Urban Oasis, Defining the New Grocery Shopping Experience

A eco-system of mobile food carts that bring fresh produce from farms to food deserts in NYC utilizing the autonomous car technology.

Last summer, Lily Shi, Yodai Yasunaga, and I worked on a project “Urban Oasis”, which has been selected as one of the four finalists for the Driverless Future Challenge out of entries from 25 countries. We had a great chance to pitch out idea at July 2017 NY Tech Meetup in the NYU Skirball Center in front of a live audience of over 600 attendees with other three amazing teams from IBI Group (SAVe), FXFOWLE Architects with Sam Schwartz Engineering (Public Square), and a team of four architects: Daniel Hui, Danil Nagy, Spencer Wright (QueneY).

Driverless Future Challenge — “To ensure that New York City takes full advantage of the benefits of autonomous transportation — rather than let it unfold haphazardly with no accommodations and restrictions — Blank Space partnered with the City of New York to solicit actionable solutions for a driverless future in one of the most complex cities in the world.”
“Urban Oasis” created by Yodai Yasunaga, Jiaming Zhang, and Lily Shi using After Effect

Design Criteria from Competition

Evaluate the future of autonomous transportation in NYC through the lens of the Mayor’s OneNYC initiative:

  • Growth
  • Equity
  • Sustainability
  • Resilience

How we approached?

We had a lot of ideas as we first approached to this challenge, such as adaptive street (left figure), which aims to utilize street parking since a lot of street space would be available after widespread of autonomous cars, and and Uber 2.0 (right figure), which aims to utilize the private car during their spare time.

However, as we continued to dig into the challenge, we kept receiving questions from people, who are the potential users of our system:

“I am reluctant to be in a car that drives by itself, because I feel like I am only in a machine, which makes me feel unsafe.”

Instead of building our idea on top of a consensus of prevalence of driverless technology, we decided to shift our focus to how driverless cars might effect our lives, how we could design the experience to make driverless technology more accessible?

Therefore, we started contextualizing the idea to the people of New York City, we realized that “driverless” doesn’t equate to “humanless”. Instead of getting rid of people, we want to take advantages of the autonomous vehicle and human centered approach to build an ecosystem where it’s not just about the driverless cars, but it’s about benefiting and connecting all the people interacting with it.


What’s the issue we are tackling?

After researching on some existing issues in New York City, we were drawn into the “Food Desert” phenomenon that a widespread shortage of neighborhood grocery stores and supermarkets exists in New York City. High need for fresh food purveyors affects approximately three million New Yorkers. Underserved areas of the Bronx, central and eastern Brooklyn, far eastern Queens, and Harlem have high rates of diet-related diseases. A shortage of supermarkets in the Bronx causes residents to rely on local corner stores known as bodegas. Bodegas rarely offer nutritious foods, and the few fruits and vegetables sold, would more often than naught, not past stringent supermarket standards, forcing families to choose between bad and worse.

“Food desert” is a term commonly used to describe communities with little or no access to healthy food, including fresh fruits, vegetables, meats and dairy products.

Existing Solutions?

1. Farmer’s Market

There’s a farmer’s market at union square, which opens on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 a.m — 6:00 p.m, and it accepts Cash, EBT/SNAP, debit and credit cards. We learned that the people go to the market because they enjoy the community. However, there are not so many people have access to or have time to go to this market, so do the farmers.

“I have to get up at 4 in the morning, and drive about 5 hours from my farm to the market.”

2. Green Carts

During our market research, we found out that NYC has already implemented “Green Carts” in order to tackle this issue, which are mobile food carts that offer fresh produce to NYC food deserts at affordable prices.

NYC Green Cart Initiative

However, this solution still has some problems:

  • It is not perfectly mobile because the carts are too heavy to be pushed around.
  • They are also not 100% reliable, since they are not trackable.

So, how could we design a better grocery shopping experience to tackle to food desert issue in NYC?

Concept Diagram : Bring “Equity” to people (Left — Conventional ; Right — With Urban Oasis)

We saw an opportunity in the grocery shopping experience where people travel to buy fresh produce. By analyzing traditional grocery shopping experience, we found out that the conventional business model can lead to unequal access due to different physical, location, and time constraints as seen in NYC’s food deserts.

But with Urban Oasis, we are bringing fresh produce to the users, making the grocery shopping experience more equitable. Specifically, it takes advantage of the autonomous car technology to create a system that is trackable, mobile, and adaptable in order to increase reliability, reach under served neighborhoods, apply to other needs and scales. In short,

Urban Oasis is an innovative take on autonomous vehicle technology to tackle the issue of food deserts in NYC .

Design Goals

Actionable

The concept builds upon existing business models and technologies: the driverless vehicle, the system for supply and distibution (green carts), the tracking and booking systems (uber).

Adaptable

This model can also be adapted to provide other services to door: pharmacies, food trucks, and other retail services.

Brings Equity

The concept gives everyone equal access to fresh produce.

Contextually Relevant

The concept tackles the food desert issues and saves real estate that is very scarce in NYC.

Adds Humanity

The product aims to alert people when a grocery truck is nearby so people in the same neighborhood can shop together. We also aim to create a digital character that interacts with the users to bring some human elements into the transactions.


Case Study

1. Uber Eats

  • trackable app showing the location of the car
  • car with branding

How does the system work?

Originally, we came up with a timeline that depicts “a day of Urban Oasis”, as the autonomous car would pick up fresh produce from farms and drive itself to New York City, deliver fresh produce within the designated neighborhood it serves from order through phone app or phone call, charge every several hours at designated charging station, delivers again in the afternoon, stop when people request to buy groceries, and drive back late at night to restock for the deliver next day.

Version 1: A day of “Urban Oasis”

However, we’ve noticed that our first targeting audience (low-income neighborhood in New York City) might not have have limited access to technology, which means that a large portion of them might not using smartphone, which actually limits their access to Urban Oasis. Additionally, the humanity aspect was not fully added into our system.

After several iterations, we came up with the new system design which allows our target audience to get involve more and emphasis the humanity aspect and connection throughout the experience.

Early in the morning, the a local farmer stocks the oasis truck with fresh produce. Then the truck drives itself to NYC to catch the morning commuters. It parks near popular transit locations such as subways stops, where a local Urban Oasis staff awaits. The staff then opens the truck to form a morning market, and also begins to prepare single-farm Community Supported Agriculture or CSA boxes. After the market, the truck drives to the single-farm CSA subscribers, while the staff continues to make the boxes and delivers them. During lunch hours, multiple Oasis trucks gather in community spaces to form a farmer’s market, and the market will also feature community events, such as cooking demos. Meanwhile, the staff members are now able to prepare multi-farm CSA boxes. Now, the Oasis truck delivers these multi-farm CSA boxes until they congregate again for the night market, where leftover produce are sold at discounted prices. At the end of day, the oasis truck drives itself back to the farm where it’s charged and rested!
Final Version: The “Urban Oasis” system

What are the stakeholders within the system?

As we want to emphasis the “Human” aspect of the system, we’ve identified four main stakeholders as following:


How could Urban Oasis benefit all stakeholders?


Urban Oasis Truck Design

After tons of ideation of the truck design, we’ve landed our idea on a hexagonal shape car, which can open up to form farmer’s market in the community, and allow employees to sit inside and prepare CSA boxes for delivery and sale.

Measuring reaches for truck design

Business Perspective

Even though Urban Oasis focuses on fresh produce, this model can also be adapted to other social services, such as a pharmacy that delivers medicine to the people in need but may not have the ability to travel.

Urban Oasis’s business model could be easily adapted to make an impact on other fields

Video Pitching

In order to pitch our idea through 3-minute video, we’ve divided up the concept into three parts: what, why, and how, and connect each part with out story of Sam and other stakeholders within the system.

Storyboard for the Urban Oasis video pitching

Why Urban Oasis?

We believe that a driverless system is not humanless. With urban oasis, the driverless system is human-centered. Our ultimate goal is help people live a better & healthier life with the development of technology.


Next Steps

Moving forward with Urban Oasis, we believe that we would greatly benefit from:

User-Centered Research

  • Identify appropriate market segments
  • Assess specific user needs, values, and behaviors
  • Determine which neighborhood to start implementing and testing

Potential Partnership

  • Grow NYC
  • Green Carts
  • NYC Government
  • Local Partners

Audience Feedback

  • Technical Aspect
  • Refinement of business structure
  • Scope and scale of business
  • Funding/Investment

Selected judges of the competition

  • Danny Stillion (IDEO)
  • Matt Sweeney (UBER ADVANCED TECHNOLOGIES GROUP)
  • Davin Stowell (SMART DESIGN)
  • Michelle Cheung (MERCEDES-BENZ RESEARCH & DEVELOPMENT)
  • David Vega-Barachowitz (NYC DEPARTMENT OF CITY PLANNING)


Summary

It was a very precious and fruitful experience working on project, and meeting a group of talented and aspiring leaders during the competition. I really appreciated those judges and audience, who generously provided their resources and expertise trying to help us further develop our design concept into a more mature and approachable business, and three other finalist, who showed us professionalism. I was also good to see our project making an huge impact on how we would perceive future technology. Pitching idea in front of over 600 audience and live online has prepared me for telling a more persuasive and engaging story to make an impact.

I want to say special thanks to our amazing professor Denise Ramzy, who helped us all the way along the project, inspired us, and supported us. I also want to thank two talented designers in my team, Lily and Yodai, who stayed up all night with me trying to make the video, to design a brand new experience, and to solve the problem.

Yodai Yasunaga (left), Lily Shi (middle) , and Jiaming Zhang (right)
During the tech meetup
We were answering questions from judges

Thanks for reading!