How Happy City Lab is spreading joy through public art

The Swiss art collective is on a mission to promote social interaction in urban spaces. We talk to founder Dan Acher about its interactive installations and the role that art can play in helping bring communities together

In 2010, artist Dan Acher took an old newspaper dispenser, painted the words ‘take something, give something’ on the side and placed it in the street in his local neighbourhood in Geneva. Curious to see what happened next, he set up a camera to record how people interacted with it. 

Over time, people used the box to trade a wide range of items – from books to egg timers, DVDs and toys – proving the old adage that one person’s trash is another’s treasure. As it became popular, Acher and his collaborators installed another ten boxes around the city and within 12 months, residents had traded over 100,000 objects.

What fascinated Acher most was not the fact that people used the box, but that local residents took it upon themselves to take care of it, sorting items and removing things that shouldn’t be there. There are now more than 80 neighbourhood exchange boxes throughout France and Switzerland and Acher claims that people have taken responsibility for each one. 

Speaking at a TEDx talk in Lausanne, he said: “What we learnt from this is: if you put something out for people and they understand that it depends on them to make it work, they will make it come to life. Because people want to be useful to their community.”