Stories, moments, people and ideas of interest from within the worlds of innovation and design, spotted and written about by Helen Walters, design writer, editor, and ideas editor at TED. Attitude, errors and opinions obviously all the writer's own.
Ask me anything
January 2, 2013
"We must figure out a way to un-invent this food system."
Mark Bittman is always worth reading on the topic of food, and I loved this op ed, Fixing the Food Problem, in the New York Times in which he makes the case for both a systematic re-imagining of the way in which the food we consume is produced and distributed and our need to be patient while we do so. Reminiscent of Bill Buxton’s Long Nose of Innovation theory, it also reminded me of a conversation with an executive working on trying to innovate healthcare: laying the foundation is important and unflashy, she told me, when I was trying to figure out a story angle to impress both my editors and readers. As she explained, she wouldn’t be able to give me the all-important results or payoff on which I could hang my story of the progress of her work, because she wouldn’t know them herself for a decade or so. So that stopped me.
We’re all too impatient to see the fruits of our labor. This piece reminds us that every step we take is important, not just the ones when we triumphantly cross the line at the end of the journey. (And, of course, the end is never the end, anyway.)
I feel self-conscious writing this, as it feels awfully indulgent given what else is going on in New York, but please bear with me as I recount my personal tale of two cities, prompted by trying to do something useful in the aftermath of Storm Sandy. There’s certainly no such thing as a universal experience in an event like this, so this is just one story and some thoughts on the last week in NYC.
Resolving to do *something* to help after it was clear that the problems of a power-free New York weren’t limited to mere inconvenience, I ended up picking up on a tweet sent my way. Gene Moy, someone I follow but have never met, sent word of an old people’s home in Chinatown in need of help. The director of development there confirmed this was so and we exchanged a few emails about what would actually be useful. So now I had a task. It involved relying on the generosity of many strangers.
Local stores donated supplies without question. It led me to joke with my current house guest, a refugee from Manhattan herself, that going around collecting donations would be an excellent way to stock up my own cupboards. Not a very charitable thought, granted, but there are always some people looking to take advantage of a situation. I certainly had no way to *prove* that I was being a good citizen and that these donations would go to a good place, aside from talking to those in stores I go to all the time. For some reason, that felt like a good way to persuade people I was on the up and up.
Then to Zipcar. I had considered cycling over to Manhattan, but by now I had a decent amount of supplies, so I figured I’d chance the three-person-per-car rule and make the trip over the bridge from my home in Brooklyn. I’d either find people en route, I reckoned, or perhaps showing a carful of supplies would soften the heart of a bridge-blocker.
It didn’t. My imagined orderly lines of carpoolers never materialized, so before I knew where I was, I was being turned away from the bridge. “Do you know the way to Red Hook?” I asked the policeman, thinking that perhaps I could repurpose my supplies to a badly-affected neighborhood in Brooklyn. “No idea. And the traffic’s terrible,” came the reply. He was right. So now I was in a bit of a bind. Not wanting to go home with all my supplies and not much fancying the idea of driving around Brooklyn in the vague hope of finding a disaster zone (and thus contributing to the emissions the car was already pumping into the atmosphere) I instead turned into the Mobil gas station right by the bridge, turned off the engine, and threw myself on the mercy of Twitter.
Turned back at bridge despite car full of supplies. Looking for 2 people to go on a joyride to Manhattan
Within seconds, my feed went bananas as people spread word far and wide through their communities. Really, it was amazing. And then, also within seconds, I had an answer. Replied one Dustin M. Slaughter:
They weren’t lying. Before too long, up ambled two guys I’d never met, who’d been tracking the storm and Twitter from Dumbo. We shook hands, we got in the car, I warned them that I’m a terrible driver, they didn’t seem perturbed, and off we went.
With native New Yorker @subverzo navigating, we made it to Chinatown just as it got dark. Driving through a traffic light-free neighborhood, it felt like we’d stumbled into a post-apocalyptic hinterland, with the dark figures of cyclists occasionally flickering by like bats. Bonus: trying to find the home turned out to be easy in a dark, empty Manhattan where driving the wrong way down a one-way street (slowly) had zero implications.
We dropped off our supplies at a building being guarded by the most cheerful caretakers imaginable, who were effusive in their thanks as they guided us by flashlight to plonk our water and food down next to the ping pong table. “Be careful out there,” warned Manny, who took a moment to give a speech in our honor. “We’ve heard that kids are taking cars and driving them fast.” We took that in and then we all beamed at one other, I think I might have bowed (I get easily confused) and then my new companions and I headed out, on a slow, eerie drive through a deserted Manhattan.
I’ve lived in New York for ten years, and I figure I know it pretty well, but I met a different city that night. It felt like we were driving through a deserted filmset of the city, with occasional flashes of brightly lit scenes of workers sweeping away water or groups of police gathered around a van or marshals guiding traffic with glowsticks. Into the Financial District and a whole new story, as the trees in Zuccotti Park shone with fairylights, some of the buildings clearly had access to generators and the traffic lights were working (causing me to have to rethink my alarmingly-quickly-learned habit of ignoring them all.) We walked down to Ground Zero to observe people hard at work, with the Goldman Sachs building like a beacon in the distance. (Of course it’s great that any building should have its emergency generator working, but as my new companion @subverzo put it: "Damn, Goldman Sachs, do you really need to have EVERY light on?") I like my new friends and I like the instant cameraderie we have forged. We actually don’t talk much about ourselves, but just get on with the job of looking around us and exchanging the occasional "whoa" at what we’re seeing.
And that’s my story. We drive back along dark Canal Street, monitored by those flashlight-wielding workers. We head back over the bridge and I drop my two intrepid explorers back in Dumbo. To them and to all those who contributed in any way to this experience (including those on Twitter urging on with support and ideas) I thank you; it was an honor. We often complain of the alienating nature of technology, but in this instance it acted as pure connector. There is much still to be done; these days post-storm—when the adrenaline has ebbed but the reality is still sinking in—will continue to prove a real challenge for so many. But I loved this part of the story, and I’m glad that the virtual became the real-world for a few hours.
So much has been written about KONY2012, the 30 minute video by Invisible Children about the Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony, that I won’t bother to rehash it here. Instead, read Ethan Zuckerman's analysis, Xeni Jardin's tracking of the anti-gay, Christian right donors to the campaign, or Alex Dewaal's evenly-keeled criticism at the World Peace Foundation.
I have two main observations: first, look at the image above, which shows up towards the end of the film to illustrate how the world no longer funnels power from the wealthy to the powerful to the people. The elevation of the United States (see the flag) above the “people of the world” is most likely not intended to imply that Americans are or were superior to the rest of the world. But it’s jarring given the accusations of colonial intent being leveled at the filmmakers. Second, did no one else feel even a brief shiver down their spine to hear the excitable conclusion to the film? “The better world we want is coming. It’s just waiting for us to stop at nothing,” says narrator Jason Russell. “Holy shit, brr, how do you spell ‘totalitarian’?” say I.
On a related note, I’ve been saddened to read the coverage about Homeless Hotspots, currently the topic du jour to come from the South by Southwest festival. The idea: give homeless people (all of whom agree to take the gig) a MiFi device so conference attendees can pay to access 4G networks. There’s been a lot of discussion about this, and a robust backlash-to-the-backlash mounted by organizing agency, BBHLabs. Once again, I fall into the camp of finding this exercise to be a too superficial swipe at a complex issue, with a dehumanizing element to boot.
To be clear, I think the intentions of both campaigns are sincere. And it’s smart to use contemporary ideas and methods to bring new life to often-struggling sectors. Yet we know that technology is only a part of the answer; not the answer in and of itself. And somehow both these campaigns seem to have got so carried away with the potential of techno-optimism that they’ve lost sight of some of the starker, deeper and more complex realities of our societies and worlds, not to mention the knock-on effects of some of this behavior. I was musing about this on Twitter last night when the PR woman reached out to me to urge me to talk to BBH’s chief to learn more about this “social experiment.” For me, that phrasing was telling. As long as human beings are considered to be no more than fodder for a social experiment for a marketing company, then we’re not doing it right yet. (Tim Carmody strikes a similar note in a good piece for Wired.) Color me old-fashioned, but I’ll continue to vet and support causes the way I’ve always done.
The 75 million viewers of KONY2012 show there is clearly a hunger for action. Those looking to highlight and address the issues facing the homeless shouldn’t be criticized for their noble instincts. Techniques of the modern age should absolutely be harnessed in the name of change. But sticking up posters or turning people into objects for a week or so seem like weak, short-term solutions that mainly benefit the instigators, not the so-called recipients of the largesse. I feel absolutely certain we can do better.