Presenting on Reimagining Payphones as Urban Planning (at USC)

usc-annenberg-symposiumThis Thursday March 27th, I will be giving an update on our research with the Leimert Phone Company at the USC Annenberg Symposium. Details are below. I will be co-presenting with collaborating researchers Karl Baumann and Andrew Schrock.

Reimagining Payphones: Urban Planning via the Leimert Phone Company


The future of local communities may depend on their ability to reinvent existing technology. In low-income neighborhoods aged payphones are a vital anchor point for bridging mobile and physical worlds. An innovative bottom-up approach began in Leimert Park, a historic Los Angeles neighborhood that is currently facing intense debates on gentrification after a new subway stop was announced. In 2012, a local store owner asked, “What else can I do with this payphone out front?” In response we launched a year-long participatory design project that involved community members, technologists, and urban planners.

More than ten aging payphones were purchased on eBay for experimentation and investigation, in addition to new technologies to enhance functionality. Design methods included hackathons as well as more traditional community planning meetings. Sessions alternated between USC and a Leimert community space to promote a genuine exchange of people, power, and ideas.

Our theoretical framework for tracking community empowerment through design is based in the sociology of neighborhood communications with ties to building literacy in technology and infrastructure. Frameworks for modeling group belonging, identity and self-efficacy were used to shape the qualitative research evaluation. The core research question investigates how the act of technology design can alter the patterns of community planning.

Using dozens of video interviews and months of participant observation by several doctoral students we found that payphones can be repurposed to shift the vision of technology planning to explicitly deepen local cultural assets. Multiple visions emerged for payphones to link local businesses to cultural preservation and city services. The local group formation was itself important, and resulted in the launch of an umbrella “phone company” to host the finished designs and sustained their use.

The presentation will include a functional prototype; it stands nearly seven feet tall and includes tablets, Raspberry Pi controls of the payphone keypad, light sculpture and painting by Leimert community artists, and video content drawn from resident interviews.

Time is 3:30pm-ish at the Davidson Conference Center on 3/27. Officially only for USC community members, but if you want to see in person drop me a line.

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