The designer of the Street Debater on fostering human connection through design

“I realised that Street Debating not only addresses the problem of begging but something much bigger. It’s addressing the problem of social segregation.”

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Tomo Kihara is an interventionist. Playful and conversational on the Conference stage, it soon became clear that his approach to design seeks to not only understand but interrupt societal norms. In particular, the Global Graduate's project, Street Debater forces people to engage with not only the street beggar but also the average perdestrian. 

Available in an open-source format, the Street Debator takes the form of a scale. On it is a question pertaining to either a societal, political or economic issue that can be answered with a simple yes or no, representing the two sides of the scale.

It's controlled by a would-be-beggar, and by placing your coin on the side of your choice, you contribute to the would-be-beggar's living. At the same time, it opens the question up for debate and hopefully, a mutual connection or understanding between people who might hold opposing views. 

Kihara explains that the design was inspired by a man he met on the streets of Amsterdam. This man, he says, sold CDs for a living and it was only later that Kihara discovered his acquaintence was actually homeless. Despite making only a meager earning from the sale of CDs, it felt more dignified than begging, adds Kihara. 

“The act of begging, we often look down on it. But when a person begs on the street they are chucking away their dignity with it." But for many, it is an only option and last resort. Working with homeless people, Kihara decided to create a product that would help sustain those living on the streets as well as open the door to human connection. 

“I think street debating will break this bubble and connect people together to create a public discourse,” he says, adding that he hoped to foster mutual respect in an environment where homeless people are often not seen as equals. 

“I realised that Street Debating not only addresses the problem of begging but something much bigger. It’s addressing the problem of social segregation.”

Since it was launched in 2017, the Street Debater has won the Grand Prix of WIRED Creative Hack Award.

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