Ted Ullrich: Open Source Urbanism through Product Design

Ted Ullrich is a Chicago born, New York City based inventor and entrepreneur, working at the intersection of art, science and technology. He has a Masters in Industrial Design from Georgia Tech, focused on technology, cities and transit; but his projects are diverse and atypical.

 

"The intersection of science and art produces our best products. I started my life path to becoming an inventor at Purdue University where I studied Inventive Design Engineering. This program combined Interdisciplinary Engineering courses (understanding the technical aspect of how things work and how they are manufactured) with Industrial Design (understanding the human side of products)... I want to help cure this frozen apathy people have for not wanting to improve their lives or environments, despite the obvious heap of problems we face every day that continue to worsen."

 

We were lucky to have Ted join us and co-lead a workshop in Moscow to understand the requirements for promoting cycling in the district of Troparevo-Nikulino. His designs attempt to solve daily problems, while being easy to use and beautiful.

The choice to buy and use the products he creates is more purposeful than simply purchasing objects en-masse. But it is his community-oriented activities that are the most interesting. And as a person, he demonstrates that creative, research-based problem solving approaches can catalyze, activate, reorganize and inspire people and cities.

 

Projects

Ted has helped start and/or propel several community projects and businesses.

 

Social Bicycles


Social Bicycles
a revolutionary bike share system with inbuilt mobile communications.
 

 

Windowfarms

Windowfarms,an open-source citizen science project exploring how urban dwellers can grow fresh food.
 

 

Do:Tank Brooklyn


DoTank:Brooklyn is an action-oriented group of urban planners, architects, and designers who use guerrilla tactics to bring attention and positive improvements to the local community. Projects included WeSee.Us a digital community billboard experiment of user-submitted digital images projected in a public space.
 
 

WeSee.Us transforms people from consumers of brand advertising to producers of content that addresses local issues; allows participatory planning for the development of cities; and activates public space with interactive technology. Photo by Aurash Khawarzad.

 

Tomorrow Lab


Tomorrow Lab is a design studio founded by Ted with Pepin Gelardi. Together, the duo have produced a number of revolutionary (read: awesome) products, like:

 

Contrails


The contrail is a device invented by Pepin Gelardi that turns your bicycle into a paintbrush.
 
 

Ted testing the contrails in Moscow. 

 

TrafficCOM

Trafficcom is a low-cost web-connected traffic counter for revolutionizing traffic counts.

 

"I get excited every time I meet someone at the early stages of a great product idea that could change people's lives forever! I think these products each show the excitement, freedom, and appropriateness that bicycles provide to city dwellers for getting around."

 

Spiro


Spiro is a health device for improving and tracking your lung strength.

 

Barolo


Barolo is a cell-enabled temperature and humidity tracker for global food shipments. Drawing by Pepin Gelardi.

 

"For me, physical things provide a deeper potential to affect change than websites do. I think its because, at the end of the day, we are physical creatures and find deeper intuition, joy, and permanence with things in our physical environment."

 

What are some of your favorite product design projects?

My favorite projects are ones that really matter and have commercial viability. There is usually a formula of:

1. Projects that address big problems in a grass-roots, bottom-up way, especially those designed for the context of a city.

2. Producing a technical feat, a certain 'magic' that enables a product to do something new or something better than it has been done in the past. This usually involves developing intellectual property, i.e. patents.

3. Considering a data aspect. We live in a world that is increasingly focused on data. Is it appropriate for the product to either gather or show you data?

4. Establishing the core desire of the product. If you can't articulate why someone would want to own the product, your product idea is likely landfill and a perpetuator of the noisy advertisement industry. Do we need more useless things, landfill or advertisements?

 

How do you see products, product design and everyday objects as being able to transform—not just people's daily experiences / lives, but also their surroundings?

When people think about changing the environment at the city-level, it's often considered a huge task with long timelines. It's about the buildings, parks, and boulevards, right? No, its more than that. We learned from Jane Jacobs that the 'small change adds up to a rich city' like good sidewalks, a concerned citizen who has her 'eyes on the street', or one person's initiative to set out a planter of petunias on their stoop. These small things create cascading effects, building up to the scale of a city. The opportunity for multiplication and amplification of a good idea is what keeps me interested in product design within cities.

I'm most fascinated by the return on investment that ripe product design can provide within the right audience. If you prototype and design one thing really well and think about how others will make it, then the product can duplicate exponentially and touch a lot of people. This is the idea behind Richard Dawkin's memetics, for those interested.

Recently you collaborated to create a DIY traffic counter. Can you tell me more about it, and how you see it as being trans formative?

Aurash Khawarzad and I were recently invited to Strelka Institute to host a workshop on improving cycling in Moscow. There we debuted a DIY version of TrafficCOM—a low-cost traffic counter.

 

For the first time ever, people could gather accurate volume, rate, and speed measurements of automobiles and bicycles, then easily upload and map the information to a central online database.

The TrafficCOMputer works like other traffic counters, but has two key differences: lower cost and open data. At 1/10th price of comparable traffic counters used by city planning departments, TrafficCOM is affordable for anyone.

 


See the full map and read about using mapping and data for informed decision making. Trafficom has so far been tested and deployed in Moscow, Santiago, Philadelphia, and a growing number of US cities, as citizens start to buy it online. Read more about why it is important, by Fastco and Atlantic Cities.

The TrafficCOM Data Uploader allows you to upload and map your latest traffic count data, making it instantly available to anyone online. We hope to form a growing TrafficCOMmunity around the data and the device, providing a data-driven method to prescribing urban planning improvements.

Do you think that the objects and experiences that you design can be part of bottom up transformations?

Yes. Until the government starts issuing or requiring certain products for its citizens, product adoption is always bottom-up because people choose to buy them. Buying or making products is (or at least ought to be) a voluntary activity.

And do you think trying to promote objects and products is ever problematic (theoretically, philosophically) in relation to consumption?

Yes. Going back to an earlier idea, modern product designers should acknowledge that they have a hand on the steering wheel of material culture. Through their professional practice, they can help steer society towards consumption or away from it. I am in this game to try to change it (away from mindless consumption), and my strategy is to work on new types of products that solve real problems.

Can industrial design play an important role in shaping our cities, the way urban design/ architecture traditionally have?

'Industrial Design' is an invention of the 20th century, when we needed a skilled professional to help bridge the gap between the crafted objects of the 19th century and the mass-production machines and methods of the 20th century. There are many off-shoots and aesthetic eras you'll read about in design history books, but that's the summary.

With that said, I think people who invent tools and craft useful objects have always been leaders of change in their communities. Imagine Edison's contributions of distributed electricity and a commercially-viable light-bulb in the context of shaping city dwellings. Or imagine Jobs' and Ives' iPhone in the context of shaping city workplaces.

My point is that products can and do have wide-sweeping effect on cities through their proliferation. With a spotlight on global urbanization, densification, and the great migration to cities we'll continue to see over the next few decades, inventors, product designers, and industrial designers have the opportunity serve this change… or not.