technology + culture + cities

anthropology + design on Savage Minds

anthropology + design: laura forlano. 

I’m an ethnographic time traveler. For much of the last 10 years, I’ve been studying the ways in which the use of communication technology enables emergent socio-cultural practices around working and living in cities. For example, I’m interested in peer-to-peer networking, bottom-up organizing, co-located online collaboration, user-driven social innovation and open source urbanism, to name just a few. I’ve watched teens use mobile phones in Tokyo, observed activists building Wi-Fi networks on rooftops in Berlin, interviewed freelancers in Starbucks cafes in New York, watched doctors use computers in operating rooms, tested iPhone applications for navigating college campuses, visited design studios in Barcelona, and hung out with hackers in Budapest.

Speculative Design and Participatory Design

Students from my 2013 Networked Cities Workshop at the Institute of Design used speculative design and participatory design to investigate the topic of cultured meat.

Digital Fabrication and Hybrid Materialities

Digital Fabrication and Hybrid Materialities

Culture Digitally, December 13, 2013

On a recent visit to Out of Hand: Materializing the Postdigital, an exhibition about digital fabrication at New York’s Museum of Art and Design, I was struck by the ways in which these new tools had replaced traditional materials and processes on the small, white rectangular museum labels. More specifically, in this exhibition, digital fabrication tools such as 3D printing, CNC (computer-numerically-controlled) machining, laser cutting, and digital knitting and weaving—and, more importantly, complex combinations of these tools—took the place of traditional art and design methods such as painting, etching, collage and sculpture. According to the show’s curator Ron Labaco, “In the world of art and design, discourse is not longer preoccupied with the technology in and of itself. Rather, interest lies in how technology may be creatively applied in the interplay between digital and analog, natural and man-made, biological and cultural, virtual and real.”

Review of Ligna’s ‘The First International of Shopping Malls’ (Cork, Ireland)


Furtherfield, November 12, 2013

Murakami’s novel After Dark (2007) which refers to both the mobile phone as well as the retail environment of the 7-Eleven seems a fitting place to begin a review of a new media art project that uses communication technology to explore and inhabit the space of shopping malls. Digital technologies have enabled the emergence of new forms of participatory art, design and creative practices that inhabit urban, communal and personal spaces in a variety of interesting ways. In June 2012, as part of the Midsummer Festival in Cork, Ireland, the German group Ligna, which consists of media theorists and radio artists, created a radio ballet entitled The First International of Shopping Malls. The ballet was part of a series of events called Parallel Cities that was curated by Lola Arias and Stefan Kaegi.

Ethnography as Time Travel

Ethnographies from the Future: What can ethnographers learn from science fiction and speculative design?

Ethnography Matters, September 2013

In the recent science fiction film Elysium, by South-African-Canadian director Neill Blomkamp and Matt Damon, the world has descended into a dystopia in which the poor, non-white population must live in squalor on Earth working for a factory that makes robots while the wealthy have moved to a man-made country club in the sky. A recent segregation-mapping project profiled in WIRED illustrates that extreme geographic divisions between rich and poor are not reserved for Hollywood but are actually part and parcel of our current social realties (Vanhemert, 2013). Increasingly, narratives from science fiction (as well as speculative design and design fiction) are being used as modes of imagining alternative futures in a critical and generative way (without being technodeterministic) in emerging research and design practice, and these practices have much promise for ethnographic methods. For example, for over a decade, the film Minority Report has inspired technologists and designers alike as a classic, deterministic vision of a future in which gestural interfaces and biometric technologies are commonplace.

What is Service Design?

What is Service Design?

From finance to healthcare to media, New York’s economy is primarily driven by services. Yet our understanding of what design offers is rooted in products and places rather than how those things operate or how people use them — design has traditionally concerned itself with goods, not services. Only in the past decade or so have designers been actively reconceptualizing what it means to interact with and help shape service. According to Professor Birgit Mager, who runs the Cologne-based Service Design Network, “Service design addresses the functionality and form of services from the perspective of clients. It aims to ensure that service interfaces are useful, usable, and desirable from the client’s point of view and effective, efficient, and distinctive from the supplier’s point of view.”

In particular, services require designers to empathize with users, to understand interactions as a series of “touchpoints” and to develop a holistic understanding of the ways in which our relationships to services govern everyday life. The multiple ways this emerging field of practice relates to the rest of the design field are still in formation. So I sat down with several leading designers and researchers from universities in the US and Europe to start a conversation about what service design is, where it came from and where it is going. This interview expands on an event, “Service Design Performances” (PDF), which was held at Parsons The New School for Design in late May. The event, organized by the DESIS Lab, is the first in a series of activities around the topic of service design that are taking place in New York in the coming months.

Amplify: Creative and Sustainable Lifestyles on the Lower East Side

Amplify: Creative and Sustainable Lifestyles on the Lower East Side

Are we growing more than plants? This question — blown up in large pink letters on a white wall in a small gallery on the Lower East Side — frames the core of the Amplify exhibition. Like the Lower East Side, the exhibition, which is the product of over one year of planning, research and design, is undergoing a process of evolution and reinvention. The larger initiative, Amplifying Creative Communities, pioneered by the Design for Sustainability and Social Innovation (DESIS) Lab at Parsons The New School for Design, represents the first stage of a multi-year project made possible, in part, by the Cultural Innovation Fund of the Rockefeller Foundation.

As one of the installation’s curators, Lara Penin, an Assistant Professor in the Design and Management department at Parsons, describes it, “The exhibition is a research process, a process of interaction in which the content can change before, during and after the exhibit.” So, like the plants on display at the exhibition that need to be watered in order to survive the August heat, the exhibition is designed to grow. The gallery offers a number of points of interaction where participants can contribute ideas, offer suggestions and “vote” on their favorite examples of sustainability and social innovation from around the world.


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