Prototyping for resilience ⚙️

Benedetta Piantella on collective infrastructure, creativity as a tool for emergency response, and prepping your go bag.

I’m just gonna say it: I hate how gardening is perceived as a hobby for old people. However, it makes sense: While it takes time to garden, more than anything it takes time to learn how to garden—and for those of us who aren’t yet retired (who are instead over-extended and tired), it can feel impossible to find the sustained time and attention necessary to cultivate a new skill, even one as fundamental to life as learning how to grow.

It makes me wonder: Why aren’t we taught how to grow things from a young age, the way we’re taught math and history and biology? Moreover, why do most curriculums leave out practical skills that teach resilience—such as basic mechanical maintenance, carpentry, foraging, and ecological repair? What if it was possible to reimagine public education with a focus on regenerative world-building? What if we could help all kids develop a caring, hands-on, collaborative relationship with their local community of humans, plants, animals—and even technological infrastructures?

This is a long-winded introduction, but I hope my point is clear: We need educators who understand how to prepare today’s kids for our uncertain future, by endowing them with the skills they really, actually need. That’s why I am so pleased to introduce you all to educator, designer, and humanitarian technologist Benedetta Piantella.

Benedetta got her Master’s at ITP, and went on to found two engineering-focused R&D companies that developed sustainable solutions for humanitarian, social, and environmental challenges worldwide. As a specialist in physical computing who wanted to pivot away from entrepreneurial endeavors, she now teaches several courses at NYU, including a class that I’m very obsessed with, called Rethink, Reuse, Resilience (you can see the syllabus here). This particular course leads students in designing and building prototypes aimed at making their local communities more resilient, and covers some skills that we should really all have, from harvesting solar energy, to creating peer-to-peer power grids, to sprouting seeds and identifying urban farming and foraging opportunities.

In the below conversation, Benedetta shares how narrowly escaping from a natural disaster helped open her eyes to how creativity can be a highly effective tool for preparing ourselves to enact resilience. We also talk through the anxiety-inducing yet thought-provoking question, “What should I pack in my go bag?!”

I hope you enjoy!

~ Willa

Willa Köerner: Your bio instantly intrigued me, as you call yourself a “humanitarian technologist.” What do you mean by that?

Benedetta Piantella: A lot of folks in creative-tech spaces have a hard time articulating what they do, or finding a term for their vocation that feels right—me included. So I just stitched those two words together, because I feel that they describe the journey I’ve been on.

I started in the arts, and I got into building interactive installations. This led me to using physical computing and electronics as artistic mediums. But then I had a life experience that completely pivoted me in a different direction. 

In 2004, I survived the Indian Ocean tsunami while on a spiritual retreat in Sri Lanka. I got swept up by the wave, and was trapped in a building before escaping and living in a nearby village while waiting to be rescued. Throughout that experience, I went through all kinds of emotional stages, but the main feeling I had as a survivor was one of wanting to help.

Post-tsunami, I realized that creative problem solving—i.e. the type of thinking that comes from artistic practice—was actually a very meaningful tool for disaster relief and emergency response. This led me to be interested in how physical computing could be a useful tool in addressing broader social and environmental challenges. 

My friend Justin and I ended up starting a prototyping shop that made “things that didn’t exist.” We specialized in creating prototypes for client-partners who wanted to assess whether or not certain emerging technologies could be helpful in addressing larger social issues.

Can you give an example of one of your prototypes? 

UNICEF was our first big partner, specifically working on ways to use mobile devices to help address severe acute malnutrition (SAM) diagnoses in children in Sub-Saharan Africa. They gave us a laundry list of technological wishes, and we worked to research the context, and then to actually prototype some devices. In the end, we basically built a mobile device that was similar to a rudimentary smartphone. This was almost 20 years ago, back when mobile smart phones were just not an option in some of these contexts, because they were still prohibitively expensive and not very rugged.

Back to my bio as a “humanitarian technologist,” I think I’ve defined myself that way because I’m a technologist who has mainly worked with humanitarian partners—but today it’s not as reflective of my practice.

Would you describe yourself differently today?

After initially pivoting away from the arts, I’ve actually been doing more artistic projects lately. For a while I refused them, and went into this purely technologist role—but now I’m back to a more conceptual way of thinking and working. These days I’d describe myself as an educator, mostly. But I do struggle with these terms so much. When people are like, “Who are you, and what do you do?” I say something different every time. [Laughs]

Post-tsunami, how did you go about pivoting your work from the arts into the humanitarian sector?

Part of it was just good timing. Back then, most organizations didn’t have the capacity to do their own prototyping. Justin and I were uniquely positioned to fill that void, as it was our specialty. Because of this, launching our lab felt very organic. At first we relied solely on networking to get into the humanitarian space. But since we were doing something that was very unique, people would refer folks to us when they had interesting challenges. We loved impossible missions, so if an organization had a really out-there idea for something that didn’t exist that also fit within our social mandate, we were totally on it.

Eventually though, it became a lot of hustling. If anything, as a lab we failed because we had no concrete business plan. We were just motivated to do things that were socially focused, and that was our only criteria for taking on a project. Unfortunately, we weren’t concerned enough with making rent and paying bills. But it was an incredible learning experience and honestly, most of my portfolio was built at that time, thanks to those collaborations.

I’d love to hear more about what you see as the role of a prototype. What purpose does a prototype serve to an organization?

Prototypes are part of a design research process. It’s less about, “We know this concept works and we just need to begin prototyping it.” Instead, it’s a question of, “Is our idea actually the right solution?” 

I’ve never felt attached to prototypes as proto-products, with the expectation that they should fulfill their missions as designed objects. Actually, especially when working in humanitarian contexts, I often had reservations about the prototypes we created. For example, when I’d go to health clinics in Uganda, I wasn’t there thinking, “I hope this device will solve workflow inefficiencies or SAM misdiagnosis.” Instead, I was thinking, “I hope this will allow me to get insight into people’s workflows, and learn their real needs.”

It’s so hard to interview somebody in a different context from your own. During our work with UNICEF, I very quickly realized there was no way folks were going to open up to me about what they hated about their health-clinic jobs, because they all felt super lucky to have a job. And so critiquing our prototype was the vehicle through which they would open up and say, “This is the part of my job that’s hard, and here’s how I think it could be improved.”

Prototyping was just a way to focus everyone’s energy around, what are the actual problems here?

Right. For the UNICEF project, my findings basically boiled down to the fact that workers at the medical clinics were filling out paperwork that contained important data on rates of malnutrition, but then it would then just sit there, trapped in the piles of paper. It was creating a massive delay in getting that data to the organizations that needed it, but even when digitization tools were offered, they weren’t timely, and workers at the clinic had a real attachment to physical paperwork as proof of their labor. 

Prototypes can help us learn about the many behaviors and attachments that can’t be anticipated, but which really affect the success of something. With our prototype—which sent data without the need for paperwork—the clinic workers thought, “Well, this is cool, but I still really want a tangible version of the data we’re collecting, because it proves I did my job.”

I love the idea of a prototype as simply a first step towards an eventual solution. This kind of iterative, experimental mentality can be so helpful. I had a boss once who asked me to take on this complicated project that was making me feel so stuck. I remember her saying, “Don’t try and make it perfect. Think of it as a prototype, and then we’ll see where that leads.” That really unlocked something for me.

Totally. Approaching things as a perpetual prototype can be very freeing. You can make mistakes now and iterate on them later. You don’t have to nail it the first time. This is an approach that I constantly share with my students: Prototypes are just another research method, like observing, interviewing, and surveying. It is a more interactive way to ask people questions. It triggers people’s responses in a totally different way, but I think it’s a hard concept to explain because we get stuck on the image of a shiny, beautifully rendered and impressive prototype versus something that’s really just a tool to ask deeper questions.

That big-tech vision of a sleek, production-ready prototype feels really at odds with what we need for resilience, which are perhaps just simple tools to solve basic human needs.

100%. A lot of the work that I do, and a lot of what I teach, is about using technology as a tool to connect with others. In particular, the idea of collaboratively maintaining infrastructure—like wireless networks, for example—is really exciting to me. Heading into the future, we’re going to be called more and more towards maintenance, repair, and collective care of infrastructure. A lot of our current infrastructure is built using rudimentary stuff from the ‘80s that is constantly falling apart. Or, even worse, we’re reliant on shiny new tools that we can’t fix ourselves because we don’t know how they actually work.

A more recent prototype for UNICEF (a solar-powered, blockchain-backed node to monitor internet connectivity in schools).

Now is a moment when we need to consider, “How can we institute practices and programs that get people involved in collectively maintaining the infrastructural technologies that ultimately enable all of our social lives?”

As one example, Solar Protocol is a project with Tega Brain, Alex Nathanson, and a whole group of solar server stewards. It is essentially a global, decentralized network of solar-powered servers that allocate the responsibility of web routing based on which node is experiencing the most solar gain at any given time. We developed it as a way to experiment with a community-hosted internet that relies on renewable energy rather than on fossil fuels, and which embraces intermittence as a design principle.

Hardware (or electronics) components of a DIY solar-powered server.

I’m curious to hear how you teach students to work with prototypes, and how that way of applied thinking is brought into the resilience class you teach at NYU, Rethink, Reuse, Resilience.

The resilience class I currently teach at NYU is formatted as a “choose-your-own-adventure” course that merges citizen science, physical computing, and design research as a way to reframe resource constraints and disruptions as opportunities to reimagine our futures. It was motivated by my desire to create a platform that engages students with their local communities, and gets them actively participating in their geographical social contexts.

You could easily look at what I teach and be like, “This is a prepper’s class.” That’s not the spin I’d choose to put on it, but it is a lot of thinking about the practical skills that would be useful in order to contribute more directly to our local communities. I try to create a balance of, “We’re going to do some hands-on tech,” while keeping it contextualized in real-world, community-based scenarios. I frame it as, “What is an opportunity you’ve seen in your local environment where you think technology could be effectively used for a possible benefit?” Then, let’s prototype that.

I’m doing parallel research with community organizers and environmental educators where I ask, “How do you define community resilience? What skills for resilience do you see as important?” The word “resilience” itself is controversial, but I think skills around growing your own food, for example, can be especially empowering. It’s always surprising to me that, even with students whose families grow food, they have never grown food themselves. When I bring out microgreens to grow, it’s not only the first time that many of my students have grown a plant—it’s also the first time that they’ve cared for something living. That might seem really small, but it’s such a huge experience for them.

When you talk to students and others about their ideas for resilience, have they said anything that’s stuck with you?

One of the most interesting points has been around how the word “resilient” becomes a badge of honor for having weathered something difficult, when perhaps the real questions should be, “What about not forcing people to be resilient? What can we change so that people don’t have to continue to be resilient in the face of ongoing crises?” 

Another educator was also like, “Resilience is not just bouncing back from unforeseen challenges; it’s about knowing who you’re going to be in the face of inevitable challenges.” 

Resilience is about so many things. A lot of it is about having support systems that go beyond the obvious. It’s extremely easy to get bogged down with work-life balance and just surviving, but to thrive, you have to be very diligent about making time and space for community relationships. Those kinds of local, social connections keep you rooted—which is so necessary for fostering resilience.

What do you think should be the average person’s approach to their own resilience?

Spirituality and mental health are super important. You’re not going to be able to help anyone else in your household or community if you don’t feel like you have a handle on your own wellbeing. Also, a lot of “being resilient” is understanding what you need to be okay in the face of ongoing uncertainty and change. 

From a more practical standpoint, in an interview you published with Mekdela Maskal, she mentioned having a go bag. I loved that. I’m a huge proponent of everybody having a pre-packed, waterproof bag with the basic things you need inside of it—plus some sort of pre-discussed family evacuation plan. Those are the things that most people don’t do or discuss unless something bad has happened, but by then, it’s often too late.

It can feel uncomfortable to talk about this stuff. Anytime I mention go bags, I tend to be met with this, “Oh god, you’re an apocalypse-paranoid weirdo.” But on the flip side, there’s something empowering about feeling prepared. Psychologically, knowing that you’ve taken steps and planned out your response to a worst-case scenario, you are preparing yourself to enact resilience.

In the tsunami, I was in my pension room when the water came in. I remember standing there looking at my stuff, like, “I need to leave right now. What should I take?” That indecisiveness caught me off guard, and I basically ended up taking nothing. I now know that it’s important to make those kinds of decisions in advance by asking yourself, “What do I need to survive?” But also, “What do I need to feel whole, to feel comforted?”

It could be a packet of seeds for somebody, or an heirloom necklace, or a notebook. Even things that seem superfluous might actually be very helpful in the long run. Once you’ve considered what you need to feel resilient, you can pick out a bag, look up some common go-bag gear on the internet, and order a few things like non-perishable food and basic first-aid supplies. Then you’ll just have it ready, just in case. There are many local workshops and free training sessions around emergency response, as well—which can be incredibly helpful. 

Having that kind of “prepper” mentality does feel like a very rugged individualist way to think, but it doesn’t have to be. Instead, you might consider, “What can I bring with me to share? What special items might I want for my family? How can I be prepared to help my community?”

Students in Benedetta’s Resilience class experimenting with remixing graphics for social movements.

Maybe carving out time to prepare a go bag is less about getting ready for the zombie apocalypse, and more about mentally preparing yourself to enact resilience—both for yourself and your family, as well as for your community.

Yeah. It is worrisome to think about experiencing a disaster, but as we head deeper into unprecedented times, it’s important. People are so often caught off guard by difficult experiences, especially when it feels like the “powers that be” should have seen it coming and kept us safe. And while that’s true, it never hurts to be your own advocate, and your community’s advocate. That phrase “we keep us safe” comes to mind, since we can rarely fully depend on the government, or on other status-quo infrastructures. 

I spent a lot of time post-tsunami when I was just waiting, meditating, and praying. I’m a Buddhist, and having that experience of living through a natural disaster really did exemplify some of the concepts of Buddhism. Now, beyond basic survival supplies like granola bars and first aid, my go bag includes a book of prayer, as well as a few other things that have an emotional dimension to them. I’ve found that being resilient isn’t just about surviving in practical terms—it also becomes deeply spiritual, and it’s personal to each of us.

Benedetta installing a Solar Protocol node on her roof in Queens, NY.  

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