Can Design be used to Reimagine Political Protest?

“Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.”  -John Lewis

From the Black Lives Matter protests to the Umbrella Occupy movements in Hong Kong, ordinary civilians take to the streets to give voice to their cause so that the broader society can be made more aware. In democratic led societies founded upon more Western ideals, the freedom to protest is an individualistic freedom and much like the freedom of religion and race – everyone’s is different and that fact should be respected, or at the very least tolerated. America after all was fundamentally founded through the original colonies’ civil unrest with their motherland. As Britain moved to exert more power over the colonies to compete with neighboring superpowers of the time (Spain, France, Portugal, etc), it was the first international race in colonialism/imperialism. Ultimately, the tragic events on the Western Hemisphere led to the birth of nations that sought to separate themselves from the ideology of feudalism and royal rulership that dominated in Europe’s history. Without protest, we would not be America as we know it today – “the establishment of our new Government seemed to be the last great experiment for promoting human happiness” (George Washington, Jan 9, 1790). For even at its time, America was a new and RADICAL society where individuals had freedoms, where settlers could move to escape persecution in their motherland – to start a new life. America which was founded by immigrants, bringing by force even more immigrants from their lands all to settle new territory and claim ownership. European ideals had placed importance in passing rulership to successors of kin – those of royal blood to continue their dynasty. And often as a result, those who had the most power were the wealthiest on top. So why not move to a new land to start a new life with the possibility of having a shot at wealth and happiness? Why be ruled by a king when you can be your own?

It is important to put this history into perspective for our time – the way protests and political movements have shaped governments and systemic systems for so long. Basically history repeats itself. The mythos of Atlantis is both legend and lesson. Technology and selfies go hand in hand with a society that is rooted in innovation and having a voice for all. We are in an era that has recognized both femminism and gay rights, but are not living in a world that reflects that freedom of equality. Perhaps some empathy would help us understand one another or see what it’s like to “walk in their shoes.” 

I wanted to explore how technology could create empathetic experiences between one another, almost like telepathy as a superpower. Using the wearable as an extension of the body, and its closeness to the wearer an intimate space, could we really walk in one another’s shoes? Can it be done via a wearable like the iphone that instead of talking about you, it could give you a new perspective? How can tech represent the underrepresented and use art to symbolically get their message across.

I devised a series of design investigations that looked at civil protests and how technology, the internet and expression have impacted these movements. I prototyped wearables out of everyday objects that were connected via cloud. This interconnectedness enables digital communication, so if such devices could be used in a crowd, it would enable those on the ground to digitally or virtually connect. Going a step further than a radio or phone, I was exploring how such a wearable could leverage the movements of the crowd or the change in direction if something happens. 


Heart to Heart embraces communication through tactile gesture based interaction. Heart to Heart takes the form of a glove system that transmits encoded messages between two individuals via internet connection and through smart phones. Users will create their own “handshakes” or gestures programmed into the glove, then upon physical interaction with another glove user, their smartphone would send a pre-encoded message to the other user – being able to intimately communicate without speaking. The sensors are embedded into the glove through soft circuits, allowing for greater mobility in the hands. In this prototype, the sensors are a combination of photocells that are able to read the different combinations the hand is making allowing to distinguish which handshake (or sequence of handshakes) the users together are making. My previous tests were with flex sensors and capacitive touch. I believe there are other sensors and materials that will be able to capture the sensing of gestures in better ranges and motions, and would be interesting to explore.

The Umbrella Project was created in conjunction to the glove system that utilizes communication within a network of multiple users. This particular prototype was a smart umbrella system that would create a mobilization map in the sky similar to a physical locative heat map. However the points of measurement would be based on the messages one user would need to send to another or in this case a crowd. It is like utilizing the smart phone to only send a message in the peripheral user area, and users around you can see what message you are broadcasting. This is taken into the next step in embedding this communication into “daily” objects or wearables, where in this case was the LEDs would signal a particular type of message to the crowd. This can also be utilized as a network based system giving users in these types of spaces or on the street a broadcasting of wifi or other such needs in the context of a protest. However to continue the vein of crowd based and peripheral communication, this can also be used for other expressive gestures in display technologies and how to best communicate when there is no screen feature.