The Heart of New York: SVA Students Explore NYC’s ‘Informal Economies’

February 11, 2014

Students of MFA Design for Social Innovation’s spring 2014 course “Disruptive Design for Makeshift Cities” were recently presented with a compelling challenge: a scavenger hunt exploring New York City’s “informal economies.” heart200Scavenger hunt items encouraged students to become acquainted with alternative practices of social and economic exchange. For example, for five points, students were tasked with bartering a good or service; discovering a street vendor’s biggest daily problem was worth 10 points, and visiting an illegal basement apartment garnered a whopping 25 points. Among the other adventures was the invitation to make something at a hackerspace—a voluntary, cooperative workspace where tech-minded individuals collaborate on projects and share skills.

Rachel Dixon and Haya Shaath, along with other students from the class, visited Hack Manhattan, where with the help of skilled collaborators they constructed an LED beating heart. “Aside from learning new techniques about circuits and soldering, I genuinely enjoyed getting to know Robert,” says Shaath of Robert Diamond, who led the class at Hack Manhattan. “He told us that he initially made this heart for his wife on Valentine’s Day, and they were such a success that he ordered [materials for] 1000 more of them. Through sharing stories and experiences, asking questions, and practice, the illusion of intimidation from being in an alien space was eliminated.”

Dixon and Shaath’s heart is an apt representation of the class project’s overall goals, which were to inspire empathy and broaden individual perspectives through engagement with cultures and communities that might not be immediately accessible. Throughout the course, taught by faculty members Steve Daniels and Justin Levinson, students will continue to explore opportunities for innovation through design in informal economies, emergent practices, and unique cultural perspectives.

Image: Rachel Dixon and Haya Shaath’s hand-soldered LED beating heart, made with Robert Diamond at Hack Manhattan; photo courtesy of Shaath.

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