What might the future of city making look like? One answer may come from an unexpected place: the advertising agency 72andSunny Amsterdam. During this series of interviews, we will explore the ‘hybrid city maker’ talking to the makers, artist, and thinkers that are involved in the creative residency 72U that lives within 72andSunny Amsterdam.

Sofia Lyü (Beijing, China) describes herself as a multidisciplinary creative. No medium would limit her. Before moving to Amsterdam to become part of the 72U creative residency she lived and worked in Stockholm, Sweden. We met up with her to discuss how her passion for design and technology can contribute to creative problem solving.

Hi Sofia, can you tell us about your professional background?
‘My background is in advertising. In China, I worked for a variety of commercial clients for who I created videos, installations and interactive design applications. However, I became a little bit tired of just working for commercial companies. I wanted to use my skills to be involved in creating something that is more meaningful and that could serve the society. This made me interested in the combination of technology and design and how we can use these two to shape our society in a positive way.

In the application of 72U, there was a specific call for people who identified as ‘creative hybrids’. What is your opinion on this interdisciplinary approach?
I believe being interdisciplinary or a ‘creative hybrid’ is becoming more important and necessary nowadays since technology is developing so fast. If I look back to the way I used to work in advertising, everybody had the same background, the same mindset and worked on the same subjects, it was not always inspiring. So that is also what attracted me to the 72U creative residency. This programme has brought people together with a range of different skill sets, cultures and visions, which enables us to have fresh and unique perspectives. It has resulted in a team that is open minded and very willing to just try things out and bring creative solutions to the table.

You say that technology and design can be a tool to bring people together in our society. Can you elaborate on this by looking at your own work?
Last year, during my time in Stockholm, I was involved in a project for refugees. This was at the time that the refugee crisis was felt at its strongest in Sweden. During this time I was part of a Hyper Island student programme and we felt a strong urge to contribute in helping these people. While doing research we found out that there were quite a lot of employers willing to hire or help refugees, with either jobs or language classes, but they had trouble finding contact with this group. To connect these two groups of people we created Huda, the first artificial intelligence friend for refugees. Huda is a messaging platform based on the messaging software of Facebook. We decided to collaborate with Facebook Messenger, as a lot of refugees were already active on Facebook as a medium to stay in contact with their families. Huda turned out to be a great way to reconnect refugees with the local workforce.

Is Huda still active?
Unfortunately not. When the Paris terrorist attacks happened last November the project was paused, as the organisation believed it had become too a sensitive a project to work on. It is still disappointing to me when I think about it, as I believe it was a great initiative that could have actually really helped people. We shouldn’t have just stopped like that.
In an attempt to not completely abandon the project and carry on the work, I started a self-initiated project together with a friend of mine. Instead of further developing the messenger application, we shot a Virtual Reality film that told the story of Ahmed, one of the refugees that we befriended, to continue a little bit of what we had started before.

During the 72U programme you are partnering up with the Favela Painting Project in the Amsterdam Bijlmer, which are also working with refugees. Do you see similarities with the experience you had in Sweden?
Yes, we just visited the refugee centre and I feel like the refugees here are in a similar situation as the people I have met in Sweden. They have the same frustrations. The only thing that they can do is waiting, but in the meantime, they can’t connect with the local society, which can become a problem for them. That’s what I appreciate about the Favela Painting Project in the Bijlmer. By having the refugees participate in painting the bleak buildings of the refugee centre I believe it makes them see their own potential. Instead of just having to passively wait, they are participating and actually making their temporary home look like a better place.

Is it important for you to create work that is socially motivated?
‘I like to be involved in projects that have a good intention. It does not matter if it’s a big scale or a small-scale project, as long it has the aim to help or benefit the local society. Luckily, more and more commercial companies are also starting to realize what they can do for society.

As an example, when I worked in China, some of my commercial clients already tried to create this awareness and act out of good intentions. At that time we had something that was called the NGO crisis. People became discontent with the structure as a lot of people felt that the system was corrupted. They became critical towards giving money to charity, as it was not clear for them where their money was used for. Together with a commercial banking client I worked on a campaign to restore a bit of this faith and simultaneously do something that made people reconnect with one another.

We used the Chinese messenger app WeChat, on which you can count the amount of steps that you have walked during the day. In an attempt to reduce CO2 emissions, people were encouraged to walk as much steps as possible, and then the steps were calculated as points with our algorithm. The more miles you walked the more points you earned. Later you could choose to spend your points as real money in the banking system or donate your points as real money to students in need in rural areas who could not afford to go to school.

I think it is a good example of how commercial brands started to realize and actually willing to create social awareness and doing good to the society as their brand identity.’

Have there been other projects during the 72U creative residency that you have been particularly excited about?
All of them! During our time at 72U we get to work with so many interesting people day by day, because besides the projects that we partner with we also have guest lectures by Amsterdam-based social enterprises. Initiatives like Bin2Barrel, who develop ‘plastic to oil’ projects, but also people from the Benches Collective (Bankjes Collectief), have come to share their experiences with us. I always thought about starting a project on my own, but most of the time I’ve been too hesitant to actually start something. I have let the difficulties or limitations stop me. At 72U I got really inspired by people who had the same worries but just went for it. Every day here at 72U I keep being amazed by new initiatives and it has really encouraged me to carry on with my own learning process and aim for my highest potential.

As a final question, is there a City Makers project in Beijing, or China in general, that you’ve come across that you admire or find inspiring?
To be honest, in China, I sometimes feel we really lack these social initiatives. Where I grew up in Beijing the air pollution problems have always been a real issue and a big deal. However, I feel like people are doing nothing about it, they just joke around, live along and just not act on it. So, personally, that would be something I would be very interested in getting involved with. Especially, after this journey with 72U, which has encouraged me to take actions.

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