The Edge: Timbuktu Labs, a toolkit for Playground Design.

December 15, 2015 4 min read

Novedge: Tell us a little bit about who you are and what is Timbuktu Labs.  Timbuktu labs Cavallo FaviniTimbuktu Labs: We are Elena Favilli(CEO) and Francesca Cavallo(Creative Director), the founders of Timbuktu Labs. We're Italian and we moved to California in January 2012. Elena's background is in journalism (she studied at the Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism), mine is in theater (I graduated as a stage director from the Italian Academy of Dramatic Art). Timbuktu Labs is a children's media innovation lab based in Los Angeles. We got started when the iPad came out: we created the first iPad magazine for children, Timbuktu Magazine(2013 Best Children's Magazine of the Year at London Digital Magazines Award, 2012 Best Design Award at Launch Conference). Since then, our mission has always been to promote imagination as a tool to know the world. Our products range from mobile apps, to workshops, summer camps, picture books and, most recently, playgrounds!

Novedge: What is the idea behind Timbuktu Colors?

Timbuktu Labs: Timbuktu Colors is a platform designed to involve children in urban planning. We're piloting the project in San Francisco, in January, thanks to a group of amazing partners (the NFL, Kaboom,, YMCA, the 50Fund). The idea is to make it easy for people to become creative, urban hackers and to take control of their neighborhoods, starting from the creation of accessible street play opportunities. With Timbuktu COLORS, play becomes the center of a democratic process through which the community comes together and children learn how to drive decisions about urban planning. 140212BORDEAUX-persTimbuktu got started from an interactive news-magazine for children. We have always been obsessed with promoting initiatives that support children as active citizens. We strongly believe children should be involved in decisions about important aspects of their life. It's not easy to have a respectful, constructive dialogue with kids. They're fundamentally different from grown-ups in so many ways. That's why we try to build products and initiatives that make this an easier path to follow.

Novedge: What is the power of Design?

Timbuktu Labs: Design makes everything possible. We consider it a mindset, rather than a discipline. You know, being Italian, we grew up exposed to a ton of Design. We were not aware of the fact that it's not "normal" to be as sensitive as we are to fabrics for example, or to the shape of a handler (we never studied Design, so we got this by osmosis, just opening doors and listening to our mothers thinking aloud about sartorial details when deciding if a coat was worth the price!).There's this trend now and everyone seems obsessed with coding classes. Don't get us wrong, we think it's very important and we absolutely need more people to be well versed in coding and tech and science in general. At the same time, we disagree with the belief that "coding teaches you how to think". I know plenty of designers who have no experience about code, but still are much better problem solvers than coders.We're in love with great Design and see Design everywhere (or suffer for the lack thereof). The ability to solve a problem economically and beautifully never ceases to amaze us. Oh, the moment when you find a solution that magically solves three apparently unrelated problems you were struggling with! What can be better to feel in sync with the universe?

 Novedge: You put Design and Technology in the hands of the Community, literally. It takes a village doesn't it?

Timbuktu Labs: We see Design as an incredibly powerful tool and we believe that with power always come responsibilities. We didn't believe in helicoptering a beautiful play space in a community, taking a picture and feeling good about ourselves for "bringing beauty into this world". The way we see it, Design is as much about the process as it is about the result. Basically, when we design a new product, we don't just design the final object, we also design the process to get there. In this case, we asked ourselves what's the best possible outcome of a project like this? Of course, we want every child to be surrounded by creative play opportunities, but how can we achieve that? We can't possibly think to travel the world for decades and fill up the world with playgrounds. That would be uneconomical and a bit narcissistic! So – we thought – why don't we design a toolkit and a platform that helps people come together and multiply the playable spaces of their area even when there's not a team of designers to join them? When you design something, you don't want your users to be forever dependent on you, you want the object you design to be the beginning of a journey, not the end of it. This is particularly important when you design for children. And this is what Timbuktu Colors is about. We will do a series of workshop to understand the needs of a variety of communities, but then our goal is to create something that can give people the right tools to break free and do things we could have not imagined with their community.Great Designers are enablers after all, aren't they?

Novedge: Having a brilliant idea is often not enough, what else is important to succeed with a start up?

Timbuktu Labs: Patience, resilience and a big vision. When you work on a startup, by definition you're in the realm of "God knows what will happen". Your market may collapse, your product may not work, you may find it too hard to reach out to the right users. But if you have a big vision that sustains you, you're patient and resilient, you'll find another product, you'll invent another market, you'll build your own distribution channels.

Novedge: What is next for Timbuktu Labs?

Timbuktu Labs: We're working on a new initiative designed to help parents raise the confident, brave girls we need, to make the world a better place. We're excited because this is going to be an awesome, wonderful project. You'll have to stick with us if you want to learn more, though!


Follow Timbuktu Labs on  Twitter  and Facebook and try to keep up with these two brave and confident girls, if you can.

And don't forget to stop by Novedge  for the best Design Tools and Design Inspiration.


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