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How We're Turning the City into a Public Laboratory

Anyone who lives in a city can feel, at least at times, like they’re part of a grand experiment. As we move through public space, the volume of...

Anyone who lives in a city can feel, at least at times, like they’re part of a grand experiment. As we move through public space, the volume of people, traffic, noise and visual stimuli is energizing, and overwhelming. Faced with an abundance of visual data, we make split-second observations and decisions that shape how we see the world around us. But how well are we really seeing the world, and the people in it?


When we walk down Market Street in San Francisco, we are in no way passive consumers. We engage with the world around us by reconstructing it through the lens of our interests and experience. So, what if you could hack civic space and make the city streets an interactive laboratory where everyone is both scientist and subject? What experiments would you do?

These are the questions the Exploratorium asked when the City of San Francisco approached us to create the first Living Innovation Zone—one of 10 new public spaces on San Francisco’s Market Street designed to showcase innovation and engage the community, on one of the city’s most complex and, frankly, troubled streets.

What exactly is a Living Innovation Zone? It’s not a park, and not an outdoor museum, or a community center, but it may contain elements of each. It’s more like a public square with innovative structures that might include seating, windbreaks, and items of visual interest. But, most importantly, it’s a place that both reflects and engages the community.

To make sure we were hearing from people that frequent the area, we held a Sketch-In and asked the public to tell us what they wanted to see in the space and what they wanted to know about the people around them. Did they want to play, or quietly observe? Did they want to read a person’s body language, or send whispered messages across a busy boulevard?

While people are good at observing others—it’s surprising how little information we need to draw a much larger conclusion—we don’t always realize our own observational biases, and how they change how we see the world. For example, what if you could only see the shoes of a person walking by for 10 seconds, and then the entire person becomes visible? What conclusions do you draw by just looking at their shoes? Were your presumptions right, wrong, or somewhere in between?

By creating exhibits in public space that help people notice each other, people then notice themselves. By encouraging people to tune their abilities to see more complex behaviors, they learn how they fit into the community on the street, and the community at large.

We’re approaching this entire project in the same way we approach many of our projects—through experimentation, prototyping, and feedback from people who experience our exhibits. This prototyping process isn’t always easy. It involves creating and fabricating exhibits and infrastructure that will entice people to spend time observing the urban environment, and engaging with it in new ways—and then tweaking the ideas when they don’t quite work the way that we thought they would. We expect this Living Innovation Zone to be exactly that—a living, changing, growing space where people will learn about themselves and each other, and see their city in completely new ways.

That the City of San Francisco has streamlined permitting, made the space available, and trusted a cultural institution like the Exploratorium to innovate and prototype in public space at this scale is remarkable. Particularly when you consider that they’re letting us do all of this without a clearly outlined plan, or months of permitting and design negotiations. It’s a model in which government places trust in its community’s creative capital, and is a model for what is possible in civic space across the nation, and the globe. It’s truly a government and community coming together to experiment and innovate in this living laboratory of a city.

Please support the Living Innovation Zone on Indiegogo.

This project is part of GOOD's series Push for Good—our guide to crowdsourcing creative progress.

Images courtesy of Josh Bacigalupi and The Exploratorium

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