Rethinking mobility with “Flipping the Bird!” design jam

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What’s a “design jam,” you might ask? Well, it’s a fast-paced jam session to generate ideas around a design problem.

It’s something people of all types, be they designers or not, can participate in. You might find it applied to a community wanting ideas for what to do with an empty lot, or corporate heads wanting to brainstorm a new branding direction.

In this case, we are going to take on the new types of mobility that are popping up on our streets, starting with e-scooters, and imagine how it might shape our communities and lives in the future.

So we’ve teamed up with IndieCade, the international festival of independent games, being held Saturday at Santa Monica College’s Center for Media and Design (right by KCRW’s new building).

Two experts in gaming and visioning from USC, Jeff Watson and Jose Sanchez, are going to lead the two-hour design jam.

Jeff Watson teaches interactive media and games at USC and is also the director of the Situation Lab. That’s a group that applies gaming to the public good.

His co-leader Jose Sanchez teaches architecture and his research connects architecture and video games.

The impetus for this event was the ongoing struggle over e-scooters.

In fact, the subtitle for our event, “Flipping the Bird!,” is “How we learned to stop worrying and love the e-scooter (and other disruptive transit).”

As you know, Bird took off here in Santa Monica and brought with it a lot of headaches: scooters being left in the middle of sidewalks or driveways, people riding recklessly without helmets, etc. But they also solve a lot of challenges: like getting people to and from mass transit -- known as the first-mile, last-mile problem -- or to work or school.

But because e-scooter companies landed without going through the regulatory process, and enraged so many residents, cities have had to be in reactive mode.

So it’s been hard to step back and say, ‘this technology has a ton of potential to make urban life better and let’s think of the many ways how.’

Rather than rehash the arguments for and against, our design jam asks, what if we could just start with a blank slate and imagine ideal modes of transit? Let’s imagine different future states for cities and for the kinds of transportation that might populate that city.

The first hour the group brainstorms ideas together, using a card game created by Watson called The Thing from the Future.

“By playing these imagination games we're kind of peering into the possibility space of tomorrow and hopefully extracting from it some insights that aren't available to us if we stay stuck within our own sets of expectations and our feelings of what's possible and what's not possible,” Watson said.

The way the card game works is it asks you to combine a particular future state like say, a fun future, with a particular object like “a vehicle.” In a fun future there is a vehicle related to world peace.

And from that creative seed people then are challenged to spend a few minutes imagining what that thing is that the cards have specified.

Then the group subdivides into individuals or smaller groups who work up ideas into drawings or models online or on paper.

“And in so doing hopefully we can spark some imaginings of modes of transport that could potentially revolutionize or totally ruin or cause some kind of societal breakdown, any number of things,” Watson said. “And then we can sit back from that imaginative process and think about the future that we actually want among all these possible futures.”

Sanchez told us that one of the twists to the game this Saturday is the addition of “empathy.” Participants have to consider the perspectives of other stakeholders. So rather than coming at this from just one angle, think about how city officials, business owners, pedestrians, drivers, etc. view this issue.

It’s an approach that frankly makes sense at a national level, not just local. We are so polarized around so many issues and hopefully a design jam like this can get a mix of perspectives in one room and dream up some scenarios that could appeal to many people.

To that point, Santa Monica’s City manager and head of mobility are expected to attend, and so is a representative from Bird.

Find out more about the “Flipping The Bird!” design jam here.