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Destination 'Civic Imagination'

Catherine D’Ignazio Talks Useless Maps, Talking Creeks and Breast Pumps at Olin


Catherine D’Ignazio, an artist/designer and Emerson College professor who spoke at Olin College recently, seeks to subvert common understandings and received wisdom, particularly in the realm of design.

In one effort she led in Cambridge, Massachusetts, kiosks were set up all over the city to allow people to rename the city’s public places, which heavily favor long-dead colonial-era men. Photos of the events, that took place from spring 2006 through summer of 2007, show groups of people crowding around tables and jotting down suggestions ranging from the whimsical—streets named after girlfriends, boyfriends and pets—to the thought-provoking, such as the proposal to rename Harvard Street as Radcliffe Street, after the woman who provided much of the funds for Harvard, but never had her name enshrined on a street sign.

The ideas were eventually published in the form of a map of “The City Formerly Known as Cambridge.”

Such projects, says D’Ignazio, are meant to encourage “civic imagination,” which she defines as “imagining alternatives to current social, political or economic conditions.” Sara Hendren, an assistant professor at Olin who invited d’Ignazio to the college to expose students to her discipline-spanning form of design thinking, calls her work “a hybrid practice of engineering, human-centered design and artwork, all of it proceeding from a deep interest in human lives and human rights.”

In her March 8 talk at Olin, D’Ignazio, who focuses much of her work on data literacy and visualization, presented a series of projects that pose provocative questions about the decisions inherent in the built environment and product design.

In addition to the Cambridge mapping project, she described “Terra Incognita,” a Chrome browser plugin that helps people break out of their news bubbles. When users open a new tab, they are presented with information about a city they are unfamiliar with and provided with options for finding out more about it.

D’Ignazio also organized the “Make the Breast Pump Not Suck” hackathon at MIT, after an epiphany she had as a new mother while trying to pump breast milk on a bathroom floor at the MIT Media Lab. She developed DataBasic, a suite of tools that aims to introduce data literacy to non-techies. And her Babbling Brook project offers a flower that provides water quality information along with bad jokes.

Such projects, and the creative rethinking of current realities that they provoke, are especially useful right now. “We really need civic imagination right now in this particular climate more than ever, and we need creative people like yourselves who are thinking about the most important problems that are facing us, ” D’Ignazio told the students. The point is to “help us collectively imagine a better future together.”