Berlin Lab

Rachel Smith: Don’t Just Stand Up and Spout Theory—Do Something

Author’s note: Last fall, shortly after the Berlin Lab Team was announced, I sat down with the four Lab Team members (José Gómez-MárquezRachel SmithCorinne Rose, and Carlo Ratti) to get a general feel for what they would be exploring during their time at the Lab. At that point they had very rough ideas of what their focus might be. But now, just days before the Lab opens, their plans are a lot more concrete—and thus a lot more exciting. Speaking with them privately about what they have in store, I was struck by just how much there is to look forward to in the weeks ahead. And so I thought it would be worth taking a quick glance at what Berliners can expect from the programs each will be presenting at the Lab. Enjoy.

When I sat down with Rachel Smith to learn about what her programs will look like when she takes the reins of the Lab from June 27 to July 6, she made it very clear that she wanted one thing to be . . . well, very clear: “The key thing here is that it’s very practical. It’s not theory. It’s practical stuff that people can go home and start doing tomorrow,” she said.

“It’s not just talking,” she said, with a seriously exaggerated accentuation on the not. “It’s doing.”

The emphasis she put on this fact is perhaps indicative of her background.

A sustainable and active transportation planner, she has spent a significant amount of time deeply embedded in the bureaucratic side of infrastructure management—advising the U.K. and Australian governments, writing strategy and policy, winning over transportation ministers and politicians, and other such talking-oriented things. But as a principal transport planner for the professional technical-services consultancy AECOM, she is also often the one to go out and plan and implement those things right on the ground.

So when she set out to develop her programming, she sat down with more than one hundred Berliners—community groups, professionals, academics, students, people in the maker community, people on community bike rides, even people she found at random in coffee shops—to ask what they considered to be the biggest issues currently facing the city. Then she laid out all their answers on a massive Excel sheet and analyzed them.

“The top things that people told me were transport, unemployment, education, the cost of living, and tourism. So I took my technical skills and then I took the big issues that people told me were most important in Berlin, and I kind of merged the two to create my programs,” she told me.

As a result, her schedule is a very intentional patchwork of talking and doing. Her lectures, for instance, are nearly always accompanied by a workshop or action-oriented follow-up of tangible applications.

A lecture by the Welsh company Vertech, for instance, which is the first company in Europe to produce a functional bridge out of entirely recycled plastic, will be followed up by a hands-on workshop devoted to making reliable community infrastructure out of trash.

A PechaKucha-style afternoon of talks to understand the barriers that stop people from cycling will not only be followed up by the creation of a “No Excuse Zone” map of safe test-rides that people can make to get to destinations within 30 minutes in certain areas, but also ongoing cycle-training sessions for women who are afraid of cycling in the city and want to learn how to do it safely.

A talk about combining street design with place-making will be followed up by a guerrilla takeover of parking spaces, turning them into public spaces, self-made skateboard and BMX parks, cooking stations, and so on.

And the talks themselves are designed to be more fluid and productive than the typical lecture-followed-by-Q&A presentation. Not only does Rachel hope that they will take on a more forum-style debate-and-brainstorming format, but she is also inviting the politicians who would be in charge of implementing any change in the specific field under discussion to have them be an active part of the conversation.

“I don’t want it to just be that we hope people will come. It’s free to anyone, but I really want to invite the people we really want to be reaching when we’re talking about these really big issues,” she said. “I’m inviting people from the Senate, but I can’t guarantee, of course, that they’ll be here. I would hope that they would come. I’d be really disappointed if they didn’t.”

Rachel’s eight days of programming are broken down into the topics of cycling, public space, the future of parking, community and city transformation, the future of the economy beyond profit, tourism, and recycled infrastructure. Check out the soon-to-come calendar for listings of specific programs and events.

  • Back to the future

    Three cheers for Rachel Smith and her mandate. The world, not just Berlin, needs to hear what she has to say and then do it. As adults we can absorb, evaluate and act on her work. But how do we – you forward thinkers – make sure it doesn’t end there. If you want to effect change, and I mean REAL change, get your message to kids. Any serious researcher of history knows that meaningful change starts with the next generation, both good and bad. Like it or not, that sweet 7 year old on the swings at the park is our future, and that is where the message needs to begin.