The following is an op-ed by Susan Chin, executive director for the Design Trust for Public Space, and Paul Herzan, chair of the board of the Cooper-Hewitt. The trust hosted an exhibition at the museum that helped bring the city its new New York-only taxis.
The considerable buzz around the unveiling of the Taxi of Tomorrow prototype at the 2012 New York International Auto Show reflects not only the ownership that the people of New York City feel for “their car,” but also demonstrates a passionate concern many New Yorkers have for the design of their city and public space. What makes the Taxi of Tomorrow so significant for New York as its first purpose-built cab is the many improvements for passenger and driver, achieved through an unlikely partnership between the taxi community and the design community—made possible by the Design Trust for Public Space and Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum joining forces with NYC Taxi and Limousine Commission and Nissan.
The daunting halo of complexity (“it will never happen”) of the Taxi of Tomorrow project demonstrates the power of design in our city to drive change.
Not-for-profit design organizations recognized the need for discussion of vital public space, and the Design Trust organized the exhibit that got the conversation started. Cooper-Hewitt leveraged its role as a national design resource by connecting the brain trust of the design community with New York City regulators to begin the collaboration and to discuss the opportunity. Design thinking is the glue that brings many stakeholders together to solve complex problems and capture the city’s collective imagination. This creativity and drive to make change is fostered in an enlightened administration, like Mayor Bloomberg’s, empowering its staff to innovate and charging its public servants to take ownership of projects that have long been considered intractable.
Over seven years ago, we began efforts to make taxis safer, more comfortable, efficient, accessible and environmentally sustainable. Our collaborative approach combined design studies, research, convening of stakeholders—fleet and medallion owners, drivers, planners, designers and city officials, including the Taxi and Limousine Commission, world-renowned design practitioners such as Smart Design and Pentagram, to brainstorm and develop ideas for improving and redesigning the taxi and the system. In 2007 for the Taxi’s Centennial, the Design Trust exhibited eight prototypes at the New York International Auto Show which confirmed strong global interest in the yellow cab brand that drove the TLC to design an innovative RFP process. This ultimately resulted in a long term strategic partnership between TLC and Nissan.
As our city officials identify sectors for future economic development, we believe growth in the design sector, which has increased by over 75 percent in the past decade, demonstrates its tremendous potential in contributing to New York’s competitive advantage globally. According to the Center for an Urban Future’s report Growth by Design (June 2011), no other city in the country has the concentration of design jobs—architecture, fashion design, graphic design, interior design, furniture design, industrial design, more than 40,000.
Successful cities thrive on attracting smart people who have the desire to work in collaborative teams across many disciplines to improve the quality of public life, as demonstrated by a five-borough population approaching 8.3 million. An increasingly vibrant public realm—parks, plazas, street life, cafes, waterfront access—and a higher quality of life also attract the next generation of talent to urban centers. The city’s PlaNYC, an ambitious blueprint to reduce carbon emissions by 2030, addresses energy and climate change by re-designing and re-engineering building’s energy usage and polluting vehicles.
With the rapidly growing demand of consumer markets overseas, the importance of strengthening and supporting design industries to meet these exigent demands and to maintain New York’s preeminence as a center of innovative design are essential. Policies that could help improve New York City designers’ capacity might include: promoting New York design similar to San Francisco—SFMade—or the London Design Festival; assisting New York based designers export their services and reach new markets; encouraging partnerships between designers and businesses; developing collaborations between designers and academic institutions; and establishing innovation zones and incubators.
Other cities around the globe are now considering the Taxi of Tomorrow as their new taxi using the adage, “if you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere.” While this is a celebration of the unique design New York has created, it ignores an important ingredient: what makes the Taxi of Tomorrow such a success is that it was designed for New York and New York alone.
Susan Chin is the executive director of the Design Trust for Public Space and a regional director of the American Institute of Architects Board. Paul Herzan is Chairman of the Board of the Smithsonian Institution’s Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum.