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What Making Friends with a Duck Can Teach Us About Urban Design

Milan Metthey spent months trying to hang out with a duck. What he learned might help us design cities that function well for multiple species.

[vimeo][/vimeo]

Over at We Make Money Not Art, Regine Debatty introduces us to Milan Metthey, a Design Interactions student at the Royal College of Art, London, who has spent the past couple of months trying to make friends with a duck.


For his first attempt (documented in the video above), Metthey scanned his face into 3D modeling software and melded it with the head of a duck, "in order to get a new hybrid duck with my own facial characteristics." He then put that new and, frankly, quite scary-looking head onto a remote-controlled duck, and sent his avian alter ego out onto the pond to make friends. Unsurprisingly, the other, "real" ducks want nothing to do with him.

[vimeo][/vimeo]

Next, Metthey dressed up as a male Mallard duck, and filmed himself shuffling around in yellow leggings with a duck call in his mouth. But when he showed the resulting video to a lady duck, she refused to look him at all. Perhaps this is how ducks flirt, by playing hard to get, but the effect is disheartening.

[vimeo][/vimeo]

Finally, Metthey realizes that if his appearance and moves won't win a lady duck's attention, he can always turn to bribes. He stages a one-on-one dinner with a friendly female, during which he snacks on sweetcorn while she gracefully nibbles at similar-looking yellow pellets of duck food. As Metthey explains to Debatty, dinner is definitely the most effective way to make friends with a duck, because "there was a magic element to trigger an interaction: food"

Aside from the inadvertent demonstration of the power of a shared meal to bring diverse groups together, and their whimsical charm, Metthey's experiments do serve an interesting purpose. His research is driven by the question of "how technology can help reduce the gap between species," particularly in the case of an animal—the Mallard duck—that is perceived as wild, and yet lives alongside us in our cities (his next project attempts to "enhance and facilitate cohabitation" with urban foxes).

As cities continue to grow, spreading outward across the landscape and into each other, it's worth thinking about how experiments like Metthey's might help us design urban ecologies that function equally well for all their animal inhabitants—as well as how technology could enhance our increasingly tenuous connection to the natural environment. The experience has certainly changed Metthey's relationship with ducks, as he explains to Debatty:

You inevitably do get closer to the animal when you design for it. Spending so much time with the duck in mind does have a big impact. However I do force myself to keep the relationship I have with them strictly professional. I don't want my feelings interfering with the project. I still eat duck from time to time even though now I take a different look at my plate.

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Visit We Make Money Not Art to read Debatty's full interview with Metthey.

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