Social Innovation

How We Prototyped a Neighborhood Community

We used an iterative design process to kick-start our neighborhood community “Müllernte” in Berlin, Germany.

Müllernte (German for: “Litter Harvesting”) is a neighborhood community we founded in Berlin to raise awareness for clean public spaces in the district of Moabit. What made us special: We applied design techniques and lean processes to a neighborhood project. With the following 10 steps we will share, how Miriam Zanzinger, Nina Komarova-Zelinskaya, Jonas Wolff and I made an impact in just a few months and even raised funding by the authorities of Berlin.

1. Analyse the surrounding

Initially, we analyzed the neighborhood in Moabit and a young city park around the Center for Art and Urbanistics (ZK/U), who partnered with our university to tackle the littering problems. In concerted action, we manually collected data by observing and measuring the surrounding. The collected data was captured in an interactive map. This helped us to visualize and understand and the actual problem areas and players.

Interactive map of the surrounding, made by Lucas Vogel.

2. Do something stupid – as soon as possible

As the Z/KU announced a flea market during the early stage of our project, we grabbed the chance to conduct the first experiment, since the litter creating audience would be on-site anyways. Since we didn’t have a specific idea yet, we forced ourselves to come up with something obvious. We rummaged the center’s basement for reusable materials and build a huge scale out of two former trash baskets. Later we tied the construction on an abandoned swing and engaged children and families in a litter collection challenge. The winning teams who had the most litter in their bins won a freshly baked waffle.

3. Talk to people

Because we did the first experiment early, we had a great opportunity to talk to the right people early. We quickly found out what locals think about the littering problem and who he is willing to take action with us. Also, our scale attracted many visitors and helped us to break the ice. During the whole project, we learned that asking for feedback is key in order to generate new ideas and build something, neighbors can identify with.

At the end of the day, the park was clean and the children were happy.

4. Iterate

While the first experiment engaged plenty of children, we wanted to find a way that would also encourage adults to collect the litter. Hence, we focused on the social and entertaining part of picking up litter (yes there is one!) and invented a new kind of speed dating format. We invited singles and led them get to know each other while doing good for the environment.

Although it was a rainy evening, to our surprise many people showed up and were interested in the “Trash Dating” event we promoted on Facebook. Besides the fact that it was a lot of fun, people were keen to join our initiative and motivated us to continue.

5. Get money and support

As the end of our university collaboration approached, we decided to continue the Müllernte initiative. To bring it to the next level, we applied for funding by the district of Berlin-Mitte, which supported voluntary work at this time. With the support of ZK/U, we actually obtained a decent amount of money. In addition, a German manufacturer of cleaning tools sponsored us with 15 high-quality trash tongs. We learned that many people are willing to help and are easy to persuade if they can contribute to something good.

6. Create a brand

Our name “Müllernte” is easy to remember, totally German and sounds like it already found in the dictionary. Connecting our initiative to the term “harvest” was a deliberate decision to emphasize that litter is something worth to pick up. Additionally, our events happen regularly and are celebrated like the harvest festival. To promote our brand in the neighborhood, we designed flyers and became active on social media.

7. Enter the physical space

In our first experiment, we learned that a central physical object like the trash scale is very helpful to attract attention and create a visual anchor for participants. With this in mind, we decided to build something that looks unique and is handy enough to be used in our events. Using the means of our funding, we bought a large garbage bin and pimped it with hundreds of mosaic mirror tiles, LED stripes and Bluetooth sound – literally a mobile trash disco.

8. Don’t be too ideologic

It might be because of our general attitude, but not being too ideologic about the topic was a quite reasonable approach for us. Even though our initiative is focused on environmental commitment, we do not assume that will save the world (alone) and everything we do has to be 100% eco-friendly. We didn’t separate most of the litter we collected from the park, because we found it more important to at least pick up as much as we can. Also, our logo is not green, but orange. With this approach, we attracted participants you weren’t interested in the environment before. But don’t get us wrong, we welcome everyone!

9. Get connected

After our first events, we were invited to present Müllernte at an exhibition next to the district’s town hall, where we placed the disco trash can in front of our booth. During the whole day, we had no change to rest because so many people were interested in us. Even the local major was excited about the project. We think that these kinds of events are great to connect new people and meet potential partners. To stay in touch, we did send a follow-up newsletter to all the people who gave us their email address.

Müllernte at “Moabit Energy Day”, photo by Marian Knop, STATTBAU GmbH

10. Have fun

This project was extremely fun because every team member contributed their skills to a common vision. Also, the strict iterative design process we applied to the project was guiding us in the right direction. We prototyped events, asked people for feedback and then refined what worked and changed what didn’t. And most importantly: We just tried out weird ideas and never took ourselves too seriously.

Photo by Marian Knop, STATTBAU GmbH