Over the past three years I’ve worked both on an IDEO team, and independently, thinking about the future of public libraries. With an IDEO team, we worked with libraries in Chicago and Aarhus, Denmark to connect more deeply to the needs of the public (read about it here). During this project we were in conversation with librarians about making meaningful changes in their libraries and creating new practices such as asking patrons about their needs, experimenting without the fear of failure, and live prototyping new ideas. This work culminated in a co-authored Design Thinking for Libraries Toolkit. It is available to download free, here. The IDEO toolkit writing team included Michelle Ha Tucker, Jessica Herman, and me. It was designed by Elaine Fong.
Independently, I have continued to work with libraries and librarians around the world to build research and design skills, and to find way to build meaningful services for the public.
I have also collaborated with Jeremy Kitchen the branch manager at Chicago Public Library, Bridgeport on a his series called Punk Rock and Donuts. The events involve collaboration with a local coffee shop, a sound engineer, musicians, and artists. A gallery of images from one of the events is here.
After attending a library conference session about Roman baths (which also had public libraries and community gathering spaces), I began to ask questions about social spaces that nurture body, mind, and soul. In our modern world, there are few places we can go that speak to all parts of us. I have also been fascinated by the idea of retreating from the world, breaking patterns of everyday life, and living in different rhythms for extended periods of time. These questions led me to a long-term exploration of retreats including spaces, programs, and practices. Using ethnography, historical research, and trend explorations, I am currently gathering inspiration to design a new retreat space in rural Minnesota, and soon, you can find updates here.
From 2009-2011, I conducted a two-year ethnography of the Orange County Great Park in Irvine, California. The Orange County Great Park (OCGP) is one of the United States’ largest, long-term urban planning and design projects, and one that is faced with major problems of contestation and uncertainty. The OCGP planners and designers are faced with many challenges: it is an expensive ongoing production for which they must keep resources coming in, while simultaneously maintaining and building public engagement, and keeping hope and belief in the project alive.
My multi-method ethnographic approach included: participant observation, interviews, archival research of public records, popular media material, and designs. I found three important elements in the approach to the planning and designing of an extremely long term project. First, future-oriented, coherent narratives stabilize the project. The extensive and prolific storytelling creates narrative coherence, holding the stories of the park together to counteract the threats, fluctuations and uncertainty of the park project. Second, a new concept of models emerged: living design models. These are active models, open to the public, creating a recursive relationship between the community and the project. Third, I developed a new concept of myth: living myth. Myth diverts attention away from conflict and helps people to believe in the project. Living myth emerges through lived experiences, and it grows and changes with a project.
Through these elements, the planners and designers do more than build a park—they also construct publics, build community, and offer value-based visions of the future. Coherent narratives, living models, and living myth engage the public in the future and in an idealized version of the present through a more imaginative design and planning process. This imaginative process helps people connect to the OCGP project through values, emotions, and experiences, rather than rational means.
A major part of my research practice involves ethnographic trend explorations around the world to identify critical and enduring signals of change. I use a method called ethnographic futures, conducting interviews, observations, and lived experiences in order to understand what is shifting and emerging in the world. I document these trips and create insights to inspire design ideas or craft visions for the future. You can find a few examples from my 2014 trend explorations here.
The fieldwork images on this page are as follows: an observation and interview at Studio Olafur Eliasson in Berlin, assisting a sensory meditation, a tour of Noma in Copenhagen, a fashion show during Paris fashion week, a visit to a revolutionary chocolate factory in Mexico City, and lunch in the home of a Japanese food activist.
I have done field work in Paris, Berlin, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Chicago, New York, Tokyo, Shanghai, Seoul, Warsaw, and Mexico City. I've created guides and insights from each of these trips, let me know if you'd like to know more.
In 2008-2009, I conducted an ethnography of the Venice Beach Boardwalk in Los Angeles, California. I began the project with Silvia Lindtner, exploring the production and consumption in public spaces. We were especially focused on the role of vendors. I carried the project forward receiving a grant to focus my full attention on it.
In order to get closer to the vendors, I became one in 2009. I set up shop on the beach and spent a summer selling handmade rings on the boardwalk. One of the most important ideas that emerged from this work was understanding the daily routines of the vendors to produce and reproduce the place and culture. The Venice Boardwalk embodies the tension between ephemerality and stability, as it is produced and reproduced each day, remains stable over time.
Ph.D. Dissertation: The Orange County Great Park: Narratives, Mythmaking, and an Imagined Future of Southern California. (2012)
Feldman, M.S. & Almquist, J. (2011). Analyzing the Implicit in Stories. In J. Gubrium and J. Holstein (Eds.), Varieties of Narrative Analysis. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Almquist, J. (2011). Opening up through Mutual Engagement. In A. Carlson and J. E. Dutton (Eds.), Research Alive: Exploring Generative Moments in Doing Qualitative Research. Copenhagen: Copenhagen business school press.
Almquist, J., Kelly, C., Bromberg, J. Bryant, S.C., Christianson, T.J.H., & Montori, V.M. (2009). Consultation room design and the clinical encounter: The space and interaction randomized trial. Health Environments Research and Design Journal, 3(1), 1-14.