Crafty Explorers has been discussed by Han Pham recently as part of urban IxD, a ranging discussion about how urban interaction design impacts on lives. She was asked to give some examples of everyday life situations in which urban interaction design can be more meaningful for what she terms ‘pirates’: those who get their hands dirty with doing, not talking, to intervene in the messiness (and interesting realities) of cities. She says:


Clearly, the place is to start with everyday people who do it already in their communities. You said something in your post (… about how you relate to the field that was very telling:

“…lots of people are doing it without even noticing or even calling it UrbanIxD. The last few years are discovering each other’s methods and tools to create projects, devices and processes aiming at fostering public life in cities.”

In London and many other cities, there is a rich and growing trend in Government to use more adhoc and transparent ways of codesigning sustainable urban experiences with, or by, citizens – they don’t usually call it urban interaction design; instead they’re simply open challenges to imagine practical (and meaningful) solutions to social problems.

The Knee High Design Challenge, is led by the Design Council, partnering with the London Boroughs of Southwark and Lambeth and funded by Guy’s & St Thomas’ Charity.

Design Challenges are open innovation competitions, in this case for “people across the UK to come up with new ideas for radically improving the health and wellbeing of children under five in Southwark, Lambeth, and eventually beyond,” which will begin to be developed into new services, products, environments (or anything else) that really make a difference.

One of the projects that stood out for me was Crafty Explorers (see their intro video run by the award-winning collective Mission Explore.

Speak about breaking out of silos.

They wove together insights about the lack of affordable early child services in communities and the changing nature of the high street to re-imagine a new social enterprise that could transform shopfronts into community-led and sustained centres that provide families with missions that turn the outdoors into a world of discovery for parents and children.

When you walked into the pilot pop-up shop, you entered a world specifically geared for children’s imaginations, but not meant to strip their parents of their pocketbooks. The children learned about the environment and design by creating their own creatures, given three missions to go on – and zip, out the door they ran, pulling along their parents, to local parks: to observe, to reflect, to listen, to climb, and more. When they came back, they would give an oral “mission report” before triumphantly marking a gigantic, hand-drawn map of the neighborhood with their adventures.

One of the founders told me proudly that a hallmark of the shop is that the children are in and out in less than 10 minutes – so that the kids could get hands on, and get dirty with exploring, noting, sharing knowledge the outside world.

It sounds like a small thing, but it’s not.

Youth health and wellbeing isn’t only about the children; it’s about reaching the parents and enabling them. The choice to position this as a shop on the high street is strategic: children who are in parks are in parks and the founders wanted to reach those children who aren’t. Couching active, creative play in the physical world creates a set of rich, embodied, shareable knowledge (and curiosity) about their communities that can create stronger connectedness within both the family and the wider community – all for children up to age five. Sustainable enterprise, environmental education, health and wellness – this project speaks to some of the tenets of urban interaction design without even calling it that.

There are a few elements here in bringing urban interaction design more meaningfully to the public:

1. Use everyday words. Words can either invite you in or shut you out. Part of the challenge for urban interaction design, as a field, is to demystify it into everyday language and to make room for people to be a part of designing their own urban experiences.

2. Remember urban interaction design is not just digital – it can be lo-fi or no-fi. Urban interaction design can leap the digital divide, or at least not widen it, by re-envisioning its tools and skill sets.

3. Think bigger by thinking smaller and more specific – don’t be afraid to ask for help from people half your size or even double your brain.

4. Connect the dots, even if they’re outside your traditional boundaries

5. Think creatively about business – how can the design sustain itself?


Han finishes with an apt quote from Manu, another participant in the urban IxD project: “most transformative outcomes may show up in the process that occurs in communities after the catalyzing project. What happens next and who is going to operate seem to be main concerns in designing what interaction designs are for.”