Get Where You’re Going

 

This is a story about mobility.

In the past two weeks, we focused on design and poverty in our theory class. Infusing the perspectives of eight authors, I explored a story of vulnerability – a mobility breakdown. This narrative allowed me to invite and challenge each author’s approach to addressing what happens when your means of mobility falls apart.

All points of view are reflected in the way each author would respond to Janet’s situation. Their positions on poverty are incorporated into the narrative. She declines and accepts help as she sees fit.

 

Introducing – Janet.

 

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She is on her way to work. She relies on her car to get there every day. It can be a tiresome commute. The travel accumulates. It has consequences. 

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Today Janet’s car breaks down. 

Other vehicles travel past, but Janet remains. Staring at her broken down car, she looks up and feels stuck. Janet must figure out what to do. She has to keep moving forward.

 

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Exacerbated, a passerby stops. He offers her a ride for the fair price off $300. Janet knows she needs to escape this situation. This could be her best bet, but what about her car? What about her ride back? What about tomorrow?

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Another man stops. He claims to know exactly what’s wrong. “Miss! I’ve seen this before. I know what to do. It’s definitely the tires.” The man strongly recommends adjusting her tires. He has seen it work before. He knows it will fix her problem. He has to fix her problem. And Janet starts to feel like she should let him.

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Hesitation kicks in. Not prepared to make a decision, Janet stalls. In a rush, the man leaves. Anchored to her car, she remembers how stuck she really is.

A woman later asks to join her. She talks with Janet, watches, listens. The woman recognizes what this situation means for Janet and grows invested in helping her address this problem.

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Together, they work on the car collaboratively. They address the vehicle’s immediate needs. Their efforts will get Janet to the closest repair shop. The woman acknowledges that Janet is in a place where she can manage this issue on her own.

At the repair shop, the owner explains that the cost of the car is high. Janet panics. She needs a moment.

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Pacing, an idea emerges.

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This doesn’t only affect me. Cars break down. People can’t afford them. Everyone deserves to get where they’re going. Carpool. What if I charge a flat rate for carpool services? This will pay for repair costs. This can help people.

Darting outside, Janet tells the repairman she will return. She heads to the nearest bank. Someone might believe in this idea too.

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Janet explains her current situation. She walks the banker through her idea. The banker thoughtfully listens. She finds her idea promising and offers a loan just enough to cover the cost of the repair.

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She returns to the repair shop and pays for the car’s repairs. Handing the money over, Janet is committed to the carpool service She begins her endeavor. For a fair price, she opens her car to others.

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Together, they get where they’re going.

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In the end, Janet’s experience exposed her to the alternate side of mobility. With help along the way, she disrupted an existing system and generated something new. She used her car’s role as a gatekeeper to share its space with others. Mobility was transformed.

As I synthesized these readings, this story reinforced a few ideas.

  • Selling to the poor is good when it helps elevate, not reinforce or perpetuate a vulnerable position.

Janet’s service moved people forward.

  • Generative disruption happens when design research is rigorous – requiring proximity, empathetic investment, and pervasiveness of the designer.

Janet formed part of the community through personal investment in the problem space.

  • Social entrepreneurs are created through the passion to drive meaningful change and recognition that success requires the intentional application of design methodology.

Social entrepreneurship isn’t born but built through the earned understanding of a problem space. 

In the design research I’ve conducted with a non-profit committed to preventing and ending homelessness in Austin, I have seen the dynamic role that mobility can play.

Individuals that are experiencing homelessness and seeking services often rely on transportation to make change possible. Attending case manager meetings, collecting and delivering documentation, using scheduled public resources, getting to interviews on time.

Mobility is a barrier to access for each of these things. In its ability to grant and limit access, mobility determines where you go in life. It embodies power as a gatekeeper and serves as a source of agency.

Mobility makes a difference – mobility is a gatekeeper. When services propel people forward, research is rigorous, and understanding is earned, design can be applied in transforming gatekeepers and expanding access.

Everyone deserves to get where they’re going.