If the popularity of escape rooms has indicated anything, it’s that mobile phones have not completely eradicated the excitement in solving problems using quick logic and readily available objects and materials. An in-store installation for Nike’s ISPA that has popped up in New York City, London and Toronto celebrates this kind of tactile problem-solving: there’s no escape mission involved, but the build-out is constructed solely from bamboo and rope, a utilitarian display that beneath the surface is a commentary on the current state of society.

ISPA began as an experimental product programme with a team of three designers, and has since grown into a specialized sub-brand offering footwear and apparel. ‘The focus is mainly on the city commuter, who we see as the city athlete,’ explains Nike NSW Fuel, ISPA and special projects and innovation designer Niek Pulles, ‘We are inspired by the cities around us and how people solve various problems in hands-on and simple ways with materials that can be found everywhere.’ ISPA’s ‘beta-install’, the bamboo build-out was conceptualized by Niek Pulles and Parsha Gerayesh of ISPA’s product design team (otherwise known as 6xteam) in collaboration with the North America Nike brand retail team. Multi-disciplinary studio Hotel Creative supported the execution in London and Toronto.

It’s striking that one of the world’s best-known brands should invest in fostering the decidedly exploratory and notably low-tech retail programming that ISPA proposes. When digitization is everywhere – especially in retail – it’s certainly worthwhile to explore what can happen at the other end of the spectrum.

The pop-up takes on a different aesthetic than most Nike spaces. How does the design help establish the ethos behind ISPA? In other words, how is it different to Nike’s other retail environments and why is that important?

NIEK PULLES: ISPA begins with a philosophy: Improvise, Scavenge, Protect, Adapt. Our charge is to solve problems that people face in their daily life with sophisticated – sometimes experimental – solutions. The output can be footwear or apparel, but we also think the ideas are applicable to other people solving problems too.

We’re inspired by all the amazing problem solvers around the world, from big architects to people who are manipulating the products they own. We travelled together in the winter of 2016, seeing different parts of Japan. The arts and crafts we saw in Kyoto and Tokyo inspired us a lot. We did workshops with an art school in Tokyo and worked close with Kosuke [Tsumura] from Final Home.

This collection is a declaration of cultural rebellion and environmental awareness – it marks a shift in behaviour at Nike

The trip really set off the ethos, and helped us establish our first collection. It was inspired too by climate and cultural changes that are directly affecting lives. We put ourselves in mindset of what people need now – our work is a direct response to the current state of society. This collection is a declaration of cultural rebellion and environmental awareness. It marks a shift in behaviour at Nike.

Today urban living can feel quite tough – ISPA aims to help equip city athletes/dwellers to tackle problems specific to metropolitan living. What does your team imagine a ‘survival toolkit’ might look like? Are there specific references that you looked to when developing the pop-up?

Our work can come off as really heady, but we also find inspiration in things that are genuinely everyday problems. For instance, we focus on the pitfalls of commuting. In London or Tokyo, you walk a lot — you need comfortable shoes. For that Flyknit VaporMax are great. But you can also find yourself in an unexpected downpour. Then the Flyknit isn’t so great. So, one example of an ISPA solution is a gaiter we designed for the Flyknit VaporMax. It is inspired by what we see bike commuters wear. It goes over your shoe, protecting it from the rain while in transit, but when you arrive at your location, it is easily taken it off. It also styles super cool too — so you might decide to keep it on.

Feeling the easiness of lightness and swiftness in the built environment while also feeling protected is important. This all comes from ‘Improvising’ in situations where needed, like putting a plastic bag around your shoe for cheap and easy protection. In terms of a survival toolkit, we think of the same mix of simple ingredients. Having a few things to make a shelter or to protect yourself was what sparked our bamboo build-out.

We always want to remind people that even when there is amazing technology around, there’s an element of the human hand behind it

Retail and urban environments are going tech across the board. Does ISPA, and the installation, respond to this on some level?

For this particular install we definitely took on a low-tech approach – but don’t underestimate the power of that. We love tech and technical developments, but we also know that technology requires human imagination, a human touch to convey some soul. We always want to remind people that even when there is amazing technology around (for us something like Flyknit or an Air Max 720 bag), there’s an element of the human hand behind it.

How do you see ISPA evolving within Nike?

Our design team is always growing and changing – we’re always at the edge of newness at Nike. What was once only a handful of designers at the beginning of ISPA has now grown into a robust team, and with each addition comes new energy and ideas. Nike ISPA will stay a team of innovating experts pushing the boundaries of people in the built environment, coming with sophisticated problem-solving expertise and a mission to create awareness of certain situations through product and retail experiences.

As humans, we’re increasingly faced with new problems to solve, individually and collectively. That also means there are more solutions to come up with. We have to move fast. Through the lens of ISPA’s pillars and philosophy and the power of the team, I think we can.