Bodies and Buildings Class 3: Health Systems and Open Data

We mapped the obesity systems of Japan, Mongolia, Korea, Columbia, and the NJ Path Conductors.

Last week students not born in the US were surprised that the obesity epidemic “snuck up” on Americans. So students looked at other countries, and those that focused on their home countries were surprised to find the epidemic at its roots.

Global trends in non US countries:

  • Japan is the least obese country, but not uniformly. In Okinawa, were Western lifestyle was introduced, obesity rates are at 50%.
  • Peer pressure keeps women at low BMI rates in Bogota, Columbia and the rest of Japan among women, but the reverse is true for men.
  • Depression and Korea and Japan are a growing problem, but not correlated to obesity the way this happens in the US.
  • In Columbia and Mongolia, governments have introduced efforts to discourage malnourishment – yet only a few years later the problem shifts to an increase in obesity.
  • Ethnographic observation of American work conditions vs. other countries reveals a profound difference in respect, dignity, and life experience. We compared the PATH train conductor to the Russian museum security guard with the Japanese shinkansen train conductor, and the connections between work, dignity, and obesity.

Here are class notes:


And next week’s assignment:

Write a one-page essay to be presented in class.

Assume someone you love has been prescribed a wearable device to track their glucose levels, heart rate, and emotional state, and the doctor is at a research organization asking for the data to be donated to a larger research effort.

What do you advise and why?

Would this change if the research study was also measuring the quality and quantity of interactions between caregivers (yourself) and your loved one?


Bodies and Buildings Class 1: Intro to Systems Thinking

Have we reached the limits of growth:

[slideshare id=38840063&doc=bodiesandbuildings1nyuitp982014-140908144525-phpapp01]


Bodies are in trouble right now – despite reaching the peak of productivity the US now leads the world in the rampant growth of chronic diseases that lower life expectancy, and reduce life quality.

“People are living longer than projected in 1990 — on average, 10.7 more years for men, and 12.6 more years for women. But for many of them, the quality of life during those years is not good. On average, people are plagued by illness or pain during the last 14 years of life.”

Buildings account for the largest source of both electricity consumption (68% of global use) and greenhouse gas emissions (48% of global emissions) in the world. –UNEP.

Purpose of this course:

You are better equipped than MBAs to envision and build our way out of this trap, but often lack an understanding of the mega forces of business, regulation, and bad cultural habits that keep us from saving ourselves.

What we will cover in this course:

  • Meta view
  • Focus on points of intervention
  • Conceptual scaffolding

“Folks who do systems analysis have a great belief in ‘leverage points.’ These are places within a complex system (a corporation, an economy, a living body, a city, an ecosystem) where a small shift in one thing can produce big change in everything .”

Introduction to Donella Meadows, and learning about stocks, flows, and hands on the faucets.




Bodies and Buildings NYU ITP Syllabus for 2014

Bodies and Buildings
Fall 2014 Syllabus
Instructor: Jen van der Meer
jd1159 at nyu dot edu
Mondays 6:30 – 9:25 PM 721 Broadway at Waverly

Generative Spiral

Why is it so hard to care for our planet and ourselves? We seem hungover from a century of prosperity and ingenuity, unable to invent economic models that create jobs, improve health, and restore the earth. Eager ITP students are better equipped than MBAs to envision and hack our way out of this trap, but often lack an understanding of the mega forces of business, regulation, and bad cultural habits that keep us from saving ourselves. But don’t despair! We’ll get busy, and make things again – but also provide you with conceptual scaffolding upon which to build your world changing ideas.

Our tools of understanding include deep design thinking, and systems thinking. By focusing on two systems in particular: human bodies, and the buildings that humans make, we will examine the environmental and social impacts of the economic systems. Bodies are in trouble right now – despite reaching the peak of productivity the US now leads the world in the rampant growth of chronic diseases that lower life expectancy, and reduced life quality. Buildings are not in enough trouble – they account for the largest source of both electricity consumption (68% of global use) and greenhouse gas emissions (48% of global emissions) in the world.

In this course we will discover what Dana Meadows calls “leverage points” as places to intervene that would transform the system as a whole.


This is a lecture course, and the syllabus is built to provide students with a systems thinking approach to problem solving. The objective for the final presentations is for students to generate a concept that can be applied to improve human health, building health, or both. The goal is for students to articulate a solution, and argue persuasively for ideas to become reality (vs. moving straight to working prototype in usual ITP fashion). Assignments will involve in person class presentation, and class participation is required. The course is structured to provide iterative opportunities to build and strengthen ideas – rooted in user-centered design, grounded in the realities of sustainable cost models and growth plans, validated by lean and iterative solution development, and strengthened by students’ ability to stand up and tell their stories.


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Products at the Center

For the rest of this course, 11 students will become obsessed with 11 things. How these things are made. Where they are made. Who makes them. Who consumes them. How people make money of of these things. How these things are marketed. How governments regulate these things. How activists and NGOs advocate to change the way these things are made. The greenhouse gas emissions that result from this thing being made, consumed, and landfilled (or recycled). The environmental effect of this thing on human health, environmental health beyond greenhouse gas emissions. And then, we will find a better way to make these things.
Here are the 11 things:

A Smart Phone
M & Ms
A Sandwich with Prosciutto and Mozzarella Cheese
Iceberg Lettuce
Electric Car Batteries
Algae-Based BioFuel

Too Much Virtual Friend Making .NL

I’ll be posting at Core77 this year, starting with this observation about some of my favorite people and their addiction AND repulsion to social media:

In her annual Christmas Message, Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands warned of the dangers of too much virtual friend making. She encouraged people to put down their phones and laptops and re-establish physical connections. “We tend to look the other way and close our eyes and ears to what’s going on around us. Nowadays even our neighbors are strangers,” said the Queen. Real, not virtual friendships are needed to create a feeling of solidarity and to express compassion.


Image Courtesy of The Queen in Her Golden Carriage

All of this from a culture that seems to be one of the most socially connected on earth. More than half of the country’s population, over 9 MM people, have a profile on popular social network, The Dutch are the most prolific bloggers in Europe, with 15% of internet users taking part in this activity. Habbo Hotel, a Dutch-created social network for kids, is taken so seriously that cops have attempted to arrest thieving teenagers for stealing virtual furniture.

While Dutch-based commentary on the Queen’s message was negative (referring to her as a Luddite, suggesting that she lives in a Golden Cage, and other un-translatable name-calling) a Rotterdam-based media lab had already turned her pronouncement into an app. Moddr launched the Web 2.0 Suicide Machine last year (via TechCrunch). Just give the app your social network names and passwords, and it will purge your presence on Twitter, LinkedIn and other sites. In late breaking news via the company’s website, Facebook just banned the service, but that may not stop an emerging trend of rampant virtual anti-social behavior. All of this designed by the Dutch to make you wonder – is all of this social networking a force for good, or are we hiding behind our screens?


Forgot About the Carpet Mother

But really, this is the best example of sustainable design that I have ever seen.

Wire Mother Carpet Mother

Harry Frederick Harlow’s experiments on rhesus monkeys demonstrated primate connection to fuzzy, soft objects in the absence of a real, actual mother monkey. Notice how baby monkey clings to carpet mother. When given a choice between food and terry cloth, monkeys who had soft, tactile contact with their terry cloth mothers behaved quite differently than monkeys whose mothers were made out of cold, hard wire. The carpet babies were healthier and happier because they had formed emotional attachment through cuddling. Herein lies the design challenge. I can’t currently cling to my Prius dashboard, or my Tweet-a-watt. What if I could.

Design to Influence Behavior Change

In prep for a panel talk at SXSW on Designing for Irrational Behavior organized by Robert Fabricant, these are emerging examples from design, tech, engagement marketing, not-for-profit, academia, social networking… telling the story of how people who design things are creating participatory platforms that lead to more conscious consumption and use of things. 

Backstories: Where does it come from, what’s in it, who made it, how did it get here? 
“where it comes from”  
These Flocks by Christien Meindeertsma. And a book by the same artist, PIG 05049.
May have inspired this “BAA Code” concept from Icebreaker, a New Zealand wool company.
Background Stories by Arlene Birt tells the story of 3 chocolate bars.
Patagonia’s Footprint Chronicles tells you the backstory of five products.
“what’s in it” 
WorldChanging Product Label for their book, one of the most comprehensive labels, created by Dawn Danby and Jeremy Faludi.
Skin Deep cosmetics database of ingredients by the Environmental Working Group
“who made this”
Dole Organics tells you who grew your banana.
Digital ICS gives farmers the ability to report on fair trade conditions and organic farming. of course allows you to converse directly with the craftsperson who made their goods for sale.
World of Good is Ebay’s effort to connect buyers with organiations that aid artisans and craftspeople in the developing world.
Twittering the Earth: 
CeNSE : HP’s Central Nervous System for the Earth
Environmental Traffic Light Greener Gadgets Concept
Conscious Consumption: How do I own and operate my things for more positive social and environmental impact? 
The Prius dashboard remains the best example of how to design for better environmental impact, at the personal level.
The Onzo home energy management kit enables me to know how much power I’m using, and to manage it.
The Powerhog kid’s home energy piggy bank meter – a conceptual product from the Greener Gadgets competition.
Standby Monsters – another simple conceptual idea from Greener Gadgets.
Eco Rio android phone.
Conscious Collective Consumption: How are we as a society using our things for more positive impact?
SMUD’s utility bills tell Sacramento residents what they’re consuming vs. their neighbors.
Personal Kyoto project from Eyebeam, using ConEd bills to chart your use against others. lets me calculate my own energy use in clear simple kilowatt hours, and compare to what everyone else is doing.
Energy HubGreen Box and now Google PowerMeter are all working on energy display devices connected to the Smart Grid.
EcoNeighbuzz greener gadget invites your neighbors to share you stuff.
Tweet-a-watt! the ultimate greener gadget (and winner of the competition) – DIY, social behavior, awareness, it’s got it all.
Participatory Design: How do we co-create the future? 
Designers Accord multiple platforms – one site won’t do. Wiki, Yahoo Groups, and participation in existing communities to collect the intelligence of 100k + designers globally
The Heya Toyota Project asked about the future of transportation.
Nokia: Calling all Innovators ideas for social and environmental change.