When Citizens Design The Blueprints Of Urban Living

Enter NEW INC and A/D/O's Make/Model make-a-thon.


A/D/O in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Photo courtesy Justin B. Kinard for NEW INC.

On Friday, February 2, NEW INC kicked off a weekend-long community program of lectures, prototyping exercises, and demo-style presentations at A/D/O's sprawling warehouse in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. A follow-up to NEW INC's inaugural "Create & Advocate" event in 2017, "Make/Model" assembled nine teams to develop solutions around the theme of "future urban living," which they subsequently presented to a private audience Sunday evening. 

Organized by NEW INC's Julia Kaganskiy and Rasu Jilani, in collaboration with A/D/O's Ari Joseph, the "make-a-thon" marks their second collaborative venture together and their first dedicated to urban design, planning, and manufacturing. Topics covered spanned mass transportation and mobility, environmental sustainability, and the division of civic resources. 

Participants ranged from uninitiated high school students from across the five boroughs, to seasoned artists, architects, and urban planners. According to Rasu Jilani, one of the event's lead organizers, their recruitment strategy was designed to prioritize students and youth who "might not automatically think of themselves" as designers or manufacturers.

“One of the key things for me was to look at who was normally not at the table for designing futures," Jilani told us in a recent interview. "Usually, it’s reserved for architects, urban planners, and government officials. Often times, the people who live in the margins of the city, [the ones] who are most impacted by the city’s decisions, are not at that table. I went to those areas first, because it will probably impact their lives and their future more than someone living outside [of] that reality.”

Jilani conceded that he and his co-organizers were more interested in having the "make-a-thon" serve as a point of entry that introduced green-eared participants to the process of ideation, over an event that yielded polished prototypes.


A/D/O in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Photo courtesy Justin B. Kinard for NEW INC.

“I also looked at college students who are studying in fields related to design, prototyping and manufacturing," Jilani Continued. "[I wanted] to give them an opportunity to apply classroom theories, to ensure what they’re putting into practice is anchored by social impact.”

The resulting teams varied in age, education, and skill level. Some arrived as fully-formed units, while others came on their own as independent agents.

On Saturday afternoon, the groups were guided through various design-thinking processes through a series of presentations and workshops, where they received hand-on advice from professionals in the fields of design, architecture, and civil engineering. Architect Marcelo Lopez Dinardi spoke about the futures of city living, and how cities have innovated throughout history to maintain heritage, culture, and resources. Wendy Fok of WE-DESIGNS spoke about housing and living and its relationship to her work. 

Teams worked throughout A/D/O’s event space, brainstorming on whiteboards and using materials and kits to test their ideas. The resources available included high-tech equipment like kits from LittleBits, to traditional tools like tape, glue guns, and foam boards.

One team comprised of undergraduate biomedical engineering seniors from the City College of the City University of New York. The students proposed a project that disposed of snow accumulation in New York City more efficiently. With a vaporizing system attached to garbage trucks, the mechanism shovels and vaporizes snow internally, rather than pushing the snow to the side.

For Kiara Smith, one of the biomedical engineering students on the team, as well as a participating member of the school's Zahn Center for Innovation, the prototype her team devised was different from what she initially anticipated to work on.

“Whenever we designed an aspect of our device, we thought about how this related to the 'urban,' and to the future," Smith said following her team's presentation Sunday night. "How does it stick to the theme? There were a lot of things we didn’t think about in the design. For example, if we’re designing for urban areas, we didn’t realize the streets weren’t as big as somewhere rural, so we adjusted and decided garbage trucks would be a good idea. because they’re already in use."


A/D/O in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Photo courtesy Justin B. Kinard for NEW INC.

For teams like Smith’s, who were already acquainted with ideation processes, the questions were largely centered around research and testing. But for others, the event was an entirely new experience.

Esteban Varnegas, a sophomore at Columbia University, joined a team that consisted of high school students, new graduates, and a practicing architect. Varnegas said that they didn’t come in with an idea, and they’d never worked together before.

“I really got a grasp of what it means to work with other people,” Varnegas said. “I joined to get a better sense of what this looks like in the real world, versus just the classroom.” His team addressed high pollution rates throughout the city by appropriating bus shelter structures outfitted with air purifying systems to benefit local neighborhoods. 

For Nonstikelelo Mutiti, who led a team that designed an app for bringing together communities through gardening, the event's approach distilled the complex process of manufacturing to make it accessible to everyone.

“Who is the person who can make those things or ideate those things? Who is the expert? It is really a community of people who can express what their desires are?” Mutiti pondered. “There are people who are amazing architects who can make amazing 3D models but who are here working with putty and straws and cardboard, to explain a very complex thing.”

In all, the projects were aimed at pointing to the possibilities that design and manufacturing can have when communities are given the resources they need to plan their cities for themselves.

"When you bring together citizens and activists and ask them to take responsibility for design solutions to their city, there’s a lot of opportunity for real ideation and solutions that can be explored further," said Smita Sen, who served as a mentor throughout the weekend.

For Jilani, the event was intended to expand access to the spaces thinking about and acting towards solutions to urban problems.

“The ambitious goal,” Jilani explained, “is to have a high school student or early college student come to Make/Model and through participating, see the idea of them taking on design thinking practice as a realistic goal.”


Author: Adriana Perhamus

Editor: Rain Embuscado