The New York City blackout that never happened

How do you design for an emergency that hasn’t happened yet?

When creating physical or digital objects, whether cars or apps, designers often use prototypes to test their ideas. By bringing a vision to life so that others can try it — ideally in the setting for which it was intended — they receive valuable feedback that informs subsequent iterations.

But not every problem can be solved with a product or app. For large-scale, multifaceted challenges — emergencies, for instance — services or systems may be more appropriate. In these cases, designers have access to far fewer proven prototyping techniques. Factor in the ephemeral, unpredictable nature of emergencies, and the difficulty of testing new ideas grows significantly.

We are students at Parsons School of Design, and we recently explored this dilemma as part of the new Transdisciplinary Design program, which focuses on collaborative, systems-oriented approaches for complex social challenges. Partnering with NYC Emergency Management (NYCEM), we spent 15 weeks exploring the potential of live-action simulation to test tools for emergency preparation and response.


Over the last century, live-action situational simulation has been used in a wide variety of contexts. Flight simulators like the Link Trainer helped prepare pilots for military service in World War II.

The RAND Corporation developed elaborate multiplayer simulations to imagine geopolitical futures during the Cold War. The Los Angeles Police Department’s Situation Simulator (SIT SIM) Village, which Universal Studios workers chipped in to build in 1975, has been used in police education and officer training for years. Building on the work of Brazilian theater activist Augusto Boal, Theatre of the Oppressed NYC uses improvisation to address challenges facing vulnerable populations.

Inspired by these examples, our team wanted to understand how simulator-based role-play might help progress design solutions for city emergencies. Since there’s no way to experience an emergency ahead of time, what if we acted one out as a way to develop our designs?


And so two groups, each comprising 10 volunteers, gathered under Manhattan’s High Line one cold, rainy afternoon last winter just before a loudspeaker started blaring.

Students gathered under the High Line

Students gathered under the High Line

“This is the Emergency Alert System,” a voice pronounced. “Several neighborhoods have been reported to be without electrical power or running water. All residents of New York City are advised to take precautions, as there may be falling debris.”

We then initiated the first of three 10-minute phases that had been determined in advance: blue-sky conditions, disaster response, and post-disaster.

Before the simulation started, each participant was given a persona card describing her background and motivations. With these differing needs in mind, we set about using role-play to test four designs that we had developed prior to the event, progressing them through each phase.

Students testing their Storyband design, which aims to help people forced to stay in shelters because of disasters process their emotions and register information such as blood type.

Students testing their Storyband design, which aims to help people forced to stay in shelters because of disasters process their emotions while registering important information such as blood type

These tools were targeted toward specific challenges we had uncovered during the project’s discovery phase, which involved consultation with NYCEM staff and research into urban disasters from around the world. They ranged from a proposal for food carts that double as emergency resources to a kiosk-based system focused on psychosocial needs.

The Good Food prototype proposed creating food carts that could serve neighborhoods with poor access to fresh, healthy food during non-emergency situations, but be deployed to other areas in need during and after disasters.

The Good Food prototype proposed creating food carts that could be deployed to areas in need during and after disasters.

After completing all three phases, the participants gathered to share feedback about the experience. Our team then spent two weeks considering the lessons learned and making physical and conceptual improvements to the designs. As the semester drew to a close, we presented the refined tools to NYCEM and New School faculty and students.


While we might do some things differently next time — planting actors in the group to enhance the believability of the role-play, altering the physical environment to increase the sense of chaos, running additional iterations of the simulation — many aspects of the role-play were extremely successful.

Holding it in a public outdoor space rather than a controlled environment made the scenario seem more realistic and provided the opportunity for passersby to interact. The three-phase story line gave participants a straightforward structure to follow, and the persona cards helped them get into character and empathize with the emotions someone might feel during a disaster.

Based on this experience, we believe simulation-based prototyping holds a great deal of promise for designers working on complex, systemic challenges.


The student work featured in this post was developed by Sankalp Bhatnagar, Valentina Branada, Juliana Chohfi, Gabriela López Dena, Melika Alipour Leili, Angel Lopez, Khadeeja Mubarka Majoka, Sophie Riendeau, and Ker Thao. The course was taught by Elliott P. Montgomery.

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