What if design were a catalyst for change? And what if you could push the boundaries of agile working, hit the proverbial road, and activate spaces through design? This is a story about flexible working, community-building, a converted food truck and a quintessentially North American road trip.
Designed by Studio O+A, with co-founder Verda Alexander at the helm of the project, the so-called Food For Thought Truck is a hybrid creature. Equal parts vehicle, workspace, design lab and urban incubator, this hi-tech office on wheels will hit the road this autumn, staffed with a band of O+A designers committed to bring design to dormant spaces throughout California. All of this, however, started on the east side of the pond, at London Design Festival 2015.
“I proposed to convert a food truck, and at that time, my idea was more of a space to work with wi-fi, like a co-working space on the streets of London,” says Alexander. “But of course, that idea for us Americans to do it and get a truck over there was completely infeasible. So, we did something like a little pop-up space.”
This was a few years after Marissa Mayer, then chief executive of Yahoo, scrapped the company’s work-at-home policy and ordered everyone to work in the office. So, armed with the desire to bring flexible work back in the game, Alexander and the team explored ways to tackle traffic congestion and all issues related to people driving to work. The ensuing idea was not the now ubiquitous co-working space, but rather a company-owned truck that would travel to an employee’s home in the suburbs and have neighbouring team members cut down their commute time and work from this “communal” driveway.
Easier said than done, of course, so the concept was put on a lull for a few years, until a streamlined version of it recently resurfaced under the guise of the Food For Thought Truck. “The workplace serves as a social place as much as a workplace,” says Alexander, for whom the incentive takes its roots in her own personal values. “With everything that’s been happening in this last year in America, it just seemed like there needs to be some positivity around something, and that design can be a source for inspiration, and for change,” she explains.
Ultimately, the Food For Thought Truck is a practical design tool, and although the exterior still very much resembles a truck, the interior aspires to be everything an office is, with an added platform that can open outwards from the truck and become a stage for talks and small events. “We’ve had a big opening cut out of it and a new door put in,” says Alexander. “We’re now working on the cabinetry and all of the interior elements, and reupholstering the driver’s seat. We also want to have a mobile printer.”
Once the office is fully fitted out, and depending on the site-specific programmes, a rotating group of designers will set out on a journey to several locations across Silicon Valley. “We originally wanted to do a cross-country trip,” Alexander explains, “but we realised that we needed to have a connection to each of these communities, at least to start.” So the team tapped into their network and collaborations were born.
In Oakland, the Food For Thought Truck will partner with arts advocate Karen Eichler to conduct dialogues around gentrification and community in a changing city. In San Jose, the team will provide design services to address the growing pressure faced by retailers from online commerce and property development, which has resulted in vacancy across the city.
Elsewhere in San Jose, and in collaboration with Public Space Authority (PSA), the office truck will workshop ideas with flea-market vendors to help generate ideas to increase visibility and build interest. At the end, the team will leave behind a kit of parts for other vendors to redesign and hack their own.
“As much as possible, we want to leave a design gesture behind,” says Alexander. “The fact that we would enable and empower somebody to continue or start something and try to get it to keep going – that’s one of the stops that I’m really excited about.”
Another collaboration with PSA will see the Food For Thought Truck develop a site at the Fremont Town Fair Plaza in the Bay Area. Through a host of interactive exercises and the fabrication of a more permanent space, the truck will become a platform for problem-solving for the community.
“All these people are just really excited to have additional resources,” says Alexander. Be it gentrification, retail vacancy or lack of identity, the objective of the mobile design laboratory that is the truck is to start collaborations to address local matters and to spark change. In Bakersfield, just outside Los Angeles, O+A will work with a local architect to build a new identity for an emerging neighbourhood, conducting design charrettes and designing brand campaigns. “We want to work around an issue that has some design component, or can be solved through design.”
So, intervention or experiment? “Incubator is the best word,” Alexander observes. With a design philosophy described as “experimental and appropriate”, O+A’s urban incubator wants to be the catalyst for local efforts. “The hard part, though, was that one thing about our aesthetic is that we really try to connect it to the client and what their values are and their story is. Here, we’re our own client. That makes it quite a bit more challenging.”
To help them navigate this better, the team thus created a brief for themselves, based around adventure and camouflage. “We like this idea of the truck being mysterious but it’s more the idea that it’s incognito. It could pull up behind a line of food trucks at a food fair and open its door.”
The Food For Thought Truck is a far cry from O+A’s usual client base, which includes a host of Silicon Valley office interiors. From Uber’s sleek interiors, through Yelp’s exposed brick and concrete headquarters, to the more fluid Microsoft Envisioning Centre, tech firms are a bit of a leitmotif for O+A. Interestingly, as Alexander tells me down the line from the studio’s San Francisco office, this project is, “in a lot of ways, a reaction towards how tech companies have been strong-arming cities, not doing a lot for communities”.
After hurdles like Amazon’s opposition to Seattle’s recent tax to help fight homelessness in the city, Alexander believes this project will inspire some of their clients. She explains further: “In San Francisco, I feel like there’s so much prosperity and it doesn’t seem to be trickling down to the neighbourhoods, and the streets, and the people on those streets.”
This connection between the built environment and the community is more and more sought out and encouraged, with placemaking at the forefront of the work of several organisations worldwide. Agencies like Gehl and PPS have been devising urban strategies and studying the impact of public space for decades, but they are not the only ones.
Zach Lewis, director at PSA – a private company in California with a public mission to bring public spaces to life, believes “quality public spaces greatly increase the social wellbeing of the area around them”. He explains: “When done right, good public spaces can be catalytic. These benefits contribute to a healthy lifestyle and when combined with social well being, I believe it leads to better economic output – healthy, happy people are good workers that spill good energy into the people they work with.”
In Silicon Valley, much like here in the UK, placemaking is a buzzword, but as Lewis points out, it takes time to transition from interest to investment, though the latter rarely requires a fortune. “The beauty of placemaking is that […] you start small and build consensus towards a big solution,” he says. “If we could convince the tech giants to invest in this process, we could pioneer some truly amazing spaces that would do a lot of good.”
In line with the wellbeing aspect pursued by PSA, Design Council recently produced a report exploring the behaviours of built environment practitioners towards what it has defined as healthy placemaking. Developed in partnership with Social Change UK, the full report, Healthy Placemaking, offers insight on the barriers that prevent people working in the built environment from creating healthier places through their work as well as suggestions to overcome these barriers.
“As a recognised leader within the architecture and built environment sector, we want to fully understand what stops those who design and build the places that we live and work in making us healthier and happier,” says Design Council CEO Sarah Weir.
“Our latest research makes clear that, despite the evidence, healthy placemaking is often sidelined and seen as a cost. This has to change if we are to tackle the high levels of physical inactivity that is costing the country an estimated £7.4bn each year.”
It’s no secret that making that change happen takes a village. According to Design Council, this includes the government, local authorities and built environment professionals. Incidentally, the latter is one of the most interdisciplinary fields you’ll ever come across, spanning the likes of architects, engineers, town planners, landscape designers, urban designers, developers and policy makers.
All we need now is an office on wheels to hit the road and connect the dots, then. Never mind the location, never mind the borders.
At LDF in 2015, Studio O+A had the idea of putting an office in a food truck. Now its placemaking mission is touring California