Project Introduction Text: AMPLIFY

AMPLIFY – Amplifying Creative Communities in New York City (1)
by Eduardo Staszowski

The project “Amplifying Creative Communities in New York City” takes a localized approach towards new ideas that can make the transition to more sustainable cities. The starting point of the project is that sustainable social innovation is present in hidden, less evident forms, in small self-organized groups that seek to improve their lives and environment through collaboration.
Creative Communities are “groups of almost ‘heroic’ and innovative citizens, which organize themselves to solve daily problems towards a more social cohesive and ecoefficient sustainable way of living” (Meroni, 2007)3. We can call these interactions between people who cooperate, as collaborative services (Jégou & Manzini, 2008)4 or services that ask for the direct and active participation of the promoters of the initiative and the final users. These initiatives often promote alternative solutions to urban everyday problems: housing, eating, commuting, learning, socializing, health care, etc.
Some initiatives of this kind are already well-know models such as food coops, community supported agriculture, urban farms, farmers markets, bike-sharing systems and others. Other cases are much less known, for instance: alternative mobility solutions such as associations organizing a “walking bus” with parents or grandparents to take children to school on foot or micro-nurseries set up at home and managed by enterprising mothers.
The Amplify project represents one possible answer to how designers and urban planners can stimulate the generation of sustainable and socially innovative solutions to urban everyday problems. In practice with this project the DESIS Lab at Parsons The New School for Design proposes a design-driven amplification method so to improve and expand the capacity of neighborhoods and communities to recognize, envision and diffuse social innovations at a local level, to amplify them.

The city of New York with its cultural diversity and economic vitality is a unique laboratory for experimenting, modeling and showcasing sustainable forms of urban living. All over New York City, small groups of individuals or Creative Communities are finding creative ways to live more sustainably by doing more with less. They share resources, exchange labor and improve the local environment. These initiatives are prototypes of future lifestyles that are being tested against real-world constraints.
Within this larger context the project will conduct two localized amplifications in two different neighborhoods, starting in the Lower East Side neighborhood of Manhattan. The Lower East Side was chosen as the initial site for this project “due to its high population density, diverse ethnic communities, history of resistance to gentrification and strong political capital.
The Lower East Side Ecology Center (5) described the neighborhood’s transformation from the 1980’s – when it was reminiscent of a burnt out city in post-war Germany – to the present time in which there are over 50 thriving community gardens that connect local residents and increase their cohesiveness”.
The Lower East Side is a neighborhood in the Southeastern of the New York City borough of Manhattan. Its boundaries have been a source of controversy, with historical boundaries changed by real estate dynamics. In this project, we have adopted the boundaries outlined by the Community Board (6) : the East River on the east, the Brooklyn Bridge on the south, Pearl Street, Baxter Street, Canal Street, Bowery and Fourth Avenue on the west, and 14th Street on the north.

Figure 1: The geographic boundaries of the Lower East Side.

In terms of demographics, the Lower East Side is a historically heavily populated area in the city. In the past, the Jewish immigrants made majority in the area, currently, its ethnic diversity is remarkable, with significant Asian/Pacific Islander presence (35%) geographically concentrated in Chinatown area, below Canal Street; considerable Hispanic presence (26%), enough to create a Hispanic nickname for the neighborhood “Loisada”. The neighborhood economic profile, albeit in rapid transformation is still pretty low. It has traditionally been an immigrant, working class neighborhood, but it has undergone rapid gentrification in recent years. The median annual income in 2006 was $36,500, which is 46% of the citywide median income of $76,800. 49% of population receives income support (such as public assistance, SSI, Medicaid).
Research has revealed different layers through which social innovation materializes, from informal spontaneous practices, historical results of local politics such as
community gardens, to formalized efforts of local non-profits.

Project Aims
How can designers intervene to scale up diffuse social innovation at a local level? Innovative grassroots practices are often below the radar of the general public and need to be acknowledged and sometimes “normalized” to be accepted as valid and desirable.
In order to achieve this goal the project aims at defining and experimenting with a socalled amplification method articulated around three main actions:
1. Mapping of diffuse sustainable social innovations.
2. Designing scenarios to promote synergies around shared visions and toolkits to stimulate the start-up of new initiatives
3. Communicating sustainable social innovations through (a) exhibitions, (b) workshops and (c) websites to stimulate strategic conversations, create awareness
and promote change within communities.
This is not necessarily a linear process. The exhibition for instance, more than a space for showing final results is a research tool and a method of interaction with local communities where mapping and designing activities can also take place and the content can change before, during and after the exhibit.

The First Amplification
The first amplification, proposed for the Lower East side started in November 2009 and is planned to end by the end of September 2010. It is the result of a process of mapping, designing and communicating involving faculty and students from Parsons The New School of Design, local experts, designers and local partners (7). The main outputs are described below:
A first exhibition (from August 5th to September 15th, 2010) was developed for the Abrons Art Center at the Henry Street Settlement8 in the Lower East Side where we show not only examples of social innovation (from the Lower East Side and around the world) and proposals but we also solicit the feedback from the public regarding the desirability and feasibility of these ideas.

Figure 2: Invitation for the Amplify exhibition at the Abrons Art Center.

For this exhibition we have envisioned five main sections, with each one designed using an interactive element to create a direct dialogue with the public:
Section 1: For the first amplification, we decided to start our mapping activity focusing on the Community Gardens of the Lower East side considered by this research the most important urban activism manifestation in the neighborhood. Our hypothesis was that members of the gardens were likely to be also partaking in other innovative and sustainable endeavors within the community. Over 75 Parsons students (9) documented 17 Community Gardens on the Lower East Side by interviewing members, taking photos and mapping them digitally. They interviewed residents, produced films and photographic reportages. In fact, this survey helped uncovering “below the radar” initiatives that were happening on a micro level and hidden from the sight of the general public. Students’ findings have been uploaded at the Green Map (10) platform.
In this section, an installation showcases 17 community gardens as examples of urban activism in the neighborhood. It portrays the phenomena of the community gardens as mapped by Parsons students. Members of each one of the researched gardens were invited to participate in an event to create a physical representation of their own garden, using real plants coming from the gardens. In this section, there’s no research question being proposed. Instead, it is thought as a participatory section helping to create further self-awareness around the community gardens as gateways into the less visible forms of social innovation on the Lower East Side.

Figure 3: Overview of Section 1 of the Amplify exhibition at the Abrons Art Center with miniatures of gardens recreated for the exhibition.

Section 2: In this section, a large map of the Lower East Side placed in the middle of the exhibition inviting the public to use index cards to identify examples of socially innovative practices on the Lower East Side.

Figure 4: Overview of Section 2 of the Amplify exhibition at the Abrons Art Center with the index cards used by the public.

Section 3: In this section, visitors were invited to browse international stories from around the world (11) displayed on wall-mounted iPods to learn from their successes and choose the ones that could be started up on the Lower East Side. A voting system allowed the public to select their favorite cases.

Figure 5: Overview of Section 3 of the Amplify exhibition at the Abrons Art Center with wallmounted iPods.

Section 4: A closer look at the results of the research with garden members led us to identify creative solutions for everyday life developed by garden members as well as four main challenges or areas of unmet needs:
• How to take care of the elderly: Traditional forms of support like Senior Centers are receiving fewer resources. How can we take this problem as an opportunity to rethink senior-focused services on the Lower East Side?
• How to eat healthy: Obesity, diabetes, and health issues related to food are a national and local challenge. How can we make the community’s alternative food
systems such as urban agriculture, food co-ops, and community-supported agriculture groups more accessible to the entire Lower East Side population?
• How to improve housing and home services: With the pressure of gentrification, living on the Lower East Side is becoming more and more difficult to afford. And community bonds are fraying. Can we imagine collaborative services that respond to these challenges?
• How to benefit from our cultural diversity: The Lower East Side has historically been a melting pot of the most diverse communities, accommodating people from all over the world. How can we transform this wealth of cultures into a productive celebration rather than a community characterized by language barriers and

In this section four short videos designed by Parsons students (12) tell stories, local demands, unmet needs and existing innovative solutions in the neighborhood (all four related to each of the above described areas).

Figure 6: Overview of Section 4 of the Amplify exhibition at the Abrons Art Center

Section 5: In this section, students from Parsons responding to the mix of demands and existing cases of social innovation in the Lower East Side presented four different scenarios in the form of posters containing new collaborative service ideas for the Lower East Side. In this area the public was invited to use markers and post-its to leave their comments on the proposals.

Figure 7: Overview of Section 5 of the Amplify exhibition at the Abrons Art Center with a poster with one of scenarios designed by students for the Lower East Side.

On August 10th, 2010 a workshop was held with our project partners, local experts, designers, and members of the DESIS Network from Italy and The United States to discuss the amplification process and analyze the scenarios designed by a group of Parsons students. Students presented their scenarios and participants discussed their feasibility, usability, adequacy to local conditions, hypothesizing about possible features of each scenario.

Figure 8: Workshop session at Parsons The New School for Design

Parsons students under the supervision of the design firm IDEO are currently designing a series of toolkits aiming at disseminating examples of collaborative services in the Lower East Side. The toolkits will be available for download at the project website and should encourage individuals, local non-profits and policy-makers in the adoption of solutions that promote sustainable lifestyles in the Lower East Side.

The results of the project will be uploaded at the project website (13), which constitutes the main digital database of the project.

Figure 9: Screenshot of the Amplify website

Next steps
Once concluded the first amplification on the Lower East Side, the results of all conversations established during the exhibition and workshops will be analyzed and then uploaded in the Amplify website, the main repository of the project. A second amplification is planned to start in November 2010 in Brooklyn.

Design Role
As discussed earlier, the Amplify project proposes a design-driven method to improve and expand the capacity of neighborhoods and communities to recognize, envision and diffuse social innovations at a local level, to amplify them.

For AMPLIFY, people are already innovating ways of living and working. In this context designing is first to recognize the existence of a (tacit and diffuse) design capacity to solve urban everyday problems and then to apply more explicit design skills in order to:
• Improve the success of these initiatives and make them more desirable and usable solutions for others to adopt.
• Promote synergies around a common and shared vision, resources and infrastructure.

Supporting and facilitating strategic conversations From planning to implementation, the idea of amplification is to promote participation among the local stakeholders. It uses mapping tools to identify resources, show cases studies to create inspire; develop guerrilla ethnographic video documentaries to give voice to specific demands of the community and design scenarios to activate dialogues about the future.
Communication design has also been at the core of the project and three main channels have been used throughout the amplification process:
• Exhibitions: Exhibitions are normally set up to show some final product. Within the Amplify project, the exhibition is used as research tool and a method of interacting with the public and consulting the community.
• Workshops: Beyond the exhibition, the project makes use of workshops to analyze the context and discuss proposals in direct contact with stakeholders.
• Website: The project maintains a website to document and show its results and interact with the community.

Envisioning and visualizing
In the Amplify project scenarios have been used to stimulate a conversation about the future of a particular solution or system. They are specially constructed stories about different possible ideas, aimed at deliberately exploring alternative futures and understanding their implications. For the exhibition we asked students to design posters portraying a collage of street façades for presenting the context of our proposals together with an evocative title, and short concise texts describing the overall strategy and the main concepts. The scenarios are now being validated by the exhibition visitors and discussed in workshops in order to select service ideas to be prototyped in the form of Do-It-Yourself toolkits. The toolkits are a highly communicative set of tools aimed at experimenting with the dissemination, starting-up and implementation of collaborative services.

Eduardo Staszowski
Assistant Professor of Design Strategies
DESIS Lab, Parsons The New School for Design (2)
66 Fifth Avenue, Room 828
New York, NY 10011
Tel: +1 (212) 229-5700 x 2977

(1) A two-year project led by DESIS Lab at Parsons The New School for Design, in partnership with Green Map Org, Lower East Side Ecology Center and the design firm IDEO; funded by The Rockefeller Foundation 2009 NYC Cultural Innovation Fund and supported by the DESIS Network.
(2) Design for Social Innovation and Sustainability Research Laboratory (
(3) Meroni A., (Ed.) (2007), Creative communities. People inventing sustainable ways of living in Europe, Edizioni Polidesign, Milano (
(4) Jégou, F., & Manzini, E. (2008). Collaborative Services: Social Innovation and Design for Sustainability, Edizioni Polidesign, Milano (
(5) In its first amplification in the Lower East Side, DESIS Lab is partnering with the Lower East Side Ecology Center (, a local not for profit organization, to reach out to local innovators.
(7) For this amplification DESIS Lab is working with the following local partners: Green Map System, which utilizes mapmaking to promote sustainable community development in over 50 countries; the Lower East Side Ecology Center, which provides community-based environmental education and activism opportunities to New York City residents; and the New York office of the design consultancy IDEO.
(9) Students enrolled in the course “Design and Everyday Experience” at Parsons Design and Management Program
(11) Collected by the design schools of the DESIS network (
(12) Students enrolled in the course “Amplify Social Innovation” at Parsons Environmental Studies Program

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