Bodies and Buildings NYU ITP Syllabus for 2014


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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.



ITP grades on a pass/fail basis. This class is weighted as follows:

Documentation: 30%

Constructive critique and participation in class discussions: 30%

Midterm: 10%

Final presentation: 30%

Academic Integrity:

Cite your ideas. Particularly in this course we will be asking you to construct arguments, so learn how to develop original thoughts and to academically distinguish between your ideas and those of others.


There are assignments weekly, and documentation is required each week before class. Please post each assignment to your own personal blog, or one created for this class, and link your blog post in an email prior to the start of class.

Reading vs. Further Learning:

Reading and viewing assignments are broken into “required” which will inform your writing/speaking assignment and “further learning” which is available to you assuming you want to go deeper and learn more about the topic because you are in graduate school after all.

Office Hours:

Mondays 5:00 PM – 6:30 PM, and available by appointment.

Class Schedule:

Monday, 6:30 PM – 9:25 PM

  • September 8
  • September 15
  • September 22
  • September 29
  • October 6
  • October 20
  • October 27
  • November 3
  • November 10
  • November 17
  • November 24
  • December 1

1. Introduction to systems thinking, September 8, 2014

Class assignment for September 15, 2014

Mandatory! Read ALL OF  Donella Meadows:

Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System

Take leverage points 9, 8, 7.

Write/type an accompanying 1 page or 500-600 word essay on the following topic: How do mobile apps try to affect leverage points 9, 8, and 7.

9) The length of delays, relative to the rate of system change

8) The strength of negative feedback loops, relative to impacts they are trying to correct against

7) The gain around driving positive feedback loops

Give one example and explain how the app is or is not designed to affect each of these leverage points. How effective do you think this app will be at changing behavior?

Present a sketched systems map to illustrate your thinking. What are the levers are involved by the users and creators of the app? Scan a hand drawn map, use omnigraffle, mindmapping software, illustrator – whichever favorite tool you prefer.

You will be asked to present your work, so practice rehearsing your in class presentation at least two times.

Posts maps and essays to your blog, and send to me ahead of class: jd1159 at nyu dot edu.

Part 1: Bodies

2. Bodies – The Obesity Epidemic, September 15, 2014

Assignment for September 22, 2014: When developing ideas and concepts for our student projects, and future projects, business ideas, and save-the-world ideas, we often start by designing for ourselves.

For this assignment, research a part of the world at a local level (city, state, province, county) that has a problem with obesity. The only requirement: pick somewhere that you have never been.

In a one-page essay, describe the social, cultural, technological, economic, and other conditions of this region that may be contributing to a growth in the prevalence of obesity.  You may choose to write a non-fiction account or take this as a creative writing assignment – imagining a first person day-in-the-life account of what it feels like to live here.


Required Reading: 

Video: Global Obesity at an All Time High With Billions Overweight Newsy

Network Medicine — From Obesity to the “Diseasome” NEJM.

By Albert-László Barabási, Ph.D.

The epidemic of pre-diabetes: the medicine and the politics The BMJ  by John S Yudkin, Emeritus Professor of Medicine, University College London, UK and Victor M Montori, Mayo Clinic, USA

Further Learning:

Video: Technology, Diet and Obesity Related Disease: From Children to Adults Endocrine Society, David S Ludwig, MD,PHD Boston Children’s Hospital, Boston, MA

The Spread of Obesity in a Large Social Network over 32 Years NEJM, by Nicholas A. Christakis, M.D., Ph.D., M.P.H., and James H. Fowler, Ph.D.

Catching Obesity From Friends May Not Be So Easy, NY Times, by Gina Kolata, August 8, 2011.

We Are Our Bacteria NYTimes, by Jane Brody July 14, 2014

The Weight of the Nation: Part 1 – Consequences (HBO Docs) 2012 (and keep going – HBO has the entire series on YouTube.

3. Bodies – The Open Health Data Movement, September 22, 2014

Assignment for September 29, 2014: 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?

Required Reading:

The quantified self, Counting every moment. The Economist.

US CTO seeks to scale agile thinking and open data across federal government via Strata Rx

The Business Case for Open Data Omidyar Network

Video: Changing Behavior and Changing Policies: Todd Park

Further Learning:

Todd Park: Opening Data for Social Change

Social fMRI: Investigating and shaping social mechanisms in the real world. Nadav Aharonya, Wei Pana, Cory Ipa, Inas Khayala,b, Alex Pentland. Persuasive and Mobile Computing. Vol 7, 2011, 643-659.

4. Bodies – Minimally Disruptive Medicine, September 29, 2014

Assignment for October 6, 2014: Choose a health procedure or intervention and redesign how it could be delivered using more minimally disruptive technology, services, and staff. You may write a one-page essay OR sketch your solution, but describe how it will achieve equal or better outcomes.

Minimally Disruptive Medicine, Mayo Clinic

H pe for mHealth: More “y” or “o” on the horizon? Alain Labrique,Lavanya Vasudevan, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

2012 World Happiness Report

TEDxCities: Eric Liu Why Ordinary People Need to Understand Power

Further Learning:

Hacking Healthcare Chapter 6: Patient Facing Software

mHealth Evidence: mHealth at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) by Wendy Nilsen, PhD

5. Bodies – the Global mHealth Movement October 6, 2014

Prepare for the midterm: a written and spoken argument (2 pages, 5 minutes) clearly outlining your position on one of two viewpoints:

  • We should study mHealth innovation in the developing world, and transport ideas to the US
  • We should study mHealth innovation in the US, and transport ideas to the developing world.

Follow Op-Ed structure and cite your resources.


  • Introduce from the context of the current discussion (LEDE)
  • State your thesis argument – what do you believe
  • Provide three relevant examples proving your point (evidence point one, evidence point two, then conclusion)
  • “To be sure” Provide the counterpoint, then argue against the counterpoint.
  • Conclude with a recommended action.

Optional: provide an information diagram or visual to illustrate your argument.

Further Learning:

Five tips to get that op-ed out of your head and into the headlines By Ethan Gilsdorf, Grub Street.

Health on the move: Can mobile phones save lives? Yvonne MacPherson and Sara Chamberlain BBC Policy Briefing February, 2013

Video: Global mHealth: An Overview of Mobile Innovations and Evidence by Alain Labrique Johns Hopkins, for Stanford Medicine.

6. Midterm OpEd Pitches: Solving for Global mHealth October 20, 2014

5 minute in class presentations and feedback

Part 2: Buildings

7. Clean Energy Failures, Clean Energy Long Term View October 27, 2014

Assignment: In the same way we reviewed health apps for our first assignment, find an app, website, or some other technology service that gives an end user the ability to interact with her environmental data.

Write a review of this experience – would you use this system for your personal understanding? What kinds of feedback loops are built into the design of the system?

Optional Daytime Field Trip: Action Environmental Services Recycling Facility, Bronx NY

Required reading:

Why the Clean Tech Boom Went Bust by Juliet Eilperin, Wired

Transforming Clean Tech into Main Tech by Vinod Khosla, Forbes

Peter Thiel’s Contrarian Strategy by Roger Parlaff, Forbes

Further learning:

Climate-change policy in America, Europe and China. Tepid, timid by The Economist

How Climate Change Changed Me by Tom Steyer, Politco

The President and the Pipeline by Ryan Lizza, The New Yorker

 8. LEED and the Passive House Movement, November 3, 2014

 Assignment: Calculate your carbon footprint.

Find a personal carbon footprint calculator that you trust. Prepare a one page/slide view of your footprint. Why did you choose this particular calculator. What were the inputs. What did you learn.

Understanding Citizen Science and Environmental Monitoring

9. Waste has Value, November 10, 2014


Begin prep for final presentation. You will be to develop a concept to address a part of the system. Which part of the system of how we care for bodies, or how we make and maintain our buildings, interests you the most?

What are the anomalies and failures that irk you?

What possibilities do you see?

Sketch a systems map, and document anomalies and failures. Which lever(s) will you pull?

Required Reading:

Readings from Robin Nagle’s Picking Up, On the Streets and Behind the Trucks of the Sanitation Workers of New York City.

The surprising value of waste by Rob Matheson, MIT News Office

How the World Wastes Food, By Katie Peek, Popular Science

Further learning:

Driving Sustainable Consumption Value Chain Waste World Economic Forum

10. Generative Architecture, Responsive Design, November 17, 2014

Required reading:

Readings from: Shaping Things by Bruce Sterling

Small Local Open and Connected by Ezio Manzini

Further learning:

Pick any one of the “Facsicles” from ArtFarm on architecture theory:

Readings from The Architecture of a Well-Tempered Environment by Reyner Banham

Part 3:  Final Presentations and Taking Action

11. Final Presentations, November 24, 2014

With guest critics.

12. Taking Action , December 1, 2014

Goal and commitments.