“The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.” -Alice Walker
SOLA/HACK was a design hackathon I organized, hosted by General Assembly’s downtown L.A. campus. Participants included current students and alumni from General Assembly and USC. The objective of the hackathon was to apply design thinking and UX design principles to issues specific to the South L.A. community, with an eye toward how appropriate uses of technology could be used to help address social, economic, and environmental problems. While technology can be a powerful tool for change (think of the crucial role of cell phones during the Arab Spring uprising), it was stressed that there is not an easy techno-fix to every social problem. So participants were encouraged to look beyond just apps or websites and employ systems-based thinking on their solutions.
Some of the problems and challenges facing South L.A. include:
- The area is a food desert, with half the number of grocery stores as other parts of the city.
- It has the worst pollution levels in L.A. county.
- South L.A. has an 8.4% unemployment rate, compared to 7.6% for the rest of the city, and per capita income is half of what it is for the rest of the city.
- South L.A. is starting to gentrify, which will push out lower income residents. Risk factors for gentrification in the area include a high proportion of renters, access to transportation via major freeways and expansion of public transit affords easy access to job centers, and housing values are low while architectural merit is high. Further, the affluent neighborhoods in L.A. have skyrocketing real estate prices for both buyers and renters, and in some cases are depopulating due to restrictive zoning laws. Recent studies have identified this as the real engine behind gentrification.
Zaneta Smith, a social worker and community leader in South L.A., who is also the organizer of the TEDxCrenshaw event, was a guest speaker and mentor for the hackathon. She opened the hackathon with invaluable information on the myriad challenges facing the local community, and mentored the teams on their projects.
Sofia Khan, a UX designer with Iteration Group and instructor at General Assembly, provided invaluable support and mentorship to the participants. Sofia and General Assembly alum Alan Ortiz also taught a workshop on rapid prototyping, a critical tool for UX designers to empirically test ideas.
Participants were encouraged to think outside the box, think in systems, and draw connections between seemingly disparate ideas. The primary objective is innovation through collective brainstorming and rapid prototyping.
“The most innovative designers consciously reject the standard option box and cultivate an appetite for thinking wrong.” -Marty Neumeier
At the conclusion of the hackathon, the participants voted on a winner. The vote was very close as all of the proposals were extremely strong and innovative. But in the end an app called Urban Green took the top prize. Below is a synopsis of this app, followed by the proposals from the other teams.
Winner: Urban Green by Karen Murphy, Bryan James, Natalie Sacks, and Kelsey Klemme
“Urban Green” is a smartphone app that addresses the issue of empty lots in South LA— over 3,000, many of which are used for nothing more than dumping trash. An organization called LA Open Acres has mapped all these sites, but the Urban Green App goes further. Using geolocation on your phone, you can see all the empty lots in your vicinity, who owns them and if they’re available to be reclaimed. You can also connect with others in your community to organize and work together. This app empowers people to turn trash dumps into parks, playgrounds, and public gardens, with positive impacts for the local economy, culture, public safety, and the environment.
100 & Rising by Rachel McLeod, Leon Baham, and Evangeline Hsiao
“100 & Rising” is a smartphone app designed to empower minority-owned businesses and entrepreneurs. One of the challenges of local business is how to draw investments, in order to grow, expand capacity and withstand the pressures of gentrification. This app provides a tool for local minority-owned businesses to seek micro-investment from the community. It also helps local entrepreneurs to raise funds for starting new businesses. The benefits include sustainable job growth, community pride, and profits from locally-owned businesses stay in the community, rather than being exported to another state or off shore bank account. 100 & Rising empowers local minority-owned businesses and entrepreneurs to be participants rather than spectators in the economy.
Help a Family Grow by Bianca Byfield, Viannka Lopez, Min Ryu, and Marvin Monserrat Jr.
“Help a Family Grow” takes an innovative approach to the challenge of foster care youth at the transitional age range of 16-24 known as “Transitional Age of Youth” or TAY. South L.A. has the highest number of foster care children in L.A. County, and many Transitional Age of Youth (TAY) do not have access to good schools, or good support and mentorship for transitioning to adulthood and independence. Help a Family Grow matches these youth at the ages of 18-24 with businesses who can provide not only on-the-job training but also housing, by utilizing existing state foster care subsidies.
The program goes well beyond a website and app, helping to build relationships between youth and business owners. The subsidies allow businesses to increase staffing levels, and provides youth invaluable job skills and experience. This systems-based approach is built on a forward-thinking model of partnering county and state governments with local business in a solution that benefits all.
Voice of South L.A. by Ellie Hoshizaki, Philipe Navarro, Kendrick Parks, and Poy Yeung
“Voice of South L.A.” is an app that gives people a voice to their representatives in government. People often feel powerless and far removed from their political representatives, and this powerlessness contributes to South L.A. having the lowest voter turnout and civic involvement in the county. “Voice of South L.A.” provides pre-populated forms for sending messages directly to local government officials, and also allows you to share your message with others to organize and inspire. It is a tool that empowers any individual person to participate in the democratic process and hold their representatives accountable. Greater civic involvement has vast positive direct and indirect effects on a broad range of social and economic issues.
SoLocal by Hassan Latif, Brooke Newberry, Tiffany Koh, and Melissa Jeffries
Small minority-owned businesses in South L.A. are feeling the early pressures of gentrification which include rising rental prices and shifting demographics. SoLocal is an app for consumers to find and support local minority-owned businesses using geolocation. Going even further than finding business, the app cross-lists items for sale and services in multiple businesses, allowing users to create shopping lists and do virtual window shopping by searching across different genres of retailers. Based on user’s shopping preferences the app would also make suggestions for stores that carry similar goods. SoLocal is a hub for creating a community that is both an online community and physical community for local minority-owned businesses and consumers.
The problems facing the local community in South L.A. are complex, interconnected, and in many cases long-standing and deeply-rooted. Technology alone cannot solve these issues. What will work is a systems-based approach that recognizes that society, the economy, and the environment are part of an interconnected ecosystem. The participants in SOLA/HACK demonstrated that by taking a systems-based approach and employing design thinking, innovative and forward-thinking solutions are in our grasp. Indeed, the most innovative advances in UX design in the next decade will be in design for social good. I intend to use design thinking to be the change I want to see and to teach others to do the same.
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