Brooklyn As A Lab To Amplify Urban Ideas

The Design for Social Innovation and Sustainability lab has spent the last two years listening to people about how to make their neighborhoods better. Now they have a blueprint to take to the rest of the world.

Brooklyn As A Lab To Amplify Urban Ideas
Flickr user Marco Raaphorst

Ask people what “design” is, and most would probably mention someone like Steve Jobs, an inspired, brilliant thinker (a “genius”) with greater insight than the rest of us. The Jobs model of design is something to be consumed, rather than participated in, and is epitomized by his contempt for market research, and his comment that “it’s not the consumers’ job to know what they want.”


Eduardo Staszowski and Lara Penin, two social innovation academics at Parsons The New School for Design, have a less top-down approach. As shown by their Amplifying Creative Communities exhibition, now showing in North Brooklyn, they want design to emerge from the community, and for designers to re-use other people’s concepts, as much as come up with new ones of their own.

The exhibition is part of a two-year research project funded by the Rockefeller Foundation’s New York City Cultural Innovation Fund, which aims to identify good ideas in the community and “amplify” them.

Staszowski, director of the Design for Social Innovation and Sustainability (DESIS) lab at Parsons, says the starting principle is that solutions to modern-day problems already exist in communities, but are either hidden or not articulated in a way they can be shared, or translated elsewhere.

“We are trying to extract models that designers can work on and extrapolate, and then make accessible to mainstream society. We make the change that is already happening on the ground visible, and create awareness.”

Penin and Staszowski interviewed 30 community leaders in Williamsburg and Greenpoint on a wide range of topics, eventually honing them down to four: sustainability, food systems, transportation alternatives, and sharing. This week, they have been conducting a series of workshops, where teams of participants develop ideas, policies, and “toolkits” based around the four subjects. The results are then presented in the exhibition, which is a giant work-in-progress spread across the Arts@Renaissance center, the former outpatient unit of Greenpoint Hospital.

The Brooklyn exhibit is similar to another Penin and Staszowski put together last year in Manhattan, after working with the Lower East Side Ecology Center.


“This is all about emergent creativity. We are looking to tap into communities and support them, so it’s not about imposing a solution from the outside. It’s about enabling and amplifying those capabilities from within and building them up,” says Duane Bray, a partner at the IDEO design consultancy, who is facilitating some of the workshops.

“The question is how we build narratives around these problems that enables them to be communicated more effectively? For example, can I tell a story that helps people understand there are fresh food alternatives in their neighborhood?”

As well as the exhibition, DESIS has also produced four films highlighting projects in the area, including the Brooklyn Greenway Waterfront Initiative, the Egg Restaurant, Greenpoint-Williamsburg CSA, and Not an Alternative.

But as well as a local focus, Staszowski says the wider intention is for the ideas generated by the project to spread––for example through the DESIS international network, of which the Parsons group is a part.

“We don’t want to stop here. We also want to bring this to the attention of government, and connect with other stakeholders, so the story continues,” he says.

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.