In STV 202: Design and Society, I often use the design of the typical crosswalk as an example of how designs embody social contracts.  

A crosswalk is a place where two parties, drivers and pedestrians, share a resource that both want to use, namely, a certain stretch of roadway.  In order to do so for the benefit of each, and reducing the danger to pedestrians, there is often a signal system that manages the right of way.  Only the party with the right of way, as indicated by the signals, is permitted to use the contested area of street.

This social contract emerged from the takeover of streets by car traffic and has remained the norm for many decades.  However, a recent article reminds us that crosswalk design is not set in stone.

One recent innovation is the placement of signal lights in the ground instead of up in the air.  The advantage of having lights at ground level is that that is often where peoples' eyes are pointed, as a result of being glued to their smartphones.

This may strike old fogies as unfortunate.  After all, people should be looking up and at their surroundings.  Sure, says Soren Luckins, of Melbourne design studio Büro North:

It’s like, yeah, I also think it’s sad that society has come to this,” he says. “But you can either stick your head in the sand and pretend its not happening, or you can adapt.

In other words, another technology has come along and changed the way people behave.  Thus, the social contract and the design of crosswalks must change also.

The article points out that other intersection designers have played with crosswalk design.  Dutch engineer Hans Monderman designed the woonerf or "shared street", in which signals, markers, and barriers are largely removed.  This lack of formal design forces drivers and pedestrians to negotiate the right of way directly with one another, with the aim of increasing safety for both.

So, crosswalks illustrate not only how designs embody social contracts but also how such contracts are open to renegotiation.

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