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Social design
on the street

On homelessness, 2015–16

Interviewing homeless people about their daily environment and life stories inspired me to design a foldable and portable artefact that could create six urban interventions across Barcelona. These would facilitate discussions among passers-by about our human rights and needs, thereby raising awareness on social exclusions.

El Camino as life experience

In early August 2014, I travelled to Irun, a Basque town on the border of France and Spain, to spend my first night in an old municipal hostel alongside other pilgrims, undoubtedly as impatient as I was to start the Northern Way of Saint James at dawn. For me, as agnostic, the walk began by just wishing lonesomeness amidst the wilderness while being far from urban environments. Over thirty days, nature’s greatness revealed itself along the Atlantic coast, awakening the senses while revealing the body’s fragilities when walking in the darkness; going up and down muddy hills by taking care of my blisters, muscles and wounds; resisting dehydration from the sun; or protecting the bag pack from the rain. Yet, amidst these challenges, I rediscovered everyday life simplicities and its small hedonistic pleasures when rewarded with coffees, beers, dried fruits and tortilla sandwiches as well as showers and naps, once the thirty kilometres a day of arduous effort were done. What the body may have felt was a better control of itself, measuring distances through footsteps and perceiving environments at a more human scale. What the mind may have felt was more time for itself, thinking slowly and introspectively while sharing experiences with people from far and wide.

I followed a new and nourishing routine, with its codes and stages, reassuring those who may seek adventure without being too adventurous. I would wake up at five or six in the morning, walking with my thirty litres backpack until two in the afternoon, resting in the village until the night would come, ready to start all over again the next day. Along the trail, the yellow scallop shells not only guided our path, but its symbol brought us a sense of community. Strangers assisted me whenever I was slightly injured and in need of food, water or shelter for the night, which made me feel a sudden and profound sense of gratitude towards human condition. This increasing and contagious enthusiasm to do good on a daily basis was unusual. I felt the contrast even more when coming back to Barcelona, where I became more attentive to those nomad men wandering the streets with hiking shoes and backpacks. They were not pilgrims with whom to share past experiences as, beyond the backpack aesthetic, their homeless condition was hiding a much worse suffering. The trail may give sense to our senseless lives, and people’s altruism along the Camino prompted me to return the same gesture to those who were truly in need, for whom my month illusion was a life reality.

 

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Volunteering for the homeless

In September 2014, I joined a small group of volunteers at NGO Casa Solidaria, who cooked and provided food to homeless people on a street in front of the Northern Bus Station of Barcelona, at five minutes walking from the Arc de Triomf monument. Every Sunday evening, I was asked to bring thirty bananas, a small contribution to be served along with hot meals, sandwiches, deserts and beverages, for almost two hundred people. The food distribution would start around nine at night where I would shyly observe a seemingly calm street suddenly transformed into a crowded and gloomy area. The distribution was calmly coordinated with a list and an order to follow—people in need would await in the queue with their number while volunteers were deploying the folding tables and getting the dinners ready to take away. There were less rules imposed than in municipality’s social canteens, yet we were conditioned by various external factors. With no roof for shelter on rainy days, and the risk of the group being disrupted by agitated individuals, our environment was inherently precarious.

In my first months, I frequently struggled to find the right stance as a twenty-years old student, to empathise with these men’s suffering while talking to them as if nothing dramatical had ever occurred. Paqui and Juan Carlos, a dedicated couple of volunteers, taught me that people living on the streets require not only their basic needs of food, shelter and hygiene but also emotional support—such as a hug, a smile, or a moment of conversation. Following their advices, I started to listen more to men like Ignacio, often jovial, yet reminding me with certain seriousness of the harsh realities of street life, in its misery and discrimination, while highlighting the uncertainties of each day. His words proved prophetic as he tragically lost his life one night, fatally stabbed in a fight. Many other faces and names passed through, some willing to give more than they received, some simply seeking conversation while most would someday disappear without a word. Among them all, Mateo stood out.

Mateo was a Congolese martial art coach, who often slept on a small hill in Barcelona’s North Station Park. Wise, curious and optimistic, he upheld healthy habits by training every day in the park, using sport to discipline his mind while countering the stereotype of the homeless as drunken, disturbed and marginalised individuals, whom he says to be untrustworthy. In one of our conversations atop his park’s hill, which he regarded as his office, Mateo taught me to look beyond appearances and to value our daily surroundings. Despite being homeless, he would use a bench for stretching, a tree for martial exercises and stairs to work out, transforming the park into an open-air gym. It suddenly made sense to me, in light of my past interventions on walls, how people could momentarily appropriate public spaces, reshaping their function and use while uncovering hidden values.

Interviewing six homeless persons

They [the poor, the discriminated, the uneducated] tell with wisdom and often eloquence about things they know first-hand from life. They speak with passion about concerns that are local but far from narrow. To be sure, foolish things are said too, and untrue things, and things brazenly or suavely self-seeking; and it is good, too, to see the effects of these remarks. 

Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, 1961, p.407

 

Mateo’s insights inspired me to deepen my ethnographic approach by conducting semi-structured interviews with six homeless individuals, including him, to collect their perspectives and stories. How might the experiences of socially-excluded people foster discussions on the value of our public spaces? Paqui and Juan Carlos reminded me that mutual trust was essential for interviewees to open up, given their fragility and personal condition. Equipped with a sound recorder, a camera and a notebook, my questions aimed to uncover their background and past memories, followed by their favourite space in the city and what they enjoy doing there, concluding with aspirations for the future—including desires to learn something new and dreams to fulfil. At that time, in early 2015, I had definitely left behind wheatpaste on walls, realising that designing for and with the people meant talking more to them at a grassroot level, bridging the personal to the universal.

In these encounters, I realised that all six respondents possessed something, be it a belief or an activity, that would move them forward in life, despite being unemployed and homeless. Mateo explained to me again how sport was vital in building respect and discipline, providing him constant joy in the park amidst trees, birds, and the movement of nature—a sentiment he hoped others could benefit as well. I also interviewed Santiago, a gay Catholic man in his forties, who considered music as a ‘spiritual nourishment and an intimate friend’ that possessed him and allowed him to express his sexuality when dancing. By listening to them, Mateo and Santiago seemed dynamic individuals, both expressing repeatedly their willingness to advise others in need, and as they were both regulars of the NGO, it enabled me to follow their evolution over two years. Santiago’s mental fragility became evident months after the interview as he began experiencing hallucinations of women harassing him, ultimately leading to his transfer to a psychiatrist institute in Barcelona. Meanwhile, Mateo continued to live and exercise in the park, taking on small jobs and expanding his social circle as he encountered more people charmed by his everlasting positive energy.

The other four interviewees were not encountered in the NGO but directly on the streets, during my meditative walks in search of inspiration. Sebastian, an Argentine artist from Santa Fe, was using philosophy as a source for his Nietzschean will to survive, with illustrations striving to develop ‘a project of graphic philosophy that explores a new syntax through symbols’. Facing the MacBa museum, Sebastian said to enjoy the present moment through simple and novel things, like our conversation, which reprieved him from his daily routine. Not far from there, Rafael, former florist from Valencia, was a cheerful man whom I discovered drawing scenes and people that would make him laugh. In the Born area, Rafa cherished being able to ‘wake up every day to see the sunrise, the daylight, enjoying a coffee calmly, and then start drawing after eleven’. Sebastian and Rafa seemed rather creative individuals, engaging with passers-by through their drawings.

George, a Czech guitarist who I found singing near Ciutadella Park, talked to me about how he felt connected to others through music, but it was regrettable to include him in my study as he could barely articulate any coherent thought. At the time, I lacked the maturity to recognise the challenges this presented for a social research project. Lastly, Alessandro, an afflicted Italian man sat on the floor with his dog Otto, had inscribed ‘Life is beautiful’ on a piece of paper near the Rambla, yearning for more literature and even expressing a willingness to sacrifice his life if this meant an end to wars. Ironically, he found amusement in observing wealthy tourists with luxury bags taking photos of his hopeful message, surprised that its author was a seemingly desperate homeless man. While Mateo, Sebastian and Rafael appeared to be healthier and grounded, Santiago, George and Alessandro certainly felt more affected by their condition, with their mind wandering away easily and their gaze often lost somewhere into the void.

Interestingly, the place where I spent half an hour with each of them happened to be their favourite urban area in the city. In those intimate moments, I learned that beyond being driven by sport, music, philosophy, art and literature, they all desired to bring something more to the human community. They sought connection, communication, and recognition, yearning not to be ignored or despised in their boredom and lonesomeness, as if art and love held as much significance as food and shelter in their hierarchy of needs. I often wondered if my interviewees were already that philosophical and artistic before being homeless or if this terrible situation reinforced hidden qualities within them. As I listened to the stories of these forgotten, socially excluded anonymous of our society and their perceptions of our everyday environments, these moments lingered in a corner of my mind and I felt inspired in voicing it all out; developing what would become a new action research project on the streets of Barcelona.

Designing the artefact

The project officially started in spring 2015 by sketching ideas for a series of interventions that would, on one side, raise awareness on the stories of my interviewees among a wider audience—making the invisible more visible in the public spaces. On the other side, beyond communication, these interventions could create ephemeral physical transformations, by recreating domestic scenes in the streets, with the intention of provoking passers-by while reflecting on the value of our homes, streets and everyday surroundings. To achieve these interventions, I decided to design a versatile, foldable and portable artefact that could serve various functions, bridging communication and action, to be deployable in different public spaces of Barcelona. Inspired by pop-up display panels, flexible furniture design and accordion structures, I tested my ideas through 1:4 scale models of cardboard and wood.

After three months of iterative research and experimentation, the artefact took shape as a structure comprised of twelve modular squares, each measuring fifty centimetres and, when fully deployed on the ground, it could span two metres by one metre fifty. Designed to be lightweight but also resistant to wind and people, the structure was made of high-strength cardboard and cork, with PVC profiles and hinges connecting each piece. Laser-cut with precision, each square had four corner holes to use cardboard tubes that would suspend them, or to join and reinforce modules with so-called ‘Lego pieces’. To this end, I fabricated sixteen tubes of varying heights—eight of fifty centimetres and eight at one metre—some of which were topped with wood to allow extensions if any further combination would require it. The artefact, along with the tubes and smaller components, were finally placed in a large DM wood box with wheels, securely fixed with a multifunctional handlebar, all ready to take Barcelona’s streets and squares.

The artefact structure and pieces designed with wood, cardboard and cork

Being designers, we can pay by giving ten percent of our crop of ideas and talents to the seventy-five percent of mankind in need.

Victor Papanek, Design for the real world (1983)

Six interventions to engage discussion

I call it triangulation. By this I mean that process by which some external stimulus provides a linkage between people and prompts strangers to talk to each other as though they were not.

William H. Whyte, The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, 1980, p.94.

 

The artefact was named ‘Some.where’, symbolising an idealised space within the city, with a central dot between the two words representing the amalgamation of stories, interventions and reactions. Somewhere was not just anywhere or nowhere, but specifically located in time and space. Inspired by insights gathered from the interviews, the project entailed six ephemeral interventions—three aimed at communication of the homeless individuals’ stories and three focused on functional modifications of the public space. When deployed, passers-by were invited to answer thematic questions or participate in activities, often resulting in visual contributions on paper. These interactions served as the project’s core, with the artefact acting as a communicative catalyst, a conversation opener, almost an excuse to stimulate dialogue among strangers. Once the interventions concluded, the artefact was folded back, and the connections between people faded, returning the street to its original state.

The artefact in context before being used, followed by images of its different combinations

The project was designed to unfold like a story, with the artefact serving as the book and the interventions as its chapters. The inaugural intervention, not far from the Arc de Triomf, aimed to expose visual panels depicting the stories of my six interviewees, accompanied by audio extracts played through speakers while passers-by were invited to react to what they saw or heard with a word or drawing, sparking conversations where enthusiasm, doubts, opinions and personal stories could be freely shared. For instance, two elderly women admitted they felt ‘too old to understand these things’, a family remarked that ‘only this way we can raise social consciousness’, and an elderly man shared his past experiences of homelessness in Argentina. These brief, yet meaningful exchanges between strangers marked, in my mind, a significant step towards reconnecting citizens in public spaces.

Interviews -
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24 Rec Comtal street, Sant Pere area, Ciutat Vella district, 7th of June 2015, 12:00–14:00

While the artefact was laid out horizontally on the ground in the simplest way possible, it took a more functional role as an urban bench in the second intervention. For this, I selected the front of a library in the Raval area, where two defensive design bars prevented anyone from leaning, requiring the artefact to transform them into an inclusive space for sitting and discussion. The two bars stabilised the horizontal part of the artefact, but in the process of finding the right combination, we marked the pieces with their first scars, reinforcing the importance of contextual use. This accessible bench challenged the assumption that some places had to be designed with distrust, to be unattractive to the marginal and the broader public. Initially, passers-by mistook me for a volunteer seeking donations, inciting me to change my approach by rather asking them about their favourite space in the city and what prohibited activity they would like to do there. This shifted their attitudes, leading to discussions about the Raval and other areas, while collecting demands, such as finding more places to sit and drink on the floor.

15 Maria Aurèlia Capmany street, El Raval area, Ciutat Vella district, 7th of June 2015, 18:00–19:30

The third intervention, much like the first, aimed to continue communicating the stories of my interviewees. However, unlike having their perspectives presented through printed samples, here they were edited into a five-minute video showing their daily surroundings. This video was later projected onto the artefact, which had been converted into one-and-a-half metre tall film screen, situated in a small square between the Eixample and Gracia districts. While in every intervention, I had the assistance of two people, each time different individuals, this particular one received the collaboration of a larger group. They helped me to fold and unfold the pieces and, as I initially overlooked the slope of the square, causing the artefact to be unstable, we found together a stable position resembling the letter C. By connecting my cables to a nearby design studio, I could project the video onto the screen, engaging some viewers in discussing their personal experiences in their own street.

Narcis Oller square, Gracia district, 10th of June 2015, 21:00–22:30

Following the second intervention, which critiqued defensive design and urban prohibitions, the fourth intervention in the Sarria district, one of the wealthiest areas in Barcelona, aimed to transform the artefact into a small shelter in response to recent evictions. As one passer-by mentioned, ‘a roof is the first thing that makes a home’, it inspired me to create one by using the artefact in an L shape. This structure had a blanket on the floor and a cardboard wall to protect against the wind, resembling the conditions faced by many homeless people when sleeping outdoors. The Sant Vicenç square provided an intimate and calm space for reflection, where people were asked: What does ‘home’ mean to you? A man said that his wife and children were his home, inviting us all to consider the essential elements that we cherish to find there and appreciate the privilege of having one.

Sant Vicenç square, Sarria district, 14th of June 2015, 18:00–19:30

While Mateo inspired the second intervention in designing a bench, Alessandro inspired the creation of an urban library in this fifth intervention. The artefact was transformed into a shelf and table where to display second-hand books and, while building it with my two morning assistants, a young man approached me, saying, ‘Yesterday I saw you in Sarria, now I see you here in Gracia, what are you going to do today?’ This was an unexpected coincidence as he later helped us unfold the structure, and once stabilised, an activity commenced where adults were invited to write about what books meant to them, while children were asked to draw a memory—both contributions being exchanged for a book of their choice. This intervention attracted families, elderly people, a book editor who wrote a text on how books open our minds to the world, a teacher, and many other participants, including the local baker who even joined us to paint.

 

Gal la Placídia square, Gracia district, 20th of June 2015, 13:00–15:30

The sixth and final intervention on the streets of Barcelona took place in the Poble Nou area, near the beach, and aimed to revisit the stories of my interviewees, much like the initial intervention, but through six new panels and audio pieces sharing, this time, their memories and dreams in a way to conclude this adventure. We engaged passers-by in a conversation about what they wished to see happening on the streets that currently wasn’t being addressed. One woman expressed her desire for balconies to ‘speak more’ to the streets, another wished safer and greener areas for children to play, while another regretted the lack of protest actions—most of participants hoping for more initiatives addressing current issues in their neighbourhood, as dozens dreamed, for example, to see less cars on the streets. This time, the structure of the artefact consisted of a square-shaped table made of four modules and a taller one composed of two modules, which was one of the most successful combinations together with the bench. An hour later, the pieces were all returned to the box, closing another chapter, while I walked away with my wooden suitcase of dreams and conversations.

 

Memories and Dreams -
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Poble Nou park, Poble Nou area, Sant Marti district, 20th of June 2015, 18:30–20:00

Throughout June 2015, the conspicuous artefact travelled across four completely different areas of Barcelona, and its six interventions, often lasting over an hour each, initiated an ongoing process of action-research, stimulating discussion on our citizen rights and urban environments. These experiences and interactions with passers-by, provided valuable insights for new interventions to happen. As such, the project intended to demonstrate that an ephemeral action in the street could be the preface to a longer lasting action, this time, in the inner privacy of people who observed or participated in such interventions, inviting to introspection, personal development, and ultimately, a process of social transformation.

Summary video of all interventions and artefact combinations over two weeks.

The twelve graphic panels of the first and last intervention.

The narration of the interventions and the quantitative data collected from passers-by.

The presentation of the project to tutors and classmates

Design for social impact

In late November 2015, I was invited to present this project as part of a workshop at the Barcelona Design Museum, where to promote design as a tool for social activism, and to delve once more into the symbiotic relation between design and ethnography by inviting a group of participants to explore sociological questions inspired by the interventions. Enthusiast of this new opportunity to unfold the artefact, even if it was indoors, I attempted to question if the Some.where project could be a piece of social design, in a field of action-research that is collaborative and inclusive. Interestingly, in my six urban interventions, I was never alone working and most of the passers-by who paused to engage with us seized the opportunity to talk about their neighbourhood as if the artefact itself, in its transformative shape, facilitated this exchange of words and gazes. Communication was the hidden outcome of the project, not the artefact, nor the interventions, but without them, such communication wouldn’t have been the same. Therefore, the workshop participants came to realise that talking and listening actively within a given context—discussing both the routine or deeper intellectual reflections with others—was a factor in driving social changes.

In June 2016, a year later, I left behind both the NGO and Barcelona, having dedicated much of my spare time in collaborating with them, even portraying their values through a promotional video where volunteers and homeless were interviewed. However, it was Mateo who, once again, made me reflect further about the potential of design as a visual communication tool for empowering people. In my last month, I assisted him in promoting his martial arts training services through two short videos while also designing his business card, CV and even teaching him computer skills. Before I left, he gave me an advice: ‘Make your own luck! Build your character. Progress comes from hard work. I never sought help. People helped me because they wanted to. They liked my sincerity and peaceful way of life’. Mateo not only challenged my perspective on valuing our surroundings, much like the Camino did by looking beyond, but he also reshaped my role as designer in researching new methods of communication and collaboration in urban spaces, demonstrating that even those who are socially excluded can offer a refreshing perspective on the everyday environment, to the extent of questioning, in our blindness, if we have learned to value what we already have.

The promotional video that allowed to express what the NGO was doing and what it made us all feel.

The videos and graphic material designed to support Mateo in his martial arts lessons.

The question of what kind of city
we want cannot be divorced from
the question of what kind of people
we want to be.

David Harvey, Rebel Cities (2012)

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