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Surf and the City

How riding a river wave in landlocked Munich can teach us about design.This morning I woke with a familiar sense of anticipation...

How riding a river wave in landlocked Munich can teach us about design.This morning I woke with a familiar sense of anticipation and apprehension—the kind that pushes you to an early rise on a sleepy Sunday morning, to creep out into the cold before anyone is up and squeeze into a neoprene wetsuit. Your bare feet itch with excitement as you spot the other surfers who were up earlier than you. It's a new spot and you watch in awe, and in fear.

What was different about this morning’s surf spot was its location: under a bridge beside the Art Museum in the heart of Munich. In landlocked Bavaria, the best surf spots are at points of rivers and canals around the city. The strongest and most popular is the Eisbach (Ice Brook), where river surfers line the banks and wait their turn to jump onto their board and attempt to ride the stationary wave.

A while had passed since I was last donned a wetsuit. Assessing the physics of it all, I asked a local for some advice: “What do you need to do differently than on an ocean wave?” He looked serious. “Place your feet further back on the board, lean further forward, focus on the tree, fall flat but importantly, ignore the audience on the bridge above.” This was surfing in a very different setting—same concept, different context.

He gave me a motivational smile and a thumbs-up; I nodded and jumped in. The forces were all reversed, pushing off the side into the wave instead of being picked up by it, being pulled back by the water instead of being pushed forward. Almost immediately I was face-down in the swell. I’d felt this splash before, but then I felt the real force of this different context.

Instead of paddling to the surface to wait for a break in the waves, or to be washed up to shore and the safety of a sandy beach, I was being pulled downstream in a city river. Fast. This I had not studied, observed nor predicted. I wasn’t as buoyant as I am in the ocean, and the water didn't taste salty. I swam frantically to the side and grabbed the wall of the river bank. My hands ripped across the stone and I realized the speed of the river.

Panicked paddling brought me back to the side and a fellow surfer grabbed my arm. Grabbing the wall again I held on and pulled myself out, grappling with my board as it pulled at my ankle. I was out.

Tourists stand with their cameras at the bridge, capturing the surreal sight of river surfing that breaks their expectations of a city tour. I stood dripping onto the grass, smelling spring leaves instead of salt air, tasting mud instead of sand, needing gloves instead of a rash vest. Captured by the surreal senses of city surfing breaking my expectations of early morning surfing.?

I caught my breath and watched the drifting line of surfers pulled down the river after me, jumping out with varying elegance. I joined the line up with renewed awareness of the experience, other than the obvious, or directly translatable; the shape of the boards, the shape of the surfers, the sound of the wave, the sound of the city.

Many jumps, splashes, and grapples later I was satisfied with my ability to at least stand on the wave, though far from able to navigate it. I gave in to the cold and packed up. As I rode home through the city, with my board hanging off my bike I could feel the same warmth of adrenalin as it rushed around my body. I smiled at having found a new reason to wake up in the mornings with a sense of apprehension.

It struck me that as designers the concepts we create will inevitably reach many more users, in many more settings than we can deliberately design for—and that rather than denying or ignoring these adaptations we can learn from, understand, and be inspired by our concepts in their different contexts.

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