New York and Infrastructure

2011/08/13 § Leave a comment

Back again, seeking to make connections and project ideas into the debate about design thinking’s aggressive take over of the everyday. Presently, these ideas are taking shape in New York City, that outpost of America that isn’t really America, but another specimen that is North American in context, but purely global in nature.  I can say, as anyone with half a brain can, that the nuances of operating within the day’s processes are unique and varied.  This goes for any city’s energy, not just New York’s.  I just happen to be here, participating in this vast experiment right now – The bullshit real estate deals, the star-chitecture, the constant media based branding exercises, the shameless self promotion, the proliferation of moneyed kids who have vast monetary support systems, the genuine drive to be wealthy and connected,  the place where investment comes even during economic downturns.

The fascination with New York is with the grid, the skyscrapers, the shops –  in essence, its physicality.  Tourists flock to the city to see the Manhattan of lore, really.  But what is emerging below the surface is a city whose “hard” infrastructure (roads, waterways, garbage dumps, etc. – more in a later post) is increasingly interacting with a different phenomenon, or soft infrastructure.  This soft infrastructure is changing the way we as “users” of the city, interact with each other and with the city’s offerings.  There are blogs devoted entirely to this very idea.  There are the never-ending applications – yelps and groupons and foursquares.  I don’t need to waste anyone’s time describing how one can interact in any of these fora.  What i do want to do, however, is waste your time talking about connecting the two infrastructures.  What if we took the boring-ness out of hard infrastructure, and combined it with a little bit of soft infrastructure?  Could we find hybrids that scale down our notions of infrastructure into micro objects that fulfill functions within the city’s daily operations, while aiding us in our interactive use of the soft?

For example:  I’ve posted about food and locavore-ism, everyone is thinking about where their food comes from, and there are even blogs entirely devoted to food-ism as a design process.

We talk about all this on the supply side, before we eat.  We do not, however, talk about where that food goes when we’re finished, or how the food goes into the waste stream.  Sure, we can compost at home.  But what about when out and about in the city?  Food trucks get frequented (and of course they should) by people interested in the above.  And more often than not, the packaging of said food trucks goes directly into garbage cans, which in New York City, can become incredibly disgusting in the warmer months.  After that, the garbage cans get piled into garbage trucks, which truck them to service points (garbage juice flowing all over the streets,)  which transport them yet again to landfills.

That’s a long process of hard-infrastructure related transport, contributing greatly to the infamous smell of New York.

Now, what if we thought about combining the frond end of food (eating, enjoying, being safe in the understanding that we know where our food comes from,) with the rear end of food.  We could, say, design and build micro incinerators that capture gases from high temperature burning of trash and convert them to energy to power our food trucks around a given plaza in a neighborhood scale.  We could plug these into soft infrastructure networks, distributing the energy as needed.  Sure, there are a ton of logistical concerns for such an endeavor, but putting the process directly in front of people could educate through the thoughtful engagement of food processes from start to finish.  Think about it for a second and comment even if you think I’m a total fool.   I’ll be posting a lot more on this topic.

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