Tagproduct design

The air we breathe… is disgusting

Read the companion article on Grid Chicago

My friend Bill Vassilakis, and his partner Jeff Munie, won the 2011 Design Makes Change competition, The Air We Breathe.

This happened in June. I showed up in the evening during 2nd Fridays in Pilsen for the opening gallery, at 1915 S Halsted, to see Bill and Jeff’s competition entry. I had no idea at the time that they had won. I was impressed by the “Community Voicebox.”

What is the Community Voicebox?

From the project overview (PDF):

The “Voice Box” project claims that local environmental health issues are not solely a result of point source emissions, but a combination of political, economic and environmental issues, which combine to create overall inequalities in environmental health and morbidity.

The Voice Box project is focused around a mobile community forum where information is recorded and exchanged. The local knowledge of the community would be recorded and shared with others in the community, the general public and decision makers via a real time online outlet. This online website will serve as the ‘voice’ of the community and as a record of local knowledge. The Voice Box would be a built upon a mobile trailer with a combination of indoor and outdoor spaces, which open to create an inviting area for residents to relax, respond and exchange.

Two major components of Community Voicebox are the four-wheel, pedal-powered vehicle (acquired in July). The second part is recording audio and video and sharing it on their website. Bill and Jeff were able to purchase these things with a grant from the competition.

What are the environmental health issues?

In as few words as possible, ancient coal power plants in Chicago, namely Fisk and Crawford generating stations, owned by Midwest Generation. I’ve written before about these major pollution sources on Steven Can Plan where I cited a 2002 Harvard study (PDF) that found the power plants combined caused 41 premature deaths per year.

Did anyone else think that smokestacks created clouds?

Digging deeper into the Community Voicebox concept

I wrote about the Community Voicebox quadricycle on Grid Chicago – here I talk to Bill about the community and environmental aspects of the project.

How did you find out about The Air We Breathe (TAWB) competition?

Posters around town (at school, the library, restaurants, etc)

What made you decide to enter the competition?

The quality of air in Pilsen has been a topic of conversation among my friends and roommates as long as I’ve lived in the neighborhood (about 5 years).  I was excited to hear about The Air We Breathe competition as a chance to bring everyday quality of life issues into focus in front of anyone walking down Halsted Street.

Did you have your idea for the entry (Community Voicebox) before or after knowing about the competition?

Although we developed our proposal specifically for the contest, we included elements we are familiar with and interested in.  We wanted it to be pedal powered, to directly engage the neighborhood and to present the community’s situation to the world via the internet.

Why did you create the Community Voicebox? What do you want to accomplish with the final product?

We created the voicebox because we wanted to bring the issue to everyone in the community, regardless of whether or not it is a priority for them, and document what they have to say about it.  Ultimately, we hope to use this documentation of the community’s various experiences and perspectives to inform local policy and to serve as a conduit for sharing solutions with other places that are similarly situated, in terms of environmental health issues.

Can you describe how and when the Community Voicebox is being built? (think logistics, materials, partners, designs, etc…)

We’re designing the Voicebox to be as adaptable as possible so that when we turn it over to student organizations or community groups, it can be modified to serve as many purposes as possible.  That said, the primary goal we hope to accomplish is to create a fun, comfortable space in which to offer an opportunity for anyone and everyone to tell their stories through whatever means they wish. This will happen on and around a four-wheel pedal car.

Aside from education, awareness, and exchanging information with the community, do you think Community Voicebox will help bring about a more visible and tangible change when it comes to pollution in Chicago?

Absolutely!  At minimum I hope that making the Voicebox a visible presence at Pilsen’s many community events (as big as Fiesta Del Sol and small as block parties on Miller Street) will help keep air quality on the local policy agenda.  The ideal outcome would be the a leveling of the playing field, in terms of environmental health.  Residents of Pilsen are exposed to levels of pollution that would never be tolerated in any other parts of the city. Basically we want to foster dialogue between the many communities of the neighborhood about pressing local issues.  Environmental health seems like a good place to start.

The Community Voicebox will be interviewing residents, and recording stories, in these parks and neighborhoods in the Lower West Side. 

A page from the project overview document showing a sample of the project’s research materials, mostly centered around the evidence of pollution in the Pilsen and surrounding neighborhoods. 

I support the Columbia College urban bike project

Senior Product Design students at Columbia College in Chicago studying under Carl Boyd have developed prototypes for bicycle use for several years. I first saw these students in action in December 2007 when they presented their products to some MBAC attendees.

I later wrote about one project, bike-friendly enhancements for the ‘L’ from Adair Heinz and Tune Koshy.

A different team at the same presentation showed off their specialized bag for paramedics who bike. At the bike swap meet in February 2010, the students showed off the result of their collaboration with Po Campo, a Chicago company selling handmade bags for women who ride bikes.

Students worked closely with Emily and Maria of Po Campo to design new products the company could adopt into its product line. They present these designs to attendees at the swap meet earlier this year.

Carl is trying to get some of these products into commercial production with the next group of graduates, with help from anyone and everyone through Kickstarter. The annual program for 2010 has completed. Carl writes on Kickstarter:

In the past 4 years, the Urban Bike Design Project, has always come *this* close to seeing projects launched into the real world, but the lack of starter funding kept dropping the kickstand on each one. Our students have limited pocket money, and we want these prototypes made street-ready, to put in the hands of people who need them. This time we are seeking funds for prototyping costs, and we know that the Kickstarter community cares as much about this project as we do!

I’ve twice witnessed the high-quality and thoughtful designs from the students and I pledged money. The project needs $2,000 by November 3, in order for the pledges to turn into donations.

Response to “Stick To Your Strengths”

Response to “Stick To Your Strengths” on Creo Quality’s blog. Creo Quality assists life sciences organizations in, among other areas, product development.

Have you bought a candy bar recently? Let’s just look at Reese’s as an example. It used to be you had one choice: Reese’s peanut butter cups. Now they have several variations of peanut butter cups. They also have several other choices.

And what about soft drinks? How many varieties of Mountain Dew are there?

Why have these brands done this? They offer so many choices and seem to be straying from their strengths. It confuses me.

…Companies should stick to their strengths. Companies should have focus. Companies should try to deliver their products / services better than anyone else. Quit diluting your brand.

I think the answer is quite simple: Companies want to grow. Make more money. So one route is to make new products, and then see if it works. A “strength” wasn’t known as such until it was designed, introduced, marketed, and evaluated.

The McDonald’s Big Mac wasn’t always the most popular burger (or “strongest” sales leader) – it didn’t come out out 1967 and the first McDonald’s opened in 1940 (the corporation started 1955). Would you consider adding coffee or McCafé diluting the brand? McDonald’s is trying out new products. For all we know, Starbucks’ popularity could decline and coffee will be recognized as the fast food company’s second strength, behind cheap hamburgers.

I think brand dilution arises when companies don’t fully test their products before their release, or they don’t follow good marketing strategies. The brand isn’t diluted because they introduced new products. The failure of New Coke could have been averted if Coca Cola either A) paid closer attention to the results of the focus groups, or B) released New Coke as an additional product in the lineup. But Coca Cola has so many other “strengths” because it decided to stray from its main product line.

A different Coca Cola product tells an extremely different story: Fanta, the fruit-flavored soft drink. It was invented to deal with sales complications because of World War II and Nazi Germany. You can buy Fanta now in tens of flavors in almost 200 countries.

My advice: Companies should innovate and evaluate. The act of selling curly fries won’t weaken your good name.

There’s a connection to cities in all of this. Cities can’t always “stick to their strengths.” This year, Chicago lost two major conventions to Las Vegas and Orlando. Hosting conventions is still a strength of Chicago, Illinois, but it’s even more so true of Las Vegas, Nevada, and Orlando, Florida. If the Chicago tourism, special events, and marketing arms decided to stick with conventions, it may have never attempted a bid for the summer Olympics. Smaller cities who decide to increase incoming, regional tourism might create a restaurant district centered around their passenger train station. Detroit stuck with the automobile and look at it now.

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