Product Design | Master's Capstone
September 2022 - May 2023
Sustainability, Urban Development
IT ALL STARTED WITH A BROKEN AC
In September 2022, California reached temperatures of 116 degrees (F). Call it misfortune or situational irony, but in the same week, my car’s air conditioner broke. I endured the heat by driving with my windows down, covering my arms and legs with blankets to minimize sunburn, and bolting to the shade as soon as I parked.
Unfortunately, living in a city meant limited access to shade. As I looked for refuge from the heat, I realized there was a lack of shade and an overwhelming presence of concrete. In my struggle to cool down, I began to wonder what resources were available to protect people from the heat - especially vulnerable populations like the unhoused and elderly.
THE URBAN HEAT ISLAND EFFECT
I did research to understand why cities are so hot and learned about the Heat Island Effect. The phenomenon causes cities to be hotter than surrounding natural areas because of urban development. The main factors for heat retention are (1) urban surfaces, like concrete, that absorb and retain heat and (2) the removal of trees, which naturally provide shade and cool down ambient temperature. Combatting the Urban Heat Island Effect would require a solution to cover the concrete sprawl in cities, which led me to ask the question
How can we cover urban sprawl to mitigate the Heat Island Effect and make cities safer and more comfortable for residents?
WHAT PEOPLE NEED
I did more research to understand existing solutions that target the Heat Island Effect and found that a major obstacle to most solutions is urban design. Densely packed buildings, narrow streets and rapid urbanization make it difficult to plan and install structures like gardens or green / reflective roofs. My secondary research was helpful at defining problems to address but I wanted to learn more about how extreme heat affects people living in cities. Therefore, I sent out a questionnaire to friends living in major cities across the United States and received 50 responses from Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, Boston and Austin. From the questionnaire, I learned
- Most people spend their time at restaurants, parks and farmer’s markets as their main form of recreation
- Most (57%) respondents preferred being indoors
- They preferred the indoors because of commodities like air conditioning, protection from traffic and cleanliness
Based on all my research, I understood that I needed to build both a product to provide shade in any urban environment and an experience that is safe, clean and promotes recreation.
At this point, I pitched the idea to one of my design classes and recruited a team of other students to build Icarus for the semester. Our first task as a team was to come up with concepts and sketches.
Our preliminary concepts were inspired by nature, spanning from dahlias to ladybug wings. However, while we love biomimicry, we acknowledged that it would be difficult to build multiple structures at scale if the design was too complicated. We understood that a major constraint was urban design and didn’t want to build a shade that was too complicated and could not be produced at scale. Therefore, we stopped thinking outside of the box and instead sketched a box ... with wings.
Our winged structure was meant to be thin enough to fit into the narrowest of streets. Its wings were meant to pull out to provide shade and patrons could sit on the base of the structure, like a bench. For added mobility, we also designed the structure to be on wheels and entertained innovative features like solar panels on the wings and motors that adjusted the wings based on the angle of the sun.
FORM & FUNCTION
As we developed our concept, we became increasingly excited to produce it. Our next step was to render the sketches. Each team member used their background to render models for different purposes; the architects and designers made diagrams to highlight the shade’s parts and configurations and the team’s engineer built a model to show how the wings would open and close. I, wanting to contribute and learn how to render models, spent a weekend learning Fusion360 to explore ways to redesign the base.
UTILITY VS. IMPACT
After rendering our sketches, we could see that our structure could definitely provide shade. However, when we presented our initial renders, we received feedback and questions including
“How is this different from an umbrella?”
Without features like solar power or reactive wings, the question was valid. Our structure met the needs defined by our secondary research but still lacked the experience that our users wanted.
To be honest, we struggled to build an experience around our structure. We knew it was useful and provided shade, but couldn't communicate what contexts it would be used for. To realign ourselves, we returned to our problem statement and tried to think of scenarios where people would suffer if the Urban Heat Island Effect worsened. Collectively we identified concerts, music festivals and outdoor markets as events that would be affected due to concrete sprawl and unshaded venues. We conducted additional research and found that there had already been incidents of people suffering at these types of events and decided that our purpose was to explore how Icarus improve the safety and user experience at these events. We chose to focus on the 626 Market, a cultural festival in LA that is often held at racetracks or fairgrounds meaning that patrons mill around hot, concrete oceans.
PUTTING IT TO THE TEST
To test how Icarus' current form could support the 626 Market, we built two types of prototypes; 3D printed models and a life-size Icarus. We planned to conduct two different tests because as Britney Spears once said
“There are two types of people in the world ... the ones that entertain, and the ones that observe”.
We interpreted Britney's quote to mean that events like the 626 Market are run by event organizers, vendors, artisans and performers (internal stakeholders) and patronized by attendees (external stakeholders), and a valuable experience would need to accommodate all of their needs.
We used the 3D printed models to ask internal stakeholders how they would configure the Icarus booths around an event fairground and how they would use the booths to sell, entertain or cater to customers. To understand external stakeholders, we placed the life size model in the middle of a park in LA and asked people to join us under the shade. We asked them questions about how they would interact with Icarus in an event setting like the 626 market and observed how they were actually interacting with the booth as we spoke to them.
We learned that
- Seating is very important - from both of our tests, our users told (and showed) us how much they valued having a place to sit
- Vendors need work surfaces to display artisan goods, cook food and sell goods
- Vendors are required to bring or rent 10" x 10" tents - Icarus provides the same shade area but can be configured in more ways around an event space
We implemented our findings by creating multiple versions of Icarus curated for different needs. The versions were tiered based on included features ranging from seating, work surfaces, electricity, lighting and plants. Our user tests with internal stakeholders showed that more Icarus’ could fit in a fairground than traditional tents. We saw it as an opportunity to create value for the 626 Market and built a case study comparing their current revenue with their potential revenue if they used Icarus.
Icarus' beauty lies in its simplicity - the structure's design makes it adaptable to a range of layouts. The images below show how Icarus can be styled as a vendor booth at an outdoor market like the 626 Market, or as an outdoor seating option for restaurants and cafes.
IMPACT & REFLECTION
While this project was born from a minor inconvenience I experienced during a heat wave, I learned incredible lessons about urban development, urban planning, infrastructure and civic sustainability initiatives from it. Building Icarus required more than savvy product design - it needed strategic foresight and the ability to build a product that could adapt to changing environments.
Our final product successfully addressed the problem statement by covering urban sprawl at outdoor events, consequently reducing the Urban Heat Island effect and protecting citizens from the risks of extreme heat. However, our work thus far is just the beginning.
Our team designed a great product with the potential to protect people and improve urban spaces. The next step is implementation and finding ways to serve vulnerable communities who are disproportionately affected by climate change. My goal is to find a way to collaborate with non-profits or local governments to have these structures available as public resources placed throughout cities as sanctuaries to protect urban residents from the elements.
APPENDIX A - PROJECT MANAGEMENT & OTHER ROLES
My main role in this project was facilitating Icarus' development. I managed our multidisciplinary team (including architects, engineers and designers) and set goals to keep the project moving. I built gantt charts to manage deadlines and worked with each team member individually to set realistic timelines and goals. I was also a supporting designer / prototyper and facilitator for our user research and user testing.