14 Aug

Mixed Reality Deliberation

The goal of Hub2 is to introduce a deliberative process into community meetings that currently does not exist. Who do this by integrating Second Life into the existing community process. We believe that the affordances of the tool and the specifics of the practice we built around it, we are adding the following:

  • collaboration – allowing a group of people with a shared interest in a space collaborate with one another to create a product (in our case, this is a “virtual sketch” of the proposed park).
  • evaluation – allowing that same group to evaluate their own work, and their own experiences (facilitated by their avatars), instead of simply responding to often confusing plans or architectural diagrams.
  • understanding through experience – by turning abstract concept drawings into “concrete” representations, people have a better chance of making sense of complex spatial dynamics or urban planning principals.

As we continue to conduct these community workshops, and continue to adapt our process to the pecularities of the design process, we are realizing that our main purpose is to help the group most productively realize their role as community informant. The city, the developers and the designers come to the community for input, and unless a deliberative process is put in place, that input gathering can be quite shallow. Currently, communities are forced to respond to a problem or a proposal with limited knowledge and limited information.

We’re watching our every move and assessing whether or not this “mixed-reality deliberation” is in fact working. Based on our current observations, we can say that it is working, even though we are constantly pushed up against the limits of the technology and the political realities of any development project. We hope that by the end of this summer, we can say with confidence that we have designed a process that works, with a technology that’s accessible. And once we do that, we can start to consider the implications of virtual technologies on communities more generally, specifically, how the product of mixed-reality deliberation (the virtual sketches produced) can be meaningful in their own right.

07 Aug

Hub2 Works With Harvard

For the last several weeks, Hub2 has been working on a project in the Allston neighborhood of Boston. With full support from the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) and funding from Harvard’s Allston Development Group, we have begun work on the community input process around Library Park. Our mission is to augment the methods through which communities deliberate over local issues by making new virtual tools available to them. In short, we are conducting workshops where fifteen members of the community are given laptops and assemble around a projection screen. Our team runs them through a two-hour process, at the end of which they have a community sketch. This does two things: it equals the participatory playing field by integrating a non-verbal game space into the traditional public forum, and it allows the community to produce something instead of just respond to something, which leads to much more informed commentary because they are responding to their own work instead of architectural plans.

In addition to these formal workshops, we also have community drop-in hours at a community space Harvard is providing. We have invited the community to come in to a less formal setting to explore the virtual space, add their comments and discuss the issues. This could be done at home by accessing Second Life, but we are working with the assumption that no one is capable or has the desire to access Second Life from home. These drop-in hours are staffed by local teenagers, who have been trained in Second Life and have become experts in local issues.

We aim for Hub2 to change the conditions of community engagement. We strive for a different kind of openness and deliberation, and we aim to use the best tools to make that happen. We are currently using Second Life, but we are not committed to a single platform. We are committed to a process that will inevitably adapt as new tools come online.

What’s next for Hub2?

We are funded through the beginning of September on this Harvard project. We are studying everything about this process, from the nature of community engagement to the tangled web of politics in the back offices to the apprehension on the part of the architects and the developers to receive more feedback from the community. We hope that through this process, we can develop sustainable models for mixed reality deliberation and for integrating new tools into established practices.

It seems like the BRA continues to support our work. As such, we’re hoping to get ourselves another project in the city of Boston to sustain our activities through the coming year.

17 Dec

Hub2 Launch Big Success

Virtual Key
The key is presented to Mayor Menino

Key in Hand
The virtual mayor takes the key to the virtual city

The Hub2 kick-off event was a big success. We had a packed room, both in first and second life, and there was an overall positive reception to the work we are doing. Bill Oates, the Chief Information Officer of the City of Boston, was in attendance to receive the virtual key to the city and the deed to Boston Island. While this was a presentation of very real work done by the participants in both classes, it was also a symbolic event that directed attention to the potential of our methodology and mission. Over the last couple of weeks we’ve had some promising conversations with both the BRA and the Greenway Conservancy about integrating Hub2 into some aspect of the physical and/or social design process. At the event, we pointed to these potential collaborations and suggested that the work already completed points to the immense potential to harness new and emerging technologies for the enhancement of public life in the City of Boston.

Mayor Sits
The Mayor sits down to talk with his constituents

At the end of what we’re calling the alpha phase of Hub2, six project teams were able to present their work and discuss the implications for urban life in Boston. One of the groups produced this video to capture the intentions of their process and offer suggestions for the urban redesign of City Hall Plaza.

Collaboration Group

click here to watch video

03 Dec

Hub2 To Present Mayor’s Office with the Keys to Virtual Boston

Below is the press release for our event on December 13. Should be a good time. We’re going to say a few words and symbolically hand Boston Island to the service of the City of Boston. There will be a virtual key, and real food.

BOSTON, MA – Hub2 (www.hub2.org), a project involving the City of Boston, the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA), Emerson College, and the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School, will showcase virtual models created by Boston residents to improve the city’s public spaces and present Mayor Menino’s office with the keys to the virtual city.

The event will take place on Thursday, December 13 at 12:30 P.M. in the Charles Beard Room at 80 Boylston St., Emerson College. Guests should contact Eric Gordon at Eric_Gordon@emerson to attend.

In September 2007, Hub2 began hosting workshops at Emerson to foster civic engagement using the virtual world, Second Life. For three months students and residents have been creating three-dimensional immersive models of sites in the Greater Boston Area. Their work will be used by the City of Boston to assist in future development plans for the city.

A total of six projects will be on display ranging from designs of Government Center to the Rose Kennedy Greenway in downtown Boston. The Mayor’s Chief of Staff, Judith Kurland; the Chief Information Officer, Bill Oats; and BRA officials will also be in attendance.

# # #

About Hub 2:
Hub2 was founded in 2007 by Emerson College professor, Eric Gordon, Berkman Center Fellow, Gene Koo, and Special Assistant to Boston Mayor Menino, Nigel Jacob. The organization enlists Boston residents to articulate visions of public spaces using virtual three-dimensional worlds. With partnerships and support from members of Emerson College, Harvard University, the City of Boston and the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA), Hub2 began its work in September 2007. The project aims to help Boston residents take ownership of their public space and facilitate civic engagement with their community.

25 Nov

Urban Communication Foundation Award

Last week I was in Chicago at the National Communication Association conference. I never used to go to this conference, but over the past several years I’ve been attending a pre-conference seminar with this group called the Urban Communication Foundation. It’s an interdisciplinary group of folks who are concerned with the various aspects of communication that are created by or create the urban form. Because of this group, I’ve kind of adopted the NCA as an annual tradition. This year, I was privileged to receive an award for the Hub2 project. I got the “Research Incentive Award,” which carried a $1000 cash prize. It was given to me in recognition of the article Placeworlds (co-written by Gene Koo), and as starter funds for the next phase of the work. This is very encouraging news as we find ourselves in an interesting transition period with the project. The alpha phase is coming to an end. The workshop at Emerson College will culminate in a presentation to city officials on December 13th. We hope to use this event as a launching platform for the next phase – a couple of things are in the works, but nothing is definite at this point.

In any case, I want to extend my gratitude to the UCF folks and thank them for giving us a much needed charge as we seek to build momentum for this project.

26 Oct

Community Networks

In class last week, we spent about 90 minutes arguing over the merits of community networks. The real question was: why would we want network technologies overlaying physical space? Don’t we have enough “connection?” Shouldn’t urban planners and architects help us figure out ways to “disconnect?” The argument I offered against this proposition was a harm-reduction model. I suggested that networks WILL in fact overlay our cities – they do already. The problem we have before us is not whether we should appropriate new technologies for urban life, but how we should shape those technologies to urban life. With that in mind, I find Michael Arnold’s recent article in The Journal of Community Informatics to be quite instructive. Entitled “The Concept of community and the character of networks,” the article begins with the assumption that there is too little theoretical work being done in the field of community informatics. While there are several empirical studies, few have contextualized their findings into broader theoretical frameworks. Arnold adopts what he calls an “a-modern” approach – “community networks are both technical devises and social arrangements; they invoke the identity of a network and a community, and manifest both hierarchic and heterarchic structures” (3-4).

His point is simple, yet surprisingly understated in the field. Digital networks create conditions for personal and hierarchic structures. They supply perfect conditions for surveillance and self-interested interactions. At the same time, they provide opportunities for dialogue, participation, and engagement. As such, when these networks are integrated into geographical communities, they are neither a good thing or a bad thing. Rather, “the hybridisation of the social and the technical changes the basis upon which we make judgement about social goods and about outcomes” (5). Or put another way, adding technology to existing communities changes the way we evaluate what good is.

Arnold acknowledges that community networks “legitimize governance.” He confirms that the modernist state is founded on rationality – and the implementation of digital networks onto community life reinforce the infrastructure of governance. He suggests that “last century’s answer to this challenge was the school, the hospital and the prison provided by the State, and this century’s answer is the Community Network we build ourselves” (11). The community network is the participatory arm of state power. On the other hand, and as most of us assume, it also challenges state power – making it possible to “talk back,” “re-engage,” and “re-imagine” community identity and democratic processes. Arnold makes the point that both of these things are true – and that understanding community networks within this binary is the most productive strategy with which to proceed. In his words:

“Policy makers, local governments, funding agencies, ICT system designers and Community Network coordinators have a “top down” interest in stability, coherence and efficiency across the system, whereas users, community activists and local groups have a “bottom up” self-defined interest. Holding on to this binary and playing out the tensions that emerge is one manner in which the Community Network shapes itself, and is one manner in which it can be understood, rather than priviliging one over the other. Each must be embraced simultaneously” (14).

So, in any implementation of Community Networks, it is important to understand how competing interests are integral to their function. As an example, we recently had a meeting with the Boston Redevelopment Authority to discuss the possibilities of employing Hub2 in certain of the city’s design processes. The interests of the Authority are not necessarily the interests of the represented community – but this should be understood as a given, as opposed to a problem technology can solve. In the case of Hub2, the use of Second Life for spatial visualization by the community gives order to the design process, while it also complicates it by inviting more direct feedback and communication from individuals and groups. The possible benefit of employing this technology into the design process emerges from the back and forth between order and unclassifiable expression. The challenge is in orchestrating the space between this binary into consensus. It is my opinion that Community Networks, thusly understood, provide the transparency of power relations required for that consensus to transpire.

05 Oct

Hub2 – Entering the Design Phase

SL platforms

For the last four weeks, we’ve been doing some general thinking about how cities, digital networks and virtual worlds might fit together. We’ve talked about the relationship between play and urban spatial practice, and we’ve pondered the general success of the spaces we daily occupy in the city of Boston. Everyone in my class is going to focus on Government Center – the rather unimpressive public space that sits in the city’s center. But, in accordance with program’s methodology, we needed to divide the participants into organic groups. They needed to congeal around certain issues about which they care strongly.

To address this, we created six platforms in Second Life, each with a unique label (play, control, collaboration, dialogue, conflict resolution, and expression). The participants went to the platform that best described their vision for the space. Their avatars assembled and had conversations, and then they went to other platforms to have different conversations. As a means of breaking a large group into smaller groups, I found the process to be absolutely successful. I was impressed with the targeted nature of the dialogue and the spirited debate that ensued. The hour-long exercise resulted in a fairly strong identity for three groups – expression, play, and collaboration.

The discussion will continue in a forum for the next several days, but we hope to have the groups finalized by next week.

14 Sep

Hub2 gets under way

The Hub2 initiative started this week in the form of an upper-division class at Emerson College. The community class is set to begin next Tuesday. At this point, we are enrolled to capacity, and are quite eager to get started. The Emerson class is conceived a little differently than the community class. For one thing, instead of having groups organically decide on the space they wish to explore, I am assigning a space to them. All the groups in my class will focus on Government Center Plaza, the windswept product of mid-century renewal that is universally maligned in the city. Originally, I was going to have them focus on the Boston Common, but it occurred to me that there would be little utility to their design ideas because the city has no intention of altering the Common. Government Center, on the other hand, is on the mayor’s short list for reconstruction and re-conception. The hope is that the outcome of the class will actually spark debate.

Even though the class is only one-week old, I’ve had some concerns about the implementation of technology. While Second Life is easier to learn and use than most CAD programs, it still has a rather steep overhead for beginners. There are specific things we need the technology to do – the problem might be that Second Life does too much. We need groups to be able to design social spaces, without first having to learn the nuances of 3D modelling. We need something like Virtual Community Design (VCD) software that affords users the ability to: build (in groups), socialize, connect to external maps, and export. It would function more like a 3D wiki, where users could collectively move, shape, produce objects without any advanced building procedures. I don’t believe anything like this exists. If anybody knows of anything, please let me know. It would have some of the functionality of Google Earth, some of Second Life, and some of YouTube. I envision a VCD application enabling groups and communities all over the world to engage in local design processes, while also being able to learn from other cities and neighborhoods.

Is it worthwhile for Hub2 to move in the direction of application design?

28 Aug

Putting Theory into Action

Everything is going full speed ahead. The Boston Redevelopment Authority has agreed to fund the first phase of the Hub2 program. They’re going to pay for student tuition, evaluation, TA support and design. It’s great news and we’re thrilled that they’ve taken a chance on this experimental program. Now that the money is in place, we actually have to contend with the realities of starting and managing a successful program. This is the “oh shit” moment. Gene Koo and I have spent countless hours thinking about the theory behind the Hub2 initiative – we have written an article entitled “Placeworlds” that lays out the general theory behind what we’re trying to do, and we have developed a curriculum that will deploy the theory. Now all there is left to do is implement.

This is where all those uncontrollable factors come into play. For instance, there will be sixteen students in the class, all with divergent agendas, there will be snags in the technology, and we will find ourselves in the position of having to compromise the theory for practical application. I know this is all part of the process – and there is much to learn about how people learn and engage with new technologies – but this all becomes more difficult when the theory or methodology is so clear at the beginning. We have to be willing to adapt to unforeseen conditions and more importantly, we have to be willing to acknowledge inaccuracies in our theoretical agenda.

As Labor Day approaches and school begins, we are at the precipice of that exhilirating and horrifiying collision point between theory and practice. I just hope I have to time to process the exhilarating part as I’m sure I’ll be spending much of my time gazing at “the horror, the horror.”