Social entrepreneurship at its best

19 May 2009

bamboo_bike

Just learned about the Bamboo Bike Studio in Red Hook, right in my own Brooklyn backyard. Basically, you pay $1000, most of which goes to fund a bike factory in Ghana, and you spend a weekend being guided through the process of building your own bamboo bike. From the story, I can’t help but think that this is an ideal fusion of design, DIY, business, sustainability, and philanthropy, with so many great stories wrapped up in one.

For starters, there’s the fact that cycling’s hot right now, especially given the economy and especially in NYC given the MTA’s impending service cuts and fare hikes (now mitigated, but still a factor). Then, there’s the appeal of DIY. For a large segment of the population, there’s nothing more satisfying than building something with your own hands. I’ve noticed this trend personally, through conversations in passing where people lately seem fascinated by the making aspects of my line of work: the woodworking, modelmaking, welding, etc. I think this is particularly true in a bad economy, where our white collar workforce suddenly has a Billy-Crystal-in-City-Slickers “I sell air” sort of moment. When the tangible output of your work consists of numbers in spreadsheets or bullets in Powerpoint docs, the subjective revaluing of a recession tends make your product feel as ephemeral as clouds. It’s the sort of thing that makes most people want to get their hands dirty and build something, whether that’s with a hammer and a tablesaw, or just a box of Legos.

Building a bike is the perfect outlet for this current cultural craving because it’s just challenging enough to be satisfying, but simple enough that you believe you can achieve it, and at the end you have a usable product. And not just a usable product, but one whose regular use can save you money, make you healthier, and make your feel good about your contribution to the planet.

You’ve also gained a skill, so while you’re paying your $1000 ostensibly for materials and charity, you’re also gaining knowledge that can be applied again and again. People love to interact with companies that teach them something (think Home Depot, Apple, etc.) and it inspires fierce loyalty. Not that many people will be repeat bike-builders, but they’ll recommend it to their friends.

I also love the idea of the connection between the African factory and the Brooklyn Studio. I’m sure it takes a Brooklyn newbie at least 10 times as long to build a bike as an African worker, but this only enhances the development of empathy. And that empathy strengthens the logical connection between the philanthropy and the business. My usual gripe with “socially responsible” business models is that the charity has nothing to do with the business. It’s just charity, and if that’s the case, why pay 10% more to a business to decide who to give it to when I could just keep my money and give it to a cause that matters to me? Those unfocused philanthropy programs don’t do much for a company’s brand value, and in my mind constitute a hugely wasted opportunity.

For me, this partnership between the Bamboo Bike Studio and the Bamboo Bike Project is a model for logically conceived philanthropy that can enhance a brand’s value while increasing attention towards an issue the company cares about.

via Daily Candy

Thesis: Aesthetics of Joy

10 February 2009

The major project I’ll be devoting this year to is my master’s thesis, exploring the subject Aesthetics of Joy.

Aesthetics of Joy lies at the foundation of an idea I want to advance called emotional sustainability, which is about cultivating more sustainable relationships between people and their objects through greater attention to the emotional quality of the design. Much has been said about designing for sustainability in recent years, but nearly all of it is functional. Yes, we need to design with less toxic materials, make lighter and less material-intensive products, and design for disassembly and recycling. But if we are to create a more sustainable world, we will need to address the issue of chronic overconsumption, and to do this, we as a culture will need to completely transform our emotional relationship with our stuff.

The current paradigm runs on high passions and an addictive, ecstatic rush at point of sale. This vein of emotions is not sustainable in human relationships and it’s not sustainable in human-object relationships either. Much of design feeds into this emotional roller coaster by playing within an aesthetics of consumerism which offers an intense but superficial pleasure and little in the way of a long-term relationship. So, we need to rethink the messages we are encoding in the way we design products and experiences.

Many emotions will play a role in restoring the emotional sustainability of objects. But I feel that joy is special in a way that is still somewhat ineffable to me. Perhaps there is a biological basis that I will discover in my research, but for now the one essential observation is that joy is a renewable emotion that lends itself to durability. Joy’s essential property is that the same object or experience can trigger joy over and over again. Swinging on a swingset, blowing bubbles, or putting one’s hand into a bowl of jellybeans can be a virtually inexhaustible reservoir of joy; like a sun for the psyche, it will never run out. This puts it in direct opposition to the thrilling nature of today’s consumption, which is based on novelty and intensity, and ultimately fizzles out.

Joy is a very particular thing. It is not happiness, which is too vague and encompassing a positive feeling. Nor is it contentment, with its snug, muted warmth. It is not euphoria, animating the spine with shimmering electricity, nor is it the zen-like feeling we call bliss. Joy inhabits that ineluctable space between wonder and pleasure, neighboring delight, but somehow more profound. Joy is momentary, but not temporary. Surprising, but not necessarily in a spectacular way. It is personal but at the same time universal, an essential emotion that renews and uplifts the human psyche.

It is these universals that I’m after in this project. I want to distill down the essence of joy, the basic aesthetic and intellectual principles that are capable of being experienced by everyone. Over the next 11 months, I’ll be doing fieldwork, concept tests, and interviews with experts that will hopefully clarify what these universals are, and I’ll post thoughts and ideas as I go.

On process and production

20 January 2009

I’m currently in the process of getting some of my work up online, and as I do this, I’m realizing there are aspects of process that I really want to share. Before I went back to design school, I had very little idea of how most things were made, and learning about manufacturing and production has been one of the most thrilling aspects of becoming a designer. I’m fascinated by molds, lathes, mills, laser-cutters, and all the other technical and not-so-technical tools and processes used to transform material into product.

But beyond my own fascination, I feel that it’s important for everyone to start becoming more aware of how the things we use are made. One of the biggest challenges in creating more sustainable production and consumption cycles is that we have lost touch with these processes. Products appear on our shelves and in our homes like magic, and it’s easy that way not to appreciate the tremendous amounts of energy, expertise, and material that went into getting them there. I feel about products much the way that many in the slow and local food movements feel about food – that our loss of connection to the production of our consumables makes it hard for us to understand why we should value these things.

Understanding how things are made also helps consumers parse tradeoffs in cost and quality. Is the product more expensive because of the name and logo, or is there actual handcrafting that augments the value and therefore the cost? Manufacturers are catching on to the idea that a story of craft helps justify a premium, but how to know how much truth is behind the story without some education in the basic ways that materials are shaped and formed?

I’ll be showing photos from my own processes in future posts, but for now, I wanted to show this photo from a silk factory I visited in the Fergana Valley, in Uzbekistan. Uzbekistan is famous for the now-ubiquitous ikat print, which there is made from weaving a silk warp with a cotton or silk weft. But the silk all starts this way, as pods which are boiled in an iron vat over an open fire. The women use sticks to gather the strands from the pods as they are loosened by the hot water and pass them over a hook to a woman who spins the filaments together into a continuous thread.

I know that most silk factories are more modern-looking than this Uzbek one, but I never buy silk at Mood without thinking of matter-of-fact way these women went about that first step of coaxing open the papery pods and reeling in those translucent fibers.