Author Archives: Ann Thorpe

Are pop-ups powerful?


Inflato Dumpster, a popup to increase public space by the Department of Urban Betterment

In the last few months some interesting Pop-Up news has come across the desk. For example this proposal by Department of Urban Betterment to use inflatables on dumpsters to increase public space in NYC–the Inflato Dumpster. While this article on Treehugger wonders about the renaissance of dumpsters, here I want to wonder about the capacity of short term or mobile structures and facilities to be powerful in bringing about change.

In the book Architecture & Design versus Consumerism I look at how pop-ups can shift power by enabling people to make more decentralized, distributed decisions. Examples included a pop-up prayer space, park or library. But what is the endgame of pop-ups?

One key endpoint that I saw in my research is demonstrating alternatives (for example alternative land use or alternative infrastructure/structure) in a compelling way that allowed people to bargain for this type of change more broadly. That’s what happened when San Francisco-based Rebar created temporary parks in metered parking spaces. Based on this successful intervention that spread to other cities, local governments eventually changed their urban park policies to “take back” more street space for parks.


parasite book share–repurposing phone booths into urban libraries, also by John Locke and the Department of Urban Betterment

Another endpoint is to improve fairness or access, in the case of things like recreational facilities (barge-mounted swimming pool) or functional amenties like performance spaces and urban farms.

Here in England, London Pup-ups tracks pop-up activity across the city, and this points to a central challenge of the pop-up scene: knowing what is going on where. Many of the popups in London are, understandably, about increasing commerce rather than empowering neighborhoods, although even there, we could make arguments that popus provide an opportunity for creating more social fabric.

Where do you think the popup scene is leading us in terms of building power to make change?

If you find this post useful please pass it on. Also check out the current Thursday Inspiration post profiling two great research projects, on cycling in later life and on sustainable household consumption in Ireland.


Three items on sustainable consumption

In closing out 2013 we look at three sustainable consumption items. First, Rachel Botsman, over on Collaborative Consumption, attempts to define some terms found in the “sharing economy.” She uses visuals and examples to clarify the difference between “Collborative Economy,” “Collaborative Consumption” and “Sharing Economy.” Second, the new report “A Practice Perspective for Sustainability PolicyContinue Reading

Reflecting on Mandela through Design Activism

Although I’m not in a position to write an adequate tribute to South African leader Nelson Mandela, with his passing last week I want to recall some design activist projects from South Africa and invite readers to share their own. Here are a few of my favorites: The 10 x 10 Low Cost Housing ProjectContinue Reading

Design-for-3D Printing as community organizing

Weekend before last I went along to the London 3D print show to see the cutting edge of this emerging field. Very Interesting. There was a 3D printed car, along with other 3D printed items such as shoes, toys, medical models, equipment for international development, and even Thor’s hammer, as used in the feature film.Continue Reading

Philippines: disaster relief and more

In the wake of disaster in the Philippines, many designers are focused on core issues such as emergency shelter, provision of food and other necessities. And rightly so. Services to people in dire circumstances is a classic form of design activism. Countless designers have contributed to disaster relief, for example, through fast, inexpensive emergency shelter,Continue Reading

My colleague Jacquie Ottman, a veteran green marketer, has founded a group called “We Hate to Waste” that lives at The group offers a No-Waste Lifestyle™ (with 8 facets) but I have to admit, the “TM” is a bit of a stumbling block for me. The website says: To spread our No-Waste Lifestyle™ aroundContinue Reading

Measuring social impact from design

One of the most difficult areas of social design is measuring impact. We are pretty good at measuring outputs — 100 people attend a seminar, 2000 widgets are distributed, or an upgrade to a public space attracts 45% more people to the space than before. But what is the longer term impact of these outputs?Continue Reading

Social License–turning CSR on its head

I recently read about the idea of businesses having a “social license” to operate, issued by a broad base of stakeholders affected by the business directly and indirectly. But key to the social license is the community that is most local to the company’s impacts. The article I read was about mining businesses in Australia,Continue Reading

Ditching the language of moderation

Have you noticed some of the new terminology around climate change? For example, at the University of York they’re talking about the “Post Crash City“ at a seminar series for the Centre for Urban Research. It’s their way of describing life in conditions of economic decline, but it has such a devastating ring to it,Continue Reading

Better consumption or less consumption — Battling surveys & reports

Surveys show consumers are buying better, Nordic report busts myth that we can consume our way to sustainability Two surveys released recently seem to indicate that consumers are caring more about the ethics and sustainability of their purchases. But the reports leave us square in the middle of the debate about whether it is possibleContinue Reading