Air Spaces—Climate Sensing for Environmental Futures


Reframing citizen engagement with urban climate systems

2017
Environmental Design
Climate Sensing for Environmental Futures is a course at Parsons School of Design in collaboration with the DESIS Lab. It investigates new roles and forms of citizen engagement related to climate change in the decades to come. Our specific case study has been air quality in New York City in cooperation with NASA Langley Research Center, WE ACT for Environmental JusticeThe Dalton School, The New School, and NYC Center for Health Equity.

This project investigated new roles and forms of citizen engagement related to climate change in the decades to come by exploring the tension between top-down and bottom-up forces. While there is a widespread recognition of climate change as a pressing issue, there seems to be a genuine challenge on defining modes of engagement of regular people with the causes of climate change. One way of connecting climate change to people's everyday lives is to emphasize the connection between energy sources, climate change and air quality.

︎ Envisioned exhibition and classroom experience

NASA’s new satellite TEMPO to be launched in 2020 will monitor air quality in North America producing unprecedented high resolution (pixel size of 1km x 1km) hourly data. Intrigued by how would the satellite produced data impact the daily life of urban dwellers and potentially change the way we relate and engage with climate. There’s a increasingly popularity and affordability of new physical computing and sensing technology, from the “bottom-up” using the increasingly popular and affordable air pollution devices and systems such as SmartCitizen and Speck. Key player in New York City are environmental justice groups such as WeAct, a well-know not-for-profit based in West Harlem dedicated to environmental justice and advocacy, that through environmental monitoring and data analysis, reveal how air pollution affects communities of color in a disproportionate way. In the end we focused on education and co-created a curriculum with The Dalton School to focus on students engagement in class-room context with air quality. 


︎ Prototype of second part of installation of the exhibition

Air quality is not an equitable issue and New York City is a prime example of these climate-based lines of segregation. Neighborhoods like Harlem and The Bronx have manufacturing or transit infrastructures that cause congestion, smog, and air of a much lower quality than Manhattan. Inspired by the citizen science initiatives, this project aims to tackle climate science from a sensorial perspective to provide more entry and access to advocacy to the general populace. Experiences  that would activate people were designed, hence we called it Air Spaces. The goal is to provide spaces for people to spark conversations on Air Quality that didn't overwhelm I worked with two other fellow students, Anh-ton Tran and Tung Lin, to construct a series of installation prototypes that tackles these issues.

What are the potential roles of citizen engagement in climate change? How would younger generations relate to climate sensing practices as the effects of climate change become increasingly evident?


Process

Mapping

We studied and researched as much of the systemic problem was we could. Creating systems diagrams was an iterative process that we did throughout the project to understand our goals and how our project fit into this space. Below is our latest diagram.

︎ Focused on activating people at the personal level. It is important to see how this would move back into the greater system and the extensive research

Inspirations

Air quality had two aspects about it that fascinated us. When it was bad it became physically visible and tangible, but it could also dissipate and become completely unnoticed. It also had a scale that was engulfing but dependent on the container someone would be in to understand the scale. We toyed with ideas of using scale to create impact, and trying to make invisible particles physical. We also became obsessed with Buckminster Fuller's Geodesic dome.



Creation Process

We worked with two guiding design statements, the ways in which we can make the invisible into something physical, and the ways in which we can create an experience that sparks change. Below is our process.

Prototyping

We went through many images and precedent works by installation artists that straddled our concepts. We tried our hand at building various scaled down, makeshift versions to understand the physics and feasibility.


Iterative Workshops and Provotype

We settled on using a projection experience with aromatics to use as a provotype that we would test with students. Participants would fill out a journey map as they went through the experience to give us a better understanding of they're relationship towards air quality. Afterwards they mapped out their thoughts and created a short skit that embodied their knowledge and desires of the future of air quality. We ran 5 workshops in total.


Building

Taking the insights we gained from the user research generated in the workshop, we began constructing the installations. We produced all of the individual components ourselves spending many late hours in the Making Center.


Installation Layout

We envisioned a full exhibition experience that would guide people through a sensorial understanding of air quality climate science. Users would first walk through a constriction tunnel consisting of dangling threads that mimic aspects of bad air, and then enter into the "air bubble" where they would experience a positive air experience. Finally a wall of reciprocity would allow people to exhale and leave a message and their breath for others to experience.




Installation 1—Constriction Tunnel

In our workshop many participants used words such as "claustrophobic" and described bad air quality as sticky. Poor air also has a cumulative effect and collects on our bodies. We made a small pathway where we dangled frayed twine to simulate these sensory descriptions our research participants described. Forcing people to crotch down and walk through a small chamber created this feeling of confined space, scenes were people often notice changes in air quality. The inside was spritzed with our bad air tonic we crafted for the workshop.


Installation 2—Air Bubble

Our journey maps showed us that guiding people through breathing exercises and positive air analogs after sensing bad air created more thoughts and conversation. Large, open spaces were also consistently mentioned as being associated with good air. So we wanted to then guide people to a positive experience inside a giant bubble to create this sense of space and scale. We attached a projection screen in our dome that projected positive air environments with an animation that guided participant's breathing.


Installation 3—Exhale

Giving our users so many inputs made us realize the importance of creating an outlet to express their thoughts. We found that in the workshop the stories and conversations produced when participants created a skit and explained it to each other was powerful. It was paramount to create a similar space rendered in a more tangible form. So we created a balloon wall where visitors could breathe out into a balloon, and write a message or thought on it. They would then share it by pinning it onto the wall. In a way this was the perfect closing for our project. It created a poeticness and live metaphor for the act of breathing, inhaling the sensory experiences we gave them and exhaling their thoughts and feelings afterwards.


Curriculum

The booklet for environmental advocacy groups and schools is introducing five steps to bring the exhibition experience into the classroom. It’s focusing on the following question: How might  change happen, if we were able to experience air more viscerally? In the workshop, students will be guided through an experience that will immerse them into various air quality contexts, a guided breathing exercise to wrap their heads around the concept of air quality and to be mindful of what they introduce into their bodies every day. The content is structured as the following: Visual Journey, Group Brainstorm, Group Mapping, Imaginative Sketch, Shareback, and Notes. Through a series of design exercises, students will crystallize and gain a new found agency in their understanding of air. They will also imagine a future of what air quality could be. Air might be fleeting, but understanding and talking about it is not.



Conclusion and Takeaways

Creating spaces can have a profound effect on people. Our Air Bubble and balloons lived on after we presented our project for our final critiques. We wanted the installation to be where people could reflect and think about their relationship to their air quality, but so much more emerged. Classes were conducted inside, critical debates were held, and people blew off steam and bonded during the craziness of semester finals. It became a space to engage and listen and at the end of the day that's what drove this project. The project is now being submitted in tandem with the other team in our studio for a fully rendered exhibition at the school. WeAct is considering commissioning installations in their community centers for people to experience, and we have packaged a printed curriculum of our workshops and findings to be disseminated. If anything what I gained from this experience was understanding how experiences can create shifts in people that will hopefully lead towards larger movements of change.

︎Transdisciplinary Design 2019 cohort bonding in the Air Bubble


Credits
Concept/Development/Design:
︎︎︎︎︎︎ Anh-ton Tran
︎︎︎︎︎︎ Tung Lin
︎︎︎︎︎︎ Jonas Voigt 


Consulting:
︎︎︎︎︎︎ Lara Penin, Associate Professor, The New School
︎︎︎︎︎︎ David Young, Designer, Faculty, The New School



Collaborators:
︎︎︎︎︎︎ Bruce Doddgrigge, Head of the Chemistry and Dynamics Branch, NASA Langley Research Center
︎︎︎︎︎︎ Tenya Steele, Director of Environmental Health, WE ACT for Environmental Justice
︎︎︎︎︎︎ Brendan Matz, Science Research Program Co-Director and his students, The Dalton School
︎︎︎︎︎︎ Bhawani Venkataraman, Associate Professor of Chemistry, The New School
︎︎︎︎︎︎ Alyssa Creighton, Community Engagement Specialist, NYC Center for Health Equity

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