Arash Shirinbab – California College of the Arts
The SPARK Project
Sustainability Studio, MBA in Design Strategy, California College of the Arts
The SPARK Project
SPARK is a hyper-local system that connects people in defined geographic areas, creating sustainable community by engaging human potential. A benefit of knowing your neighbor is easy access to limitless variety of skills that people have, but since people don’t know their neighbors this all goes to waste.
Sustainability Studio, MBA in Design Strategy, California College of the Arts Design team: Amy Gustincic, Shira Kates, Paula Kuhn, Alexander Scott, Arash Shirinbab Supervisors: Nathan Shedroff, Susan Gladwin
The loss of connection between individual citizens and their neighborhoods is a phenomenon not restricted to the West. The broad subject of community relationships investigated here has universal relevance, and it demands greater attention from all designers. So far, architects and planners are the ones who enter this arena, which is equally in need of other design capacities/sensitivities.
The SPARK Project
1. Summarize the problem you set out to solve. What was the challenge posed to you? Did it get you excited and why?
We started with one question: How can you get the average American interested in sustainable community? Which led us to ask, who is the average American, and what is sustainable community?
Research shows that people in Western societies are gradually losing connection to their neighborhoods, and issues around loneliness, isolation, depression and detachment to community are increasing. This lack of connection and relation to community have negative impacts on individuals and society, including excessive individualism, alienation, violence, abuse and mental illness, ultimately leading to lower quality of life and lack of accountability to other people and the environment. This is a picture of unsustainable community.
People told us that they want to know their neighbors more than they currently do. If people know their neighbors, they have greater access to skills, support, community and resources. People use less, purchase less and feel more supported when personal connections are built.
Our team become excited by the notion that by creating human connections we can help to engage people more in their neighborhood community, bringing back a sense of cohesiveness, support, and belonging that leads to a thriving and sustainable community.
2. What point of view did you bring to the challenge? Was there anything additional that you wanted to achieve with this project or bring to this project that was not part of the original brief?
For a semester-long student project in Sustainability Studio, the brief was very simple: You can choose to develop a product or service that is a more sustainable solution to what's currently available, create a solution to some deep sustainability or systems challenge, or create a market mechanism that changes a system in a more sustainable way.
As a team, we wanted to work on a social sustainability project, hoping to find an opportunity to affect major change. We chose to start our investigation from the broad subject of community and eventually centered around the challenges of building connections in communities based on interest, actions, location and circumstance. We looked into opportunities to shift perception and practices in the workplace and at home.
We were originally inspired to narrow our focus by the work of Chris Waugh:
“If housing were to address how to create community with people and with the environment, for example, the discussion would move beyond square footage and bedroom count pretty fast.”
We started to ask: How do you build connection in housing communities? Reduce waste? Share resources? Can we change the portrait of American housing communities for the benefit of the environment, personal fulfillment and future generations?
3. When designing this project, whose interests did you consider? (Discuss various stakeholders, audiences, retailing, manufacturing, assembly, distribution, etc., for example.)
There are many possible definitions and interpretations of the concept of community, and it is not an easy task to encompass them all in one definition. Thus, for the purposes of this project, we adopted the following definition of community: A community is a group of people who live together in a geographically local area and have formed a social attachment to this area.
The community is relatively small in scale, but may network with other communities. It is inclusive of all residents, and its members have formed human networks inside and outside the community to work towards commonly agreed upon goals and visions.
We focused our research on suburban homeowners—people who live in defined geographic communities. People in our demographic are largely child/family oriented, and they want the best for the future of their kids. They’d like to know their neighbors more and are interested in environmental sustainability, but may not know how to approach either of those endeavors with limited free time.
Barriers and trade-offs for this group of stakeholders, based on our research include: they tend to be late adopters, they feel threatened by anything that seems to challenge their sense of self, they care about direct benefits (what’s in it for them), they have little free time, don’t like to be outside their comfort zone, and they don’t want to feel forced into anything.
4. Describe the rigor that informed your design. (Research, ethnography, subject matter experts, materials exploration, technology, iteration, testing, etc., as applicable.) If this was a strictly research or strategy project, please provide more detail here.
We began our project with a review of relevant publications to learn what work has already been done around the issues of community and sustainability. We dove deeper into some of these secondary research sources in order to narrow our focus and develop a demographic for primary research.
Then we set out to do some needsfinding in our target demographic (suburban homeowners). We developed a survey guide and conducted one-on-one interviews with people from several different areas of the country, which gave us valuable insights. People in our demographic:
- are largely kid/family oriented—they want to do the best for the future of their kids
- want to know their neighbors more than they do
- are surprisingly aware of sustainability issues and want to be better green citizens
- lack of time and knowledge of what to do are barriers
- laziness is a barrier—solutions need to be easy for people
- peer pressure can be used for positive outcomes
As we began to develop our solution, SPARK, we sought out experts working in the fields of community and sustainability to verify some of our findings.
Lastly, we developed scenarios for how our different stakeholders would use and be effected by SPARK. We included different types of users in different situations and outlooked how SPARK would work in possible futures situations.
5. What is the social value of your design? (Gladdening, educational, economic, paradigm-shifting, sustainable, labor-mindful, environmental, cultural, etc.) How does it earn its keep in the world?
After implementing SPARK, we expect to see new relationships built, learning enhanced, projects completed, human capital created, and increasing skills, interactions and knowledge trading without currency.
Users of SPARK will experience an increased sense of safety that comes from knowing your neighbors, and the benefits of strength in numbers for public policy issues.
They’ll be able to establish norms for their neighborhood, create new programs, and have a positive impact on the environment by reducing resources and spending.
SPARK creates an outwardly rippling effect on people’s connection to community, overall sense of well being, awareness of surroundings, connectedness and professional possibilities.
The SPARK solution creates a thriving community, defined by Larry Keeley as having shared effort, shared purpose, shared identity (sense of belonging) and being organic and free.
We know that human connections are the most important factor in creating sustainable communities. In fact, according to Consciousness Innovation Shift reports, feeling connected to friends, family and community gets the highest score in terms of motivating people to care sustainability issues (61%). Sense of well being (50%) and nurtured personal relationships vs material possessions (40%) are also in the top five. The report tracks these issues as differentiated by political affiliation, but on these points the results are almost identical for Democrats and Republicans.
6. If you could have done one thing differently with the project, what would you have changed?
Since this was a student project, it was mostly theoretical, and the time spent working from concept to completion was just one semester. As a team, we’d like to spend more time with SPARK to see how far we can take it and find out if it’s viable in the real world. Our next step will be to create a prototype and start user testing. From those results we’ll be able to make improvements and continue testing and iterating until we have something that we can take into a neighborhood for a full-scale test.