Dezeen Magazine

Street Debater tool helps homeless people earn money without begging

Japanese designer Tomo Kihara has developed a tool for "street debating", which allows homeless people to earn money without compromising their dignity.

Kihara, a student at TU Delft in the Netherlands, wanted to find a way to change how people in the street respond when beggars ask them for money.

Tomo Kihara offers homeless people a way to earn money without begging

Kihara presented Street Debater at the Design Indaba conference in Cape Town, South Africa this week.

His project consists of a set of scales, which are used to pose multiple-choice questions to passersby. People are invited to cast a vote for their preferred answer, by placing coins on one side of the scales.

The aim is to transform the act of asking for money into both a game and a conversation starter, between people that would be unlikely to engage with one another in everyday life.

Tomo Kihara offers homeless people a way to earn money without begging

"For people on the street, when they are interacting with passersby, it's often on a basis to be offered help, and this is not an equal relationship," explained the designer.

"Street debating not only addresses the problem of begging, but something much bigger, it addresses the problem of social segregation."

Tomo Kihara offers homeless people a way to earn money without begging

He was inspired to start the project after moving from Japan to the Netherlands, as he was shocked about the scale of homelessness he found in European cities.

"Begging is becoming a major issue in European cities such as London, the housing crisis is severe and the people living on the street is increasing," he said. "I thought maybe I could intervene in a playful way."

Tomo Kihara offers homeless people a way to earn money without begging

As part of his research, Kihara spent some time with a street trader that was selling CDs. After a day working together, the trader revealed he was actually homeless. Although he could earn more money through begging, he chose to sell CDs as it allowed him to retain his dignity.

This inspired the designer to try and reframe the act of begging. He developed and tested a number of different ideas, all designed to stimulate a feeling of curiosity rather than guilt in people. The most successful was the multiple-choice question approach.

"It worked quite a lot, because people were curious and interested. Even though the instruction itself was just asking for money, it had a totally different meaning and instruction intended," he explained.

Now the designer has developed his design into an open-source format, to make it accessible to a wider public. He has been testing the project in different cities, trying out questions on topics ranging from politics to religion.

He doesn't necessarily believe it will prevent homelessness, but he thinks it could help to mitigate the problem, as well as to build bridges between different levels of society.

"My project for example won’t erase homelessness, its a complex problem, it will stay," he told Dezeen. "But I think I can address the problem, make it visible, make it playful, and foster a society where people can move it into a better place."

His next ambition is for the project to start being used in a broader sphere, to encourage people to discuss important issues with those outside of their "social-media bubble".

"I want to turn it into this cool political activism toolkit. That’s the next step," he said.

Kihara presented his project on the first day of the Design Indaba conference, which is taking place from 21 to 23 February 2018. Dezeen is media partner for the event.