Street Debater— Designing social alternative to begging

Tomo Kihara
Nov 5, 2017 · 10 min read
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What is street debating?

Street debating is a new job that creates a place for open dialogue on the street by making public opinion visible with coins. Street debaters use a set of scales that raises a question about a topic of public interest to evoke a friendly discussion with the passerby. Passers-by are invited to stop, engage in discussion, then put their coins on the side of the scale that represents their view. It creates an opportunity for people to break out of their own online social bubble to be challenged by people with different opinions.

This job also serves as a dignified way of earning money for vulnerable people on the streets who wish to discontinue the act of begging. Through a series of friendly conversation on an equal footing, this act restores their sense of dignity and social connection.

The initial study showed that on average, street debating earns £13.5 per hour in London and stops 12.5 people for a friendly chat. From politicians to chefs, anybody can become a street debater to question the society. The device data is open source at — — and can be made by anyone. Currently, several street debaters are raising their own debate on the streets across the world.

Below is my year long research-through-design process, aimed at designing alternatives to begging.

1. Why I started designing alternatives to begging

The majority of the society looks down upon beggars as though they prefer to beg in the first place. I also had the same impression until I met a guy named Rennae(anonymous name) in Amsterdam.

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Interaction Journey map of an encounter with people begging on the street.

Rennae was trying to sell cheap CDs to people on the street. He didn’t seem to be successful in selling anything. I decided to help him sell the CDs because I liked the friendly way he approached people.

We tried to sell CD for 4 hours without much success, earning only 4 euro. What he told me at the end of the day startled me.

Rennae told me that he was homeless, and has been struggling to get a job. He explained that he would earn more money if he begged, but was trying to sell CDs to keep his dignity.

This changed my understanding towards begging — I realized that when a person begs, they are not simply trying to get money for nothing.
They are throwing away their dignity in exchange for a few coins.

This insight was also supported by a quantitative research done in Scandinavia (Anne , 2014). The figure below suggest that begging is an option of last resort, and something that many find humiliating.

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When Poverty Meets Affluence — Anne Britt Djuve (2015)

2. Uncovering the different types of begging

I interviewed more people who were begging on the streets of London and in Amsterdam, and talked to twenty-six people in total. Through these contextual interviews, I discovered there seemed to be three common types of begging: Temporal begging, continuous begging, and professional begging.

A common image of a person who begs is someone who is dirty or haggard, holding a cup. But most of the people that I met who were begging didn’t fit this description.

A lot of them were well-dressed and clean-cut, and described their begging as part of a temporary act to pass off a situation.

What they all had in common was a struggle to keep their dignity intact while earning money on the street.

3. Struggle to keep one’s dignity on the street

I met J in front of McDonald’s. He quietly asked if I could spare him some change. He had been living on the streets for nine months, and was the same age as me. Among what he told me was that he considered selling street magazines to be more embarrassing than asking for spare change.

Big issue is one of the most successful and famous social business to provide job opportunity for homeless people. However it’s popularity also created a certain kind of stigma which is making it difficult for some people to do it.

It was becoming clearer to me that there were few means to earn money on the street without compromising dignity.

4. Setting the design goal and target group

I arrived at the hypothesis that long-term begging leads to a gradual loss of self-confidence and dignity.

While most people begin to beg temporarily, many continue to do so continuously. And the longer someone begs on a daily basis, the harder it becomes for them to find employment and connect back with society on more equal terms.

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It is difficult to get back to stable jobs once you start continuously begging

As a designer, I asked myself: Is it possible to design ways to earn money on the street that are not begging?

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How might we design the first step to discontinue begging?

Design Goal:

To increase the dignity of people with few professional skills who are begging on the streets, with the aim of leading them out of the cycle of begging and reconnecting them back equally to society.

Target Group

1. In the early stage of begging (under 1 year)

2. Has the will to get out of poverty but begs occasionally to survive

3. Has no drug or alcohol addiction and is not related to crime activity.

5. Prototyping alternative to begging

Together with the people I had met while they were begging, we co-created multiple design interventions on the street.

Several prototypes were introduced into real street settings for evaluation. From selling Polaroid pictures to trying to sell joke cards, we tried — and failed — a lot.

The most effective prototype was tested just before the U.S. election in Amsterdam. We placed two cups, one with a photo of Clinton and the other with a photo of Trump, in front of a sign that asked: “Next U.S. president?”

People began stopping just to have a conversation about the election. Some even put money in for their favored candidate.

Just for science, I added a master Yoda to the election. Even more people stopped to chat. Ultimately, master Yoda won the election (if only…) and we earned more than €5 in an hour.

To me, the most interesting result of this iteration was the way that it shifted the dynamic between the person who was begging and passerby.

The outside topic became the focus, about which the two people spoke to each other as strangers, equals.

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From this, I realized that friendly conversation on the street was a crucial component of what I hoped to design.

For people who beg or do not have a home, it is common to be treated as invisible in everyday life. Even when interaction occurs, it’s on an unequal basis — to offer help.

Conversation as an equal rarely occurs, but it is essential to one’s dignity.

6. Product for an effective street debating

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I decided to call this act of earning money through public debate “Street debating”, and have started developing products to make it more effective.

After experimenting with several forms, I found that a physical scale made interaction intuitive. I designed a street debating scale with a laser cutter, which made it easy to mass produce.

The scale is wooden, with a drawable blackboard surface where people can write questions or opinions about a certain topic.

A different answer is written on each side, where people can place coins to tip the scale. This makes the winning side visible and explicit, which fosters competition and motivates participation.

7. Street debating in the streets of London

I first tested the scale in Trafalgar square in London. The scale caught the attention of passerby, and people began gathering around me to ask what I was doing. We had discussions about politics, and some people placed money on the scales. I felt positive it would work.

So I gave the scale to three people who were begging on the streets in London. I chose the people based on the criteria above. We chose the question: “Approve Brexit? Yes/No”.

Again, people gathered to ask questions, and a debate started about how Brexit would affect the UK.

Most people had a pessimistic opinion about Brexit. However, the street debater argued that he would benefit because jobs would be more open to UK citizens and he would be able to work.

I could tell his opinion came as a surprise to the passerby — it seemed like it was a rare opportunity for them to hear such a different perspective, directly, from someone whose circumstances contrasted with their own.

8. Conclusion

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With four participants practicing street debating for one day, the average income was £13.5 per hour, which is more than they reported earning with regular begging. An average of 12.5 people per hour stopped for a discussion. The conversations that took place were diverse, ranging from friendly political debate to personal stories.

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All of the participants answered that they enjoyed the test, and would like to own the scale and do street debating again. One participant noted that he felt like more of a street performer than a homeless person.

They had several suggestions of what they would like to do with street debating in the future: a football fan proposed running a debate between opposing supporters outside of Wembley Stadium; another suggested asking for people’s opinions outside of the theatre about whichever movie they just saw and, if the response was positive enough, to buy a ticket with the money he earned.

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Lead Street Debater of Amsterdam

9. Beyond begging

This project, which began as a challenge to hack begging, also aims to rectify social polarization and break the echo-chambers that we are in so often.

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What can rectify social polarization is not street protests where one-sided opinions are forced against each other, but a friendly public discussion where people from multiple backgrounds encounter one another.

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This research could lead to other products that evoke positive social interaction while earning money at the same time. Further research could track street debating’s effects over the long term, and work to understand how this process could lead people out of the cycle of begging.

Currently, one street debater is active in London, asking whether the UK should have basic income or not. If you meet him, join his debate :)

This is my report of my research project that I’m doing at Delft University of Technology, Master course Design for Interaction. I hope to continue and scale this project from October 2018 in London.

If any organisations in the social sector in EU or UK are interested in collaborating or learning more, please feel free to contact me here.


Zimmerman, J., Forlizzi, J., & Evenson, S. (2007, April). Research through design as a method for interaction design research in HCI. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI conference on Human factors in computing systems (pp. 493–502). ACM.

Lapavitsas, C., Kaltenbrunner, A., Lindo, D., Michell, J., Painceira, J. P., Pires, E., … & Teles, N. (2010). Eurozone crisis: beggar thyself and thy neighbour. Journal of Balkan and Near Eastern Studies, 12(4), 321–373.

Zenzi Werken (2012) Kids Toy Scale .

Djuve, A. B., Friberg, J. H., Tyldum, G., & Zhang, H. (2015). When poverty meets affluence. Migrants from Romania on the streets of the Scandinavian capitals, The Rockwool Foundation, Oslo Google Scholar.

Chief Street Debater : Tomo Kihara
Consigliere : Mr K.S
Photo Illustration : Minami Kawasaki
English Editing : Max Kortlander


I heard giving money to beggars does more harm than good because it fuels their addiction habits.

I believe this notion overgeneralises people who are begging on the streets. Not all of them have drug addictions and some is in real need to escape their situation. Assuming that one is an addict without talking to them further excludes them from the society. Often times you can tell if they have addictions or not by talking to them for 1 ~ 5 minutes about any topic.

The humiliation and the anxiety of being on the streets is what drives people to start using drugs and heavy alcohol. I believe having connection to the local community through a neutral conversation prevents them from going down the dark hole of addiction.

How can I become a Street Debater?

Anyone can become a street debater. You don’t need a particular device. Two cups and a piece of cardboard are enough to become a street debater..

How can I make the scale ?

The device is open-source. You can download the necessary files here

How can I collaborate with you?

If interested in collaborating or learning more, please feel free to contact me here.

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