampli­fy­ing Cre­ative Com­mu­ni­ties

Check out the Par­sons DESIS Lab