Lara Penin and Eduardo Staszowski

"If we want society to change, we should look at ourselves, and learn from whatever is already working."

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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


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