New paper: Designing in “Constellations”

pdc2016-logoWe will be presenting at PDC16 in August (in Denmark!) on a new paper.  Ours is a short paper under the umbrella of “Participatory Design With and Within Communities” (see the program for Short Papers Session A).


Designing in “Constellations”: Sustaining participatory design in neighborhoods

by Karl Baumann, Benjamin Stokes, François Bar, and Ben Caldwell


Sustaining participation in design is difficult, especially in neighborhoods that seek change consistent with their cultural values. Participatory Design offers several approaches (e.g. infrastructuring) that help to balance the sensibilities of urban planning with the immediacies of design. This paper investigates the distinctive value of a “constellation” of participatory activities that sustained engagement throughout the design of an urban plaza, combining physical and digital flows. Based on a three-year collaboration in a historically black South LA neighborhood, this study analyzes the re-invention of urban furniture – payphones, bus benches, newspaper boxes, planters, and public displays – into community interactions. After reviewing the concrete vision of this constellation, the City of Los Angeles decided to fund the implementation of a pedestrian plaza. This paper articulates our methods of infrastructuring, providing techniques that sustain participation over time around physical urban objects that become touch points for fluid groups of designers. More than any one design, the constellation approach provides a platform for horizontal iteration, maintaining focus and participation in imagining a neighborhood’s socio-technical future.

The full PDF is available via the ACM Proceedings.

Workshop at PDC16 in Denmark this August

pdc2016-logoGoing to PDC16?  Come and learn with us!  In this half-day learning workshop, you’ll get to prototype with our “game toolkit” on hybrid games, connecting urban furniture to digital flows of communication.  (We’ll also be presenting in a related session on Designing in “Constellations” on Thursday.)

>> Spread the word: Tweet about this workshop and mention the conference Twitter or conference Facebook.  See also our Twitter account.


Hybrid games for stronger neighborhoods: testing new tools to connect residents, art, and sense of place

Led by Benjamin Stokes (American University and co-founder of Games for Change), Karl Baumann (University of Southern California) and François Bar (also of USC).

Read more ›

SKIN reflections and coverage

24857371796_8e225c8f58_oHere are a few pictures and quotes from the group show we are in at the LA Municipal Art gallery. The show is called “SKIN,” and is open until April 18th, as we previously announced. Our co-founder Ben Caldwell opened the door to our team when he was invited to contribute to the show. According to the exhibition statement, “SKIN brings thirty-six artists whose work is timely and engaged in many ways with these broader debates. The gallery acts as a discursive space where these disparate conversations can have a platform, and where further productive work and reflection on these topics can proceed.”

For our part, Caldwell brought in Sankofa Red (our rebuilt payphone, pictured at right), and our design collaborative24764812522_03aa2d8c71_o.  We created a new mission for the phone: gather “SKIN stories,” responding to the question, “When did you first become aware of the color of your skin?” The payphone gives instructions, and then callers to our hotline are invited to record their story. To complete the circle, we will upload excerpts from the SKIN stories onto the payphone for ongoing exhibition when Sankofa Red returns to Leimert Park.

We are in great company, with artists including household names like Kara Walker, Los Angeles art scene veterans like Sandy Rodriguez and Nery Gabriel Lemus.

As for the show, here is some context from a review of the SKIN exhibition by Mat Gleason:

Under the curatorial direction of Barnsdall’s director Isabelle Lutterodt, SKIN presents a myriad of stylistic and formal approaches to art by over thirty artists, all related in some manner to race.

Small and medium art institutions… remain vital to mount shows that take on the big issues of our time. The Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery at Barnsdall Art Park is the perfect place for the type of socially-conscious curating that is as inclusive as it is demanding of high artistic quality from those that would be partisan.

24857372356_0039f27400_o  24707997152_e82b382435_o

As always, we innovated with print media too. The big challenge for a design like this is to tap into existing social norms. So we gave out the hotline number with “tear off” paper strips, as is common on at laundromats, at public payphones, etc. The separate hotline also provides more privacy for visitors to submit their stories, since SKIN narratives an easily be very personal and inappropriate for the public spaces of a gallery. Finally, we noticed that many of the best stories came after invitations in person from team members or friends, echoing some longstanding practices from oral history.

Read more ›

SKIN: a Show at the LA Municipal Art Gallery

Join us when our Sankofa Red payphone travels to Skin, courtesy of co-founder Ben Caldwell.  Reception Sunday February 7th from 2-5pm; subsequently open Feb 7-April 17, 2016.


For details, see the event page on Facebook.

Official description:

This exhibition, SKIN, addresses issues that have been increasingly prominent since the 2008 presidential election of Barack Obama. It was the first time that an African American had run for President and won. The election symbolized strides thought to have been made in race relations, yet it also revealed ruptures in the “skin” that binds us as Americans, and ultimately, as people. During the last year, events in Ferguson, Baltimore, Cleveland, Chicago, New York City, Prairie View, Charleston, Oakland, and Southern California have revealed chasms in the issues of race and identity.

Conversations about race have always taken place within diasporic communities, but in the wake of racially charged events over the last year, it has become a growing part of the national dialogue. Artists in Los Angeles and throughout the country have been galvanized by these events. The objective of SKIN is to bring the conversation into a centralized discursive space, and we are seeking work that is both thoughtful and thought provoking.

Book released: LA Rebellion

Exciting news: a book on the LA Rebellion was recently released, featuring in part our co-founder, Ben Caldwell. Below is a photo of Ben, holding a copy.  Our payphone work continues to be inspired by their influence.  (Editors of the book include Allyson Field, Jan-Christopher Horak, and Jacqueline Najuma Stewart.)


Official description of the book:

L.A. Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema is the first book dedicated to the films and filmmakers of the L.A. Rebellion, a group of African, Caribbean, and African American independent film and video artists that formed at the University of California, Los Angeles, in the 1970s and 1980s. The group—including Charles Burnett, Julie Dash, Haile Gerima, Billy Woodberry, Jamaa Fanaka, and Zeinabu irene Davis—shared a desire to create alternatives to the dominant modes of narrative, style, and practice in American cinema, works that reflected the full complexity of Black experiences. This landmark collection of essays and oral histories examines the creative output of the L.A. Rebellion, contextualizing the group’s film practices and offering sustained analyses of the wide range of works, with particular attention to newly discovered films and lesser-known filmmakers. Based on extensive archival work and preservation, this collection includes a complete filmography of the movement, over 100 illustrations (most of which are previously unpublished), and a bibliography of primary and secondary materials. This is an indispensible sourcebook for scholars and enthusiasts, establishing the key role played by the L.A. Rebellion within the histories of cinema, Black visual culture, and postwar art in Los Angeles.

See also:


Leimert Phone Company… the course?

This spring USC Professor François Bar and (then) Ph.D candidate Andrew Schrock brought lessons from the Leimert Phone Company’s community prototyping to a USC classroom! After all, couldn’t students also benefit from thinking through how to use design practices to foster innovative ways to use public space and access cultural assets?

We saw Payphones as an opportunity to”learn through hacking.” Students collaborated through hand-on activities on projects that improved communication in their community. Old friends from Leimert Park came by to guide the teams; Sabelo helped write code, and Patrice helped provide insightful feedback on the two completed prototypes. The below pictures show the progression the teams made throughout the semester, including brainstorming, designing, soldering, painting, wiring, and writing code to make everything work.


Wiring up keypad in external box

Moving the ‘PonicsPhone 

aqua-new friendMeeting a new friend found on our Kale

demoday-1-1Putting on the final touches… 

demoday-2-5The final working prototype with the team:
Alex, Amelia, & Crystal! 

Installed in the lobby of Wallis Annenberg Hall

The “Aquaponics Phone” demonstrates aquaponics – a closed ecosystem of fish, plants and water. When people pick up the handset it plays a menu to educate people about sustainable food initiatives in their area. By placing the working parts outside the payphone the team drew attention to the phone while clearing space for the aquaponics tank. The aquaponics payphone was installed in the lobby of the new Wallis Annenberg Hall. Eventually the team hopes it can be installed in Mariachi Plaza in Boyle Heights, where it was initially conceptualized as living.

the bare phone
Payphone chassis ready for hacking! 

Sabelo working his magic with code 

Soldering the “PiPhone” conversion boards 

Adding some paint… 

Wiring up the camera

The finished prototype, which posts a pic to Twitter!
Nice job, Sabelo, Matt & Andrea!

“TommyCam” takes place-based pictures in key spots and uploads them to social media. The team noticed that certain hotspots on campus were particularly photogenic. Tours stopped at the Tommy status and people took group pictures in front of the fountain. They had a clever idea to make photographs as much about the place they were taken as the people that were in them. The corner seemed like the perfect spot for a place-based camera. The final phone captures and makes public online all the vibrant social activity and visitors that come through the space.

Join our workshop at the Digital Media and Learning conference, June 13th

dml-header-smWe are hosting a two-hour Saturday workshop at the Digital Media and Learning conference.  Register for just the day (June 13, the third day) or see a list of all workshops.  Ours will be from 11am-1pm, in the room called The Palace.

The sixth annual conference – DML2015 – is organized around the theme “Equity by Design.” This year’s conference calls on us all to promote equity in digital learning practices, and engage in thinking of solutions for addressing educational opportunity gaps in today’s technological world.

Our title:

Remaking Payphones, from African American Culture to Minimalist Technology


Can rebuilding payphones be a grassroots strategy to combat gentrification? We will lead a workshop for empowering communities across the digital divide, while reinforcing local culture. Join artists from LA’s historic African-American neighborhood of Leimert Park, and learn about “payphone redesign.” In the process, we hope to inspire groups to apply our technical and conceptual tools to issues in their local communities.

A key challenge for long-marginalized neighborhoods is how to retain local distinction and community strength. Leimert Park wants to retain its rich African American arts and culture in the face of new investment pouring in after a subway line was announced. Technology alone can actually make gentrification worse. Current models for community technology are often narrow, including short-term hackathons and youth-only training. What’s new? Our model shifts the empowerment debate to the neighborhood level. We build group cohesion tied to physical places, and connect artists with techies to tackle local problems. We particularly focus on bridging community and university groups.

This session has three parts: introducing the movement to reimagine payphones, sharing low-cost tools, and most importantly working in small groups to apply the approach to other cities and social issues.

(1) THE VISION — meet the growing movement to reimagine public objects that blend digital and physical. In the first 10-15 minutes, we will showcase amazing payphone redesigns from around the world, including our own project in South Los Angeles. In our case study, we will describe how we purchased 14 payphones on eBay — and rebuilt them, by rethinking social practices and the hardware. We will bring introduce our installation art piece: a 8-foot rebuilt payphone called “Sankofa Red,” which includes a loudspeaker and microphone for use in public space, and show video of emergent cultural forms — including a “rap the phone” session. We aim to inspire.

(2) TOOLS PREVIEW — we will briefly demonstrate some of the practices and tools that can be used in ultra-low cost settings, helping to cross the digital divide. These include OpenVBX (a free tool for prototyping SMS and voice trees) and our custom Raspberry Pi kit (a low-cost and open-source computer), which we call “the PiPhone.”

(3) NEIGHBORHOOD PROTOTYPING — small groups will rapidly prototype a payphone design for their own neighborhood. Focusing on gentrification, our prototyping process will show how to keep culture and technology in conversation (based on our research paper). We’ll begin with paper and embodied prototyping, incorporating game design techniques and aligning with social science research on neighborhood storytelling. (The potential for collective action often depends on a coherent group identity and efficacy beliefs that come from local stories.) Each small group will create a working prototype emphasizing voice-based design, which will be played on a real payphone.

Afterward each team will be offered a “PiPhone,” our custom PC board that connects old payphones to a Raspberry Pi… and the Internet! Our goal is to foster an international network of grassroots groups who are rebuilding payphones as a way to deepen local culture while fostering more sustainable economic development.

Check back here for useful links during the workshop…

  • See also: all workshops in our category: “Expanding Freedoms through Digital Media Design and Practice… This strand invites local, indigenous, international, and diasporic participants and perspectives, broadening the DML conversation to include knowledge of new communities, movements, programs, schools, and individuals around the world where media practice intersects with struggles for equality and a greater social good…”

Montage of LPC + Sankofa Says

By the way, here’s a neat montage of the Leimert Phone Company and the Sankofa Says game, courtesy of Karl Baumann:



(This image was made by Karl for the end of the year iMap showcase.)

Article Published on “Neighborhood Planning of Technology”

JoCI-logo-bLast week our first journal article was published! The article was peer-reviewed as part of a special issue on urban planning in the Journal of Community Informatics.

payphone-in-action2Our subject was the “Neighborhood Planning of Technology: Physical Meets Digital City from the Bottom-Up with Aging Payphones.”

In the paper, we describe the Leimert Phone Company as a case study of how the embedding of technology is a long-term effort that requires social scaffolding, beyond short-term hackathons and planning meetings.

For a taste of the paper, here is our abstract:

What does it mean to “plan” a technology? Designs with a footprint in public space are important hybrids, including wired bus stops and rebuilt payphones. Our goal is to shift from designing technology for a neighborhood by planning technology as part of the neighborhood. Aging phone booths were purchased in LA’s historic Leimert Park. For six months, residents joined with technologists to tackle a planning issue (gentrification). We developed a method of “deep engagement” to sustain grassroots planning in socio-technical systems, especially around the digital divide. The method resists “solving” the payphone problem, and instead theorizes engagement as four social scaffolds to bring technology literacy into the planning process.

Our findings point to the value of social scaffolding that does the following:

  1. Sustain a Participatory Culture. Support a process that is playful and insistently open, feeding off the neighborhood’s cultural practices. Specifically, we echo the criteria outlined for participatory culture by Jenkins et al. (2007), including low barriers to participation and ensuring that all contributions are appropriately valued.
  2. Deepen a Neighborhood Story. The neighborhood identity has implications for economic development and civic engagement. Rather than presume to invent the grand narrative or avoid it, find a way to retell it. Begin by identifying the cultural assets that make the neighborhood distinct. Especially for historically marginalized neighborhoods, telling the story of “who we are” gives power and roles for local voices that lack elite technology skills.
  3. Mix Technologies of Old and New. Frame the desired product as larger than any single technology, yet cheaper and more obvious than we might expect. For example, consider the role of “paper as mobile media.” Low-tech and low-cost shifts the conversation to planning the social side of socio-technical systems, and helps to build technology skills and confidence in design participants.
  4. Rotate Institutions. A central practice of planning is to look beyond the most immediate users to consider all stakeholder groups, including non-users. Power relations between groups are at the heart of sustainability and equity concerns. To resist calcifying at one power hub, deliberately rotate the physical site of design, and recruit a rotating cast of institutional figures.

Make sure to scroll through the full article to catch our pictures of the team in action! Unlike many journals, this one is proudly free and open-access.

Co-authors were Benjamin Stokes, François Bar, Karl Baumann, and Ben Caldwell — but the article mentions the amazing work of many people in our team.

Trailer of our game Sankofa Says

Check out the new video of our urban game Sankofa Says. The game launched in October 2014 as an official selection of IndieCade, the leading independent games festival.

How it works: Sankofa Says is a place-based game that brings people together on the streets of a specific neighborhood (first stop: Culver City!). To succeed, players join flash rallies at local landmarks, make phone calls to answer riddles about local history.

Our design goal is for players to have fun and meet people while interacting with authentic neighborhood stories — since cities are made of stories, as well as streets and landmarks. Every adventure requires hitting the streets, meeting new people. Even locals will encounter a few surprises.

For more, visit the game website, including IndieCade pictures from our launch!