technology + culture + cities

Work Reimagined

by Laura Forlano and Megan Halpern

“The further ahead in time we want to forecast, the further back in time we should look.” -Brad DeLong, Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Treasury from 1993-1995

On Friday, September 19th, we held a workshop — or, more accurately, a gameshop — on the future of work. Approximately 30 people, including labor organizers and advocates, foundation administrators, scholars, technology experts, and designers, gathered at the Chicago Institute for Design for the event, which was part of a three month project on the future of work supported by the Open Society Foundations. We played with the ways technology and labor are intertwined throughout history, and imagined new scenarios in the past, present, and future in the hopes of using factual and counterfactual histories to think in new ways about the future.

The day was structured in two parts. First, we drew inspiration from cultural probes, reflective design, meaningful play, and critical games to create a board game in which participants created imagined interventions into labor history. Players traveled across a game board that took the form of a timeline to engage with historical technologies throughout several eras. In ancient Greece, for example, they were presented with information about devices for measuring time such as the water clock; in the late industrial era, they examined the assembly line; in the present, they focused on technologies associated with the automated warehouse; and in the future, they played with ideas surrounding robots and artificial intelligence. Each turn, teams moved through time and were tasked with creative actions like “design a corporate logo” and “plan a collective action” within the designated time period and technology. Their particular space on the board provided them with a perspective from which to approach the task. They might, for instance, land on “child factory worker, England” in the era of the steam engine.


Teams gathered around a game board in the shape of a timeline that spanned almost 3000 years. The board was divided into 5 eras, and each era explored labor in terms of set of technologies.


Teams drew inspiration from quotes, images, and information cards in each era, but their task (action card) asked them to create something new, and allowed them to depart from the historical timeline.

In the second part of the workshop, teams used lo-fidelity prototyping (with materials such as string, cardboard boxes, metal mesh, felt and blue tape) to build on some of the ideas that were proposed during the game play. We asked groups to think about the most counterintuitive revelations during the game, and to build on those by creating an object, prototype, platform or experiment of some kind.


A prototype of a workers’ surveillance system that monitors working conditions, environment, and employers’ surveillance systems and provides a printout indicating the safety and privacy of the worker. The prototype was called “Little Sister C’s U.”

We had two aims in mind when we began this project. The first was to explore the ways design methods like prototyping could be used to help labor advocates create new alliances and different approaches to the opportunities and challenges they face in day-to-day organizing around the future work. The second was to use the past to examine the future. Both of these goals focused on helping labor advocates plan for the future, but early interviews with labor organizers and activists were revealing. For example, the challenges that labor advocates face are more immediate; for them, working for more equitable labor policies means planning through the next election cycle, not the next century. Additionally, continued struggles for living wages and other rights means that engaging with the ways new technologies are reconfiguring (and sometimes eliminating) labor is more abstract. These interviews informed our game design, and ultimately, we are hopeful that our reimagining work game helped open the door to longer term thinking and planning as well as new possibilities for partnerships between technologists, designers, labor advocates and workers.

Basic CMYK

This project is supported by the Open Society Foundations’ U.S. Programs Future of Work inquiry, which is bringing together a cross-disciplinary and diverse group of thinkers to address some of the biggest questions about how work is transforming and what working will look like 20-30 years from now. The inquiry will explore how the transformation of work, jobs and income will affect the most vulnerable communities, and what can be done to alter the course of events for the better.

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.

Service Design Futures

Service Design Futures

What does theater have to do with service design? This question was addressed in a presentation, “Dramaturgy of Services,” by Roman Aebersold, a designer from Lucerne School of Art and Design in Switzerland, who has been a visitor at the Parsons this spring. The presentation was part of a workshop, “Service Design Performances,” which was organized by the DESIS Lab in late May in order to convene New York’s design community and cultivate a discussion around designing for services. As design tools and methods have become increasingly useful for problem-solving in a wide range of areas, designers are playing an important role in creating not only logos and websites but also interactions, organizations and systems.

At Parsons, the intersecting role of design for services, sustainability and social innovation mark the core of courses, external partnerships and labs, which consider the role of services at the individual, household and city level, explained Lara Penin, co-founder of the DESIS Lab. We interact with many kinds of services everyday including government and commercial services though a series of “touchpoints” in face-to-face settings as well as by phone and through websites. We are also sometimes providers of services for one another however, we sometimes fail to recognize our own roles as service providers.

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