Tipping the Scales

Tomo Kihara, a student at TU Delft in the Netherlands, developed a tool for “street debating” that allows homeless people to earn money without compromising their dignity. topos talked with him about his idea.

topos: How did your idea come about and how did it develop from start to finish?
Tomo Kihara: The majority of society looks down on beggars as if begging were a deliberate choice. I actually believed that to be the case, until I met a guy selling cheap CDs in Amsterdam. He told me that he would prefer selling CDs than begging since it lets him keep his dignity. This changed my understanding of begging — I realized that when people beg, they are not simply trying to get money for nothing. That was when I realized that they throw away their dignity in exchange for a few coins.

How exactly does the Street Debater Tool work?
Street debaters use a set of scales that serve to raise a question about a topic of public interest in order to evoke a friendly discussion with passers-by.
They are invited to stop, engage in a conversation, then place their coins on the side of the scale that represents their point of view. This creates an opportunity for people to break out of their own social bubble and debate with other people who may have different opinions.

What was your intention?
My aim was to design alternatives to begging. However, street debating in itself is an activist-style job that anyone can do. This is something that I wanted to make really clear.
It’s a new job that creates a place for open dialogue on the street by making public opinion visible with coins.
So the focus isn’t just an alternative to begging, but rather trying to foster public discourse in order to counter the social media-created echo chambers that we find ourselves in.
In that sense, anyone can do it — from politicians to designers. Coincidentally, it also became an alternative source of income for homeless people.

Do you think that homeless people are a „normal“ element of a cityscape?
I think so. In many major cities across Europe, housing problems are getting worse.Encountering homeless people on the street has become commonplace —and as a result, they become invisible.

How did homeless people as well as passers-by react to your idea?
The homeless participants liked earning money this way, since it made them feel as if they were “street performers”. The passers-by interacted with them, certainly more so than they usually would.

Who developed the questions?
Street debaters themselves develop questions. When asked, they had several suggestions for what they would like to talk about within future street debates: a football fan proposed running a debate between opposing supporters outside of Wembley Stadium. Another suggested asking for people’s opinions outside of a movie theatre about the film they just saw and, if the response was positive, to buy a ticket with the money earned.

What is the current status of the project? How many Street Debater Tools exist?
Currently, the project is open source and anyone can use it.
I’ve been receiving emails from Valencia, Seoul, Berlin and Paris. In those cities, scales are being built with the available data. My current estimate is that there are about 5 to 10 tools out there.I’ve also been contacted by people who work with charitable organizations and who try to help homeless people. We are considering whether we can provide them with the Street Debater Tool as well.

To what extent does your study programme support such projects? Is your intention to link your projects with social aspects?
The master program “Design for Interaction” really challenges you to shift your focus from designing as an aesthetic task to improving interactions within the given context.
We are not encouraged to design products that look sleek, or are fashionable, or are geared for display in a magazine or a museum.
According to our professors, such a design resists contextualization, and thus wouldn’t have any impact on society.
And I agree with that philosophy. We are, in fact, encouraged to think about the interaction and friction between multiple contexts. In this regard, the Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen offers guidance that I like: “Always design a thing by considering it in its larger context – a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan.”

What are your personal and professional goals for the future?
As a design researcher, I want to continue developing situation-based and playful interventions in order to challenge and reframe societal issues. I strongly believe in the role of play as a force to counter societal issues and would like to continue developing projects such as street debating.