Networked Urbanism

design thinking initiatives for a better urban life

Design critics: Belinda Tato and Jose Luis Vallejo, principals of Ecosistema Urbano



The project aims to reduce the trashing of Harvard surplus by increasing item reuse. Harvard waste and surplus travels to the Harvard Recycling and Surplus Center, which distributes reuse to the Harvard community and non-profit organizations. However, in order to store new surplus, room must be made by trashing older surplus that cannot be recycled or scrapped. The wasted surplus ends up in landfills, harming our ecosystem.

Inventorying is essential for reducing Harvard waste. Creating physical order along with an itemized list, report, or record of things helps the facility keep track of what’s in stock and allows collectors (artists, furniture collectors, computer tinkerers, non-profit organizations, and scrap metal collectors) to understand what is available to them. However, inventorying is currently very labor intensive and time-consuming for the Harvard Recycling and Surplus Center.

“Inventorying is very labor intensive” and “takes a long time”. – Rober Gogan, Associate Manager of Recycling and Waste Services.

The Harvard Recycling and Surplus Center would like us to help them significantly simplify their searching and inventorying procedures as well as reach out to a larger community, by digitizing these processes. Although once in a while they use Craigslist, this method is too time-consuming and inefficient for large quantities.

The project calls for a cooperative networked inventorying of Harvard surplus in order to minimize individual workload, maximize item order and distribution, thus minimizing waste. The project implementation is adapted to work with the facility’s new warehouse and surplus management procedures. Surplus will be ordered by day and time, and divided by week, to track how long the items have been sitting in the facility, and to know how to prioritize them.

Inventorying is split into two main processes: offline inventorying and online inventorying. After the items are stored, offline inventorying is performed by the Harvard Recycling and Surplus Center with the phone application (TMSM). As surplus streams into the facility, they can be quickly photographed and uploaded to the website online database, where they are publicly displayed and assigned a unique ID (ex: 2013-12-12-13-5712, year-month-day-hour-minute-second), a reference to the item’s location in the facility. Once they are uploaded, the online inventorying is performed by the community through the website ( The website users perform collaborative inventorying of surplus by tagging, a rapid process of attaching words which describe the item, for example, color, shape, material, texture, brand, etc.

By distributing the workload of inventorying to a larger community of online users, through a process of collective tagging, the documented surplus can become a sophisticated dynamic catalog which adapts to user interests. This allows users to find the items they need through a database keyword search engine, discover related items with similar tags, and build relationships between items. Once a user finds the item, they can “save it” or claim it online, allowing them to locate it within the facility using the unique ID provided.

This digital intervention will demonstrate the positive impact of reusing surplus and strengthen symbiosis between the Harvard Community and the Harvard Recycling and Surplus Center. The project will enable the Harvard departments to keep track of the surplus they produce, and become aware of which items have been reused or sent to a landfill. The collected data generated through the website will allow for the studying of interactions among website users, and between users and surplus, and therefore for the discovery of new patterns. The Harvard Community could ultimately use these revealed surplus and waste patterns for future reference and adjustments, and for the creation of a waste memory.

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