After a bus journey, a few elongated flights and a car drive I have finally covered the mammoth distance to the city of my childhood. After years of living in different parts of the country and world, I am back here for the summer and the Maharam Fellowship project.
The past year at RISD, for me, has been about extensive research into possible ways to discuss the disappearance of the pangolin- a little known endangered species of mammals that walk our two largest continents. This enquiry into a single species became the face of my interest in discussing the disappearance of fauna due to various human activities. Trying to dissect the possible psychological fronts in the context of the disappearing pangolin has opened various pathways for future study of related subject matter rooted in understanding our relationship with the natural world. This research has lead me to experiment with various points of design interventions as a source of disseminating information as well as encouraging local involvement.
My name is Mudita, I am a Narrative and Strategic Designer, who is currently writing from Guwahati, Assam. The Indian state of Assam shares its northern border with Bhutan, its southern tip with Bangladesh and is known for its extensive tea production industry. Guwahati being a relatively smaller city, yet the largest in north-eastern India, is often visited by tourists on their way to the rest of the north-eastern states. The project I plan to pursue through the Maharam Fellowship is the next step in my endeavor to bring to light the discussions of biodiversity, its disappearance and conservation; hopefully creating a larger impact starting in Guwahati, Assam.For the next 8 weeks, I will be working with Mr. Jayaditya Purkayastha, a herpetologist who is the General Secretary at Help Earth, an NGO working tirelessly to drive the conversation about the conservation of urban biodiversity into every household.
Over the past week, I have had two meetings with Mr. Purkayastha, to discuss the possible ways in which I could integrate my interests and aspirations with the functioning of his organization. A widely published author, Mr. Purkayastha has written books on the variety of birds, snakes and turtles found in Assam. His organization is now interested in encouraging school students to be invested in the documentation and conservation of urban biodiversity in Guwahati.
This is where I step in.
Over the next few weeks, I will be spending time with the research papers and other theoretical documents produced and collected by Mr. Purkayastha and his team. I plan to transform these into age appropriate educational material integrated with activities which can be used by schools to encourage the involvement of students in the larger conversation of biodiversity and its conservation.
If this experiment goes well, we would have the opportunity to further promote and integrate biodiversity centric, activity based educational material within the mainstream educational system; starting from this obscure, often forgotten city of Guwahati.
Last week I started my Maharam Fellowship, working in Providence City Hall in the Mayor’s Center for City Services (MCCS). My project is focused on how the 311 system can be made more approachable and effective on multiple scales.
This is an initial mapping I did to understand the current system of constituents, city services, and MCCS.
For those who don’t know, 311 is the typical (at least typical of American municipalities) phone line for contacting city government. It’s the non-emergency line for calling when the sidewalks are cracked or there is graffiti on a school wall. As a symbol, it is typically understood as inefficient, unreliable and cumbersome.
311 is available via website, app, in person or online.
Jorge Elorza, Providence’s current mayor, rebooted Providence’s 311 system in March 2016 after some starts and sputters. Using new software and a new team, over the course of 15 months 311 has seen over 17,000 cases registered and completed. Part of that new team is the Director, Andy Jacques, who was actually the Assistant Director for Leadership Programs at RISD (my boss there too) and my strongest ally.
This is a cheeseball picture of City Hall, which if you didn’t know is adjacent to Kennedy Plaza.
311 functions extremely well as a one to one recorder of one constituent addressing one problem (such as a pothole or sidewalk), but I’m interested in using the recognizable and effective 311 infrastructure and applying it to larger city services.
As I settle into City Hall, my first impression is the high-spirited and infectious energy of the place. One of my first days I went on a tour and everyone was so genuine and excited for me to join the team, in a way that I was not expecting of municipal government. The current administration is super young and eager to leave behind the past (see Crimetown) and embrace the opportunities the city of Providence has; as a liberal powerhouse with a large immigrant population, great universities and old, but historic infrastructure. In fact, City Hall is home to the third largest self-supporting stairs in the world (said a Public Property employee to me once)
Photo for reference by Liane Brandon (pretty impressive)
My task the first two weeks is finding my way into the project by absorbing the various facets of the MCCS office and connecting with outside offices such as Innovation, Planning and Development and Public Works. I am trying to strike a balance of understanding the systems but not accepting them because my strength in this position is as an outsider.
City cases as a network of infrastructure projects? Stay tuned…
In my next few weeks, I hope to develop more relationships with municipal offices and focus on constituent outreach, learning about their perceptions of the 311 service and how it can be improved and expanded.
Being in government, I am learning a little politicin‘ and have been able to meet with various directors and leaders around the city and state. Today I actually got to have lunch with the Secretary of State, Nellie Gorbea, who is the first Hispanic person to be elected to statewide office in New England.
This summer I will be joining Agence Akoaki contributing to the complex project that is: The One Mile Mile Project (O.N.E. Mile) in Detroit. The project is a multi-disciplinary collaborative effort to support the cultural programs and socio-economic activity of Detroit’s North End neighborhood. I plan to assist in developing a masterplan to present to the City of Detroit by the end of the summer.
My first week in Detroit involved meeting a lot of people from the neighborhood. This can always be a bit nerve racking at first, but I quickly felt more at home in this beautiful “Afrotopia” as Mayoral candidate Ingrid Lafleur puts it. One component of the O.N.E. Mile Project is the Oakland Avenue Urban Farm. Arguably “ground zero” of the project, this is where most day to day operations take place. The first project I executed was developing jam labels for Ann Carter’s strawberry “AfroJam.” One of the products made on site. The final design is not quite ready, but updates to come on that.
My second week of settling in I was able to meet with my ‘mentor’ for the summer: Anya Sirota. She gave me and a group of students for University of Michigan a in depth tour of the site. We have been tasked with designing the function of three buildings that are in a state of transition. I will be working on a former liquor and grocery store, which will become the site of the masterplan unveiling come August or September. So far this consists of developing patterns, and thinking of formal interventions that can preserve the integrity of the neighborhood. In addition to that i’ve been tasked with developing patterns that reference the fruits, vegetables, and local fauna of the neighborhood (There’s a lot of wild pheasants).
I intend to develop a collection of fabrics that can be used for interior (hostel, upholstery, wallpaper) and exterior (greenhouse, street painting, mural) uses. They need to be “almost wrong” in Anyas words, and I want them to be pure Detroit, which means it needs to be gangster and opulent. Heres the initial two i’ve come up with:
A personal goal i’ve set for myself this summer was to research what other changemakers were doing outside of the O.N.E. Mile Project. My first step was attending the Allied Media Conference, a 4 day event “bringing together a vibrant and diverse community of people using media to incite change.” The set of the conference involves a series of workshops, lectures, discussions, and parties to facilitate an exchange of knowledge and organizational strategy.
The summer so far has been full of growth and new knowledge; my love of Detroit grows strong. There have been so many beautiful people I’ve met who have been contributing to the city’s “rebirth” since before the term began to enter headlines. Im anxious to see what else the summer has in store, and am curious to see how this relationship between Downtown and the neighborhoods progresses with mayoral primaries coming soon.
We’re working with Lowtech Magazine to create a content-management system and a digital and print platform. Lowtech Magazine looks back at old technology to see its benefits and forwards at the environmental implications of rapid technological advancements. Its founder, Kris De Decker, aptly navigates the tension of using the internet to get his lowtech message out to the world, and primarily, a US audience.
Two Weeks In
For the past two weeks, we’ve been acclimating to Dutch life (securing bikes for transport) and diving into the 10-year archive of Low-tech Magazine. We’re examining the articles looking for themes and popular content and proposing new organizational structures that best serve the well-researched articles.
We’re particularly interested in the ways that our work will also navigate the high and low-tech tension— a redesigned website, the environmental impact of a print publication, the impact of our travel to a different continent—and we’ve been mindful of what decisions we can make to allow these new platforms to be as environmentally friendly as possible. So far, we’ve been investigating whether white screens consume more energy than black ones (because of new LCD screen technology, they no longer do), what makes a typeface environmentally friendly (amount of ink it requires coupled with its letter-width and how that affects page count), and if the amount of bleach required in the process of recycling paper actually makes it more harmful than its original counterpart (we’re still figuring this one out).
We’re trying to embody LTM’s mission to consider sustainability in the full chain of the production processes in our decisions, while working within a limited budget.
Zero Footprint Campus
A big highlight has been seeing Low-tech Magazine’s involvement with the Zero Footprint Campus (ZFC). Kris, working with researcher Melle Smets, has proposed the Human Power Plant, a dorm powered by the physical volunteer labor of students. It’s an idea that, again, wrestles with the tension of low-tech solutions (physical labor in the form of exercise machines) to a highly tech-based society (energy to run laptops and cell phones).
Other projects within the ZFC umbrella include a critical “read-in” of the library canon, a Scenario machine to provoke discussions on possible futures, a Sweat(er) Shop that promotes full use of local resources by felting the wool from sheep on campus, and Spacekeet, a mobile DIY satellite ground station.
We’re thankful for the space to pursue these questions, something that’s not really possible during the hectic and fast pace of the school year.