Resilience and Reinvention in New York City

At the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, four New Yorkers tell us their stories of reinvention.

Big cities are where we go to reinvent ourselves. New York City has made an ethos of that notion, through generations of immigrants and young Americans that made it their home; from its founding as New Amsterdam, through the political, demographic, cultural, and industrial shocks that shaped its history and population; from the Great Depression to the City’s economic renaissance in the last three decades. Closer to us, 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy brought a catastrophic loss of life and material harm, further testing New York’s resilience.

Today again the City’s inhabitants, businesses, cultural and learning centers, and social and health infrastructures face the challenge of reinvention. The tragic human toll of Coronavirus will demand reform of many systems that regiment life in the City – health, transit, data, civic order, to name an obvious few. At the individual level, reinvention is already coaxed out of us by the sudden disruption in our livelihoods, and by the oddity of experiencing isolation (usually through the prism of Zoom) alongside millions of peers around the world. We wanted to explore some of the ways in which New Yorkers in our network are tackling reinvention.

The road back to normalcy is a long one, and we might only provide you here with faint signals of the direction it will take. But we’d like to think that Swissnex’s presence in New York City since 2013 gives us a unique vantage point – as both outsiders and insiders – on how some of the City’s creative thinkers have begun adapting and reinventing.

We also have included short audio clips of each interview at the end of each section, because – let’s face it – New Yorkers love to be heard. (More on that in The New York Times piece “How Does a New Yawker Tawk?”)

Podcasting and Rolling with the Punches

Jasmine Romero is a podcast producer – a job that hardly existed 10 years ago. She recently joined the talent and media agency Endeavor, from podcast powerhouse Gimlet, where she produced the children’s podcast Chompers.

Jasmine acknowledges that she works “in an industry that’s constantly reinventing itself.” To keep up with the pace of changing technology and audiences’ demand for quality content, podcasters have to innovate at every turn. Then again, “reinvention is … the key to success in, really any business, right?” Jasmine adds. “Make sure, no matter what business you’re in, that you’re making something that people still want.”

While podcast listening saw a 42% increase globally between January and April, US listening has gone down 21%: people aren’t commuting to work anymore. NiemanLab pointed to some of these trends one month ago but pointed to the success of children’s podcasts.

Still, the necessity of sheltering at home has given podcasters a moment to think about new narrative forms, including fiction podcasting, which Jasmine anticipates “is going to have a huge moment.”

Jasmine is quick to recognize the disparate impact of isolation and coronavirus for creatives: “we’re going to see the reverberations of this for decades in art,” as many performing artists have lost their main sources of income.

When not working on podcasts, Jasmine is also an artist and singer and plays a character on Sesame Street, the beloved educational children’s television series. She’s been heartened by the “spurt of creativity in people . . . refocusing on projects that they had had on the back burner because they were busy working.”

That is, only when they are able to recreate the natural break between their day jobs and side projects that existed when people commuted to the office: “When you leave the building, you leave work. It’s a lot easier to say okay, ‘now I’m going to work on my own projects,’” says Jasmine.

Supporting Artists in Uncertain Times

What happens when you don’t have the luxury of waiting too long? Like Jasmine Romero, Roddy Schrock is keenly aware of the importance of respecting your audience’s wants and needs. When his organization had to cancel all in-person art residencies due to COVID-19, he had to act fast and be scrappy. But there was a clear method to his radical action.

Roddy is executive director and curator at Eyebeam, New York’s cutting-edge center for the research, development, and curation of new media works of art and open source technology, which runs residencies for artists and journalists at the cusp of media and storytelling.

“A residency can mean a lot of different things, particularly in the arts,” says Roddy. “In our case, it’s really built around a social aspect of coming together in person and sharing a workspace, sharing tools, sharing ideas, sharing inspiration over breakfast at the kitchen table.” This made the scrapping Eyebeam’s upcoming programs all the more distressing for the residents and staff members. Roddy embraced the challenge nonetheless: “This moment of systemic collapse, for lack of a better phrase, is this an opportunity for artists to actually reimagine what that long-term future could be.”

In just a few weeks, Roddy and his team actively consulted all their stakeholders, residents, and funders – and continue to do so in regular community meetings. In short order, they then designed and launched a new initiative called the Rapid Response For A Better Digital Future. It’s “essentially a replacement to a traditional residency program, […] helping us as an organization reimagine, renew, revitalize what we can even see as a possibility from an organizational perspective.” In essence, the program establishes a fund to support projects that are “most responsive and potentially groundbreaking in building a better digital world.”

In 2020, Swissnex in Boston and New York and Eyebeam collaborated on an art residency program along with La Becque Artist Residency in Switzerland. The collaboration offered commissions to support selected artists in forming an extended online working group on the arts and digital media in times of social distancing.

Transforming Media, One Baby Step at a Time

Anita Zielina is no stranger to rapid reaction and recreation. “My whole career in media was and still is focused on reinvention and redesigning our businesses, our organizations, the way we tell stories, the way we build business models,” Anita told us. “I’m in one of these roles where I actually have way more work now than I used to before.”

Anita is Director of Innovation and Leadership at the City University of New York’s Craig Newmark School of Journalism. Previously, she was instrumental in leading the digital transformation of Neue Zürcher Zeitung, Switzerland’s German-language paper of record.

Anita sees the current moment as one that will compound the seismic changes that the media industry has been going through in recent years. “I’m seeing quite a lot of organizations that have been relatively reluctant towards digitalization transformation in the past. And this situation has . . . pushed them to do things because you know, you really don’t have a choice,” says Anita.

But the moment is also right for experimentation: “I feel we are all kind of taking baby steps and experimenting with a lot of things now. And I think that’s probably exactly the right thing to do.” Judging by rising subscriptions and news consumption, she thinks media organizations should aim to put out “something . . . quick and dirty; get a prototype out there, see how the audience reacts.”

The challenge will be to maintain audiences’ interest and willingness to engage in digital formats once the crisis abates, Anita argues.

The same goes for the programs she has launched in higher education: she expects some of CUNY’s experimentation with online programs to have a long-term impact. “we are going to move away from the default of trying to have everything in person. I think it’s basically going to diversify our offerings in the way that we have fully online programs, full in-person programs, and a lot in between.”

Iteration, Game Design, and Rituals

For Nick Fortugno, a game designer who cofounded Playmatics and teaches game design and interactive narrative design at the School of Visual Arts and Columbia University, reinvention lies at the heart of the iterative process of creation: “Make something, break something, see how it broke, remake it; make something, break something, see how it broke – remake it.”

Like the other creatives we interviewed, Nick embraces the necessary agility that comes with the job: “So your goal as someone working in media should be to always be able to shift in the direction that will be best for the context, for your career, for what the audience is looking for what the audience is looking for.”.

Nick doesn’t separate reinvention from the sense of grounding we derive out of age-old rituals and familiar surroundings. A shift “has to come from the things you have as a base,” he says. Without that, “it’s almost like in a literal physical sense, you’ll be unstable. . . You’ll lose your ground. And I think if you lose your ground then you don’t know where you are.”

“As a game designer, what’s interesting to me – to take a step back from technology first – is that games are essentially rituals. And so I think a lot about rituals,” Nick adds. During our interview, Nick was wearing a black suit, white shirt, and tie. “Before this, I was helping run a funeral online. . . I was a staff member at a funeral,” says Nick. And it has him wondering about “how . . . these digital experiences reflect on analog experiences.”

Nick sees technology-enabled reinvention pervading existing rituals, and leaving a mark. Not only will this moment expose strengths and weaknesses in the technologies, he argues, but it will yield “new etiquettes” around how we use communication technology and formats, enhancing them in the long run.

Resilience, Risk, and Reinvention

An undaunted, almost matter-of-fact resilience jumped out at us from each of these four conversations. Born out of necessity (and, yes, personal predisposition) in their respective creative fields, reinvention brings with it the risk of failure, but also the reward of finding excitement in the creative journey.

A stereotypical view of New Yorkers might include the words “talkative,” “tough,” or “scrappy.” Those qualities fit well into Reinvention. Anita Zielina and Roddy Schrock both mentioned how crucial the process of consulting with multiple stakeholders and audiences had been in helping them create new programs in the last few months. Jasmine Romero talked about the need to “roll with punches” when you are trying to innovate. And all four highlighted the need for quick, agile responses to changing circumstances.

We at Swissnex recognize ourselves in these approaches to reinvention. Our founding 20 years ago in Boston was very much a product of serendipitous conversations and scrappiness.

We continue to design our activities with a nod toward “engineered serendipity,” and we strive to nudge our stakeholders from Switzerland to try new things, test their ideas often with audiences, and – should they “break” – to remake them again. It’s the advice we give to the Swiss startups that come to us through the Innosuisse Market Entry Camps, to the artists and designers that we feature in such programs as WantedDesign and the upcoming joint residency with Eyebeam, to the media professionals that prototype new ideas at Swissnex Labs, and to the researchers that benefit from the activities that we create for Swiss universities.

Music used in audio clips courtesy of Purple Planet.