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Shooting For The Moon

 |  NYCEDC

By Katie Rosman and Matthew Weinberg, Center for Economic Transformation 

The term “moonshot” has come to define a breakthrough technological solution to a pressing, global-scale problem. 

Examples range from giant underwater buoys that harness the renewable power of wave motion to durable balloons that beam internet connectivity to disconnected geographies.

"Moonshots help drive the radical solutions that are necessary to solve some of humanity's toughest challenges," says Katy Kasmai, Google Program Manager and founder of UbiTech.co. “They propel humanity forward because they challenge our assumptions about what solutions are possible.”

Inspired by this fearlessly ambitious brand of problem solving, Google, NYCEDC and UbiTech.co joined forces on April 25 in hosting the first-ever “moonshot” design sprint in New York City. The event, held at Google’s Chelsea Market location, sought to harness the global scale, creativity, and technological implications of moonshots in order to tackle New York City’s greatest challenges.

These challenges, motivated by the City’s #ONENYC plan, addressed three systemic urban issues:

  1. Population Growth: how to manage its effect on City services, particularly with regards to transportation
  2. Sustainability: how to secure clean air, water, and energy in the future
  3. Resiliency: how to guard against the next natural or man-made disaster

google moonshot

Approximately 80 New Yorkers were selected to participate in the inaugural design sprint. The design sprint’s inaugural participants consisted of a diverse array of scientists, academics, technologists, and civic enthusiasts.

Participants were selected through a public application process several weeks earlier on the merits of background, training, and a passion for leveraging technology to improve the quality of life in New York City.

One of those participants was Jan Heinsohn, Project Engineer at Stryker Trauma & Extremities. As an engineer, Heinsohn had often contemplated ways to improve New York City’s infrastructure. Having learned about the event from a coworker, Heinsohn decided that the design sprint could be an ideal platform to brainstorm solutions to the infrastructure challenges he had identified.

“From the moment I first heard about the design sprint I couldn't wait to apply to go,” said Heinsohn.

“A moonshot design sprint sends you back in time to your childhood days where all possibilities are on the table, just with the comfort of the knowledge of your education of today.”

- Jan Heinsohn, Moonshot Participant

The design sprint’s urban emphasis and civic spirit attracted Christelle Scharff, another participant. 

“I was drawn to [the design sprint] because I was interested in seeing the design sprint process in action.” said Dr. Scharff, an associate professor of computer science at Pace University. “There are lots of events around the city, but they rarely bring people from so many different backgrounds together to alleviate New York City's challenges.”

moonshot

The design sprint officially kicked off with an introduction of 13 specific challenges, building upon the design sprint’s over-arching themes of population growth, sustainability, and resiliency. Based on their background and interests, the participants coalesced around the specific challenges and formed teams. Scharff, for example, was drawn to a challenge centering on transportation which asked, “How can we provide public transportation from anywhere to anywhere?”

The groups spent the morning brainstorming, debating, and developing a working concept. By noon, they were ready to deliver a three-minute pitch of that concept to an audience comprised of other participants, mentors, and Google and NYCEDC employees. All audience members were encouraged to give feedback and ask difficult questions.

Then it was back to the drawing board. Based on the comments and feedback received, the teams continued to prototype and innovate.

google at work

By late afternoon, the teams were ready for a second round of pitching. This time, they felt more confident about the depth and complexity of their solutions. Jan Heinsohn’s team, for example, dramatically refined their concept, which evolved from an outlandish proposal to pragmatic improvements upon the city’s existing transportation system.

"By the end of the five hour design sprint, [our] team of complete strangers went from flying skateboards to an alternative, more effective use of New York's subway system," said Heinsohn. "I don't think I've ever seen that many design iterations in such a short period of time."

Another team presented a solution called “PODS” (Personal On Demand System for Transportation) to optimize the commutes of NYC-suburban residents as well as outer-borough dwellers. The PODS would transport people from their homes to the subway safely and efficiently, either individually or together. Passengers could work, rest, eat, or interact in the PODS, which would also provide customized digital content. The PODS’ logistical operations would be accomplished by utilizing powerful algorithms in the cloud.

As the sun set over the Hudson River, the team’s prototyping concluded but the concept of applying moonshot thinking to solve urban challenges is here to stay.

Up Next

This year’s BigApps competition, which launched on July 16, has challenges centered around four core visions rooted in Mayor de Blasio's OneNYC plan: Affordable Housing, Zero Waste, Connected Cities, and Citizen Engagement.

After the success of April’s design sprint, BigApps has partnered with Google and will be hosting another design sprint around the Zero Waste and Connected Cities challenges. This unique event will be held on Saturday, July 25th at Grand Central Tech, providing a springboard where collaborators can come together and take their solutions to the next level. 

Team BigApps is confident that New York City's creative minds will continue to shoot for the moon and tackle our City's most pressing problems. RSVP for our next Moonshot event here

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