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March 20, 2009

One of the best things about the Internet is the ability to virtually attend lectures we couldn't get to in real-time. A series of lectures that took place at the MoMA's Design and the Elastic Mind exhibition last year, presented by Seed magazine, are now available online and they are worth watching.

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Today I tuned in for a talk from one of the most innovative designers around, Natalie Jeremijenko, whose list of far-out projects could easily outlast the twenty-minute slot she was allotted. But the selected works she shared were all intriguing, threaded together by a common goal of formulating design solutions to improve local environmental and personal health, and address global warming. 

From Jeremijenko's office at NYU, where she is an associate professor, she runs one of her primary projects of the moment, The Environmental Health Clinic and Lab. The clinic is set up like the typical kind you'd visit for an ear infection or sprained ankle, but its services are not of the medical sort. "The project approaches health from an understanding of its dependence on external local environments; rather than on the internal biology and genetic predispositions of an individual," the clinic's site explains.

Visitors to the clinic—who Jeremijenko terms "impatients" because they are individuals who don't want to wait for legislative change—must make an appointment to discuss their environmental concerns. At the end of the consultation, they leave with a prescription not for pharmaceuticals, but for design interventions that they can do themselves. This might be anything from collecting data on the environmental quality of one's neighborhood or block to creating a participatory public art project that increases community awareness of a particular concern.

The clinic follows the metaphor of the healthcare facility to its logical end, emphasizing that ultimately it's up to the "impatient" to take responsibility for their concern. The resources and expertise are available at the clinic to develop an appropriate "course of treatment," but without the personal commitment to take action, the situation won't change.

Other projects hatched by Jeremijenko and her collaborators include a treatment for "Reluctant Pedestrian Syndrome"—a "hot-rodded" high heel shoe with a spring-loaded sole that encourages pedestrians to take back car-dominated streets by making walking faster and more efficient (the shoes are also appropriate for a speculative future in which asphalt has returned to long grasses); a "Tadpole Bureaucrat Biomonitoring Protocol," which is prescribed to impatients who are concerned about water quality (tadpoles are ultra-sensitive to water-borne pollutants and endocrine distruptors); and a No Parking Zone prescription for people concerned about air quality, in which emergency parking areas in urban streets are planted with a microlandscape that sucks exhaust from tailpipes into its fold before the CO2 reaches the sidewalk.

Jeremijenko's lecture is a brief, wonder-inducing trip through a self-created menagerie of inventions and ideas. It's worth a listen and if you are ever passing by NYU, you might want to stop into the clinic for a personalized prescription.

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