08 May

Playful Civics

Last weekend, I had the honor of being on a plenary panel at MIT8 talking about publics and counterpublics in a networked context. My remarks focused on the idea of playful civics – or, how play can be an important conceptual frame for understanding contemporary civic actions. Too often, the value of a civic action is determined by how much work it is. If a task is tedious and time consuming it makes a valuable contribution (attending a town hall meeting or door-to-door canvasing for signatures), whereas if a task is fun or too easy (advocating for something on Facebook or making a personal video about an issue and sharing it), it is frivolous. There is a fundamental problem with this logic. It suggests that meaning from civic actions derives from sacrifice, not pleasure. Perhaps more troubling, it suggests that there are clear channels through which people take civic actions which have established methods of evaluation (getting signatures on paper is difficult, voting requires effort, etc.).

It is increasingly clear to me that what we might call civic actions are quite varied and many of them are not uniquely definable as “work” or “tedium.” Civic actions are playful, and they involve experimentation and exploration more than the rote completion of pre-defined tasks. In fact, play is a valuable conceptual framework through which to understand civic actions. Play is:

  1. self-chosen and self-directed (players can choose to quit);
  2. an activity in which means are more valuable than ends;
  3. guided by rules
  4. imaginative and somehow separated from everyday life
Now consider this definition of play in three broad and often interconnected frames that facilitate civic actions: art making, story and games.

The Laundromat Project involves dozens of sites around New York City where communities create and play together.

Art Making includes the individual or collective production of an object (digital or material) that references or connects to an issue context, community or public institution. The Laundromat Project, as an example, is facilitated community art in laundromats throughout Greater New York City. The organization engages people in making things where they are, and facilitates connections between local communities that would not exist otherwise. Making art in this case is a playful act that strengthens local ties and community bonds. The final product is not as important as engaging people in a process of making that is open-ended and playful.
Stories can be a playful way for communities or individuals to represent themselves. Communities are often grounded by stories – and people connect to their communities by inserting their personal narrative trajectory into them. Activists are mythologized to mobilize personal narratives, aspects of city histories are evoked, and sometimes external narratives are placed on top of a local narrative to motivate particular actions. The Harry Potter Alliance uses a movie narrative to inspire youth to take real actions in the world. Hundreds of thousands of youth from all over the world have been motivated to take action on issues such as getting Warner Bros to invest in free trade chocolate for its products. Harry Potter is the framework, and the Alliance simply provides permission for people to play within the narrative to connect to real world causes. And even the Tea Party uses myths of a particular event and historical figures to frame particular actions and justify political alliances. This demonstrates that play is not inherently progressive; it simply opens up possibilities to engage in the world.

Jane McGonigal's Urgent Evoke framed the process of engagement and connected thousands of players from around the world

Games are not the same thing as play. Games operationalize play – when well designed, they provide a meaningful frame from which to act. I am interested in the small but growing number of games that frame civic actions. My lab’s game Community PlanIt, for example, is designed to provide a playful context for urban planning. The game has demonstrated the ability to bring youth and adults together in common play experiences, which instead of devaluing the end product, actually serves to legitimize actions from the perspective of players. Other games, such as Jane McGonigal’s Evoke frame individual actions within larger campaigns and allow players to craft real world problem-solving within the fictional challenge of “saving the world.”
Playful civics is a way of thinking about civic engagement that is open-ended, creative, and meaningful. It moves beyond trying to motivate people to do what we already imagine needs to be done, and creates a sandbox where civic actions are liberated from traditional outcomes and civic leaders are drawn from where we least expect them.
26 Mar

Door-touching and civic virtue

Recently I spent a lot of time watching people walk in and out of the doors of the Forest Hills subway station in Boston. As people rushed out of the station during the afternoon commute, motivated by a desire to catch a connecting bus or to simply get to the next thing, earbuds firmly positioned in ears, they had little opportunity to see the immediate environment and the people within it. That is, unless, they touched the door.  You see, the station doors served as an important conduit between people and their surroundings.

There are two ways in which people moved in and out of the station – with touching the door and without touching the door. The door, aided by hydraulics, closes slowly once opened, introducing the opportunity for people to slink through it after it is pushed. It is possible for five or six people to pass through from a single hearty push. If one can no longer fit through the closing door, they are forced to push the door open so that they might get through. But with that simple touch, the door-toucher becomes a very different kind of user. They now find themselves responsible for the environment, compelled to hold the door for the people behind them as they similarly stream out of the station. Simply touching the door makes the person complicit in the function of the door, and as such, invested in the environment that the door mediates. Conversely, the door-passer (one who does not touch the door) continues to walk through without the added responsibility for the people around them.

How is it that merely touching the door creates responsibility for the environment? The door-toucher can no longer pass through the environment with the absolution of social responsibility. They are now part of the socio-technical system (which includes human and non-human actors), partly responsible for its function. And they remain responsible until the next human actor enters the system.

As I watched people navigating the complexity of the hydraulic door closer, I was struck by the pro-social benefits of touching the door. The door-touchers were immediately made aware of their social obligation within a socio-technical system and were forced to contend with their responsibility for other human actors in the train station. The door is a pro-social technology that has significant implications for the design of civic media. As I consider the challenge of designing apps, online experiences, or games that cultivate civic engagement, it seems that the primary design goal is to create door-touchers. The goal is to make users aware of the socio-technical system in which they are operating and feel responsible for the human actors within it. The door accomplishes this in the train station – what would the technology look like that accomplishes this on the scale of the block, the neighborhood, or the city?

Can a mobile app transform users from door-passers to door-touchers? I, for one, am very eager to find out.

 

 

 

24 Jul

Meaningful Inefficiencies in the “Smart City”

Information communication technologies (ICTs) hold considerable promise for cities. Sometimes framed as “smart cities,” technologically enhanced urban spaces create efficiencies through streamlined infrastructure (because complex systems can better coordinate) and access to services (because people can be more aware of systems, i.e. real-time transit data on mobile phones). But urban technologies do not always create efficiencies; they can also create meaningful inefficiencies in the form of social connections, and complex, nuanced understandings of place. This happens when people use technologies to achieve unpredictable outcomes: a process not typical of the “smart cities” paradigm. When information is contextualized and opportunities exist for data not simply to be transmitted, but for ideas to evolve through deliberative dialogue, there are meaningful inefficiencies. Social connections, deliberation, place-based story telling, and play, create nuance in how people understand local community and consequently influence how people construct meaning in an urban context.

Meaningful inefficiencies have typically been the jurisdiction of artists. Stemming from the articulated problem that cities create sameness and social alienation, the social theorist Guy Debord in the 1960s established a theoretical framework and methodology through which to interrupt these phenomena. Debord sought to create alternative logics through which to experience the city, where a pre-defined pattern would determine how one moved, or “randomness” would dictate how one drifted through the urban landscape. This sparked a genre of “new media” art loosely termed psychogeography, which employed technology as an intervention into existing urban patterns. Projects such as Eric Paulos and Elizabeth Goodman’s The Familiar Stranger (2002), which foreshadowed contemporary location-based social networks such as Foursquare, used bluetooth technology on mobile phones to make people aware of those who shared geographic space. Or games such as Can You See Me Now? (2001) by the UK-based art collective Blast Theory, employed GPS devices to construct a kind of hybrid space where the urban environment was augmented by people and objects only findable within the virtual environment (de Souza e Silva, 2009; Gordon and de Souza e Silva, 2011). These projects, conceived as art not commerce, experiment not activism, have remained rhetorically distinct from the smart cities project.

IBM defines the “smarter city” as one that acts “efficiently and purposefully” (IBM Corporation Forward Thinking Cities Are Investing in Insight, 2012) – a definition that would seem to run counter to the interventionist impulse of much new media art. While there has been some room for issues such as education and media access and literacy in the smart city framework (Caragliu, Del Bo, & Nijkamp, 2009), for the most part, the qualitative experiences of social interactions, place-making and trust building have been excluded.  As intelligence and efficiency have the moral authority in policy debates, there is a danger that participation, especially as technologies are designed to “fix the problem,” is captured by the rhetoric of efficiency and treated only as a thing to streamline.

Technologies can and should create meaningful inefficiencies. As more technological solutions get proposed, funded, and implemented to solve urban problems, we need to safeguard against them becoming technocratic solutions.

Works Cited

Caragliu, A., Del Bo, C., & Nijkamp, P. (2009). Smart Cities in Europe. Serie Research Memoranda 0048, VU University Amsterdam, Faculty of Economics, Business Administration and Econometrics.

de Souza e Silva, A. (2009). Hybrid Reality and Location-Based Gaming: Redefining Mobility and Game Spaces in Urban Environments. Simulation and Gaming, 40(3), 404–424. doi:10.1177/1046878108314643

Gordon, E. and de Souza e Silva (2011) Net Locality: Why Location Matters in a Networked World. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.

IBM Corporation. Smarter, More Competitive Cities. (2012). Smarter, More Competitive Cities. Forward Thinking Cities Are Investing in Insight. IBM Corporation.

27 Jun

A Direct to Consumer Democracy?

Getting involved in something takes trust. Whether it’s attending a neighborhood cleanup, volunteering at a homeless shelter, or showing up to a community meeting, people do these things not simply out of a sense of purpose, but often because some one or some trusted organization suggested they do it. Civic engagement is typically preceded by trust in an entity (i.e. a friend, a neighborhood association, or even a government) who can vouch for the system. To invest one’s personal identity, reputation and time in something requires a clarity of purpose and confidence in the return on one’s investment that does not typically come stock with a new system. If there is a new non-profit working on environmental justice issues, before one donates money or gets involved, they will look for who the organization is affiliated with and what they’ve already done. So why should civic-minded software (civic apps) be any different?

Civic apps are systems. And while they can solve some problems pertaining to ease of use and access, they cannot easily solve the lack of trust problem. This varies with specific purpose of the app, but in general, the direct to consumer model does not always yield the best engagement. Civic apps should represent a trusted entity and not seek, at least at the start, to be that trusted entity. Surely there are great examples of rapidly grown online social networks; but when it comes to the question of local civic engagement, the challenge is to enable online social networks to meaningfully interface with the organizations and institutions that shape everyday life. The civic app can amplify, clarify, and/or provide techniques for modification and transformation of existing systems. But it is only able to do this because the trust in how (and that) a system works is transferred to the civic app.

In short, technology for engagement does not mean a direct to consumer democracy. Groups and organizations are always going to be the foundation of democracy, and technology can and should bolster this foundation.

11 Jun

Gaming City Planning: Community PlanIt in Detroit

Community PlanIt is an online game platform for local, community planning. It is a time-delimited, mission-based game, where players earn points and complete missions by answering questions and engaging in challenges related to a planning process.  All the while, they’re able to meet other stakeholders, try out ideas, and understand where their opinions fit into the larger planning effort.

Community PlanIt is not simply a local forum to share ideas. It is a specific intervention into the process of urban/town planning, which is most commonly organized around sporadic town hall meetings and a non-existent or simplistic narrative. All too often, when planners plan, the public retreats or takes the defensive position. “What planning process?” or “You’re not going to build that project here!” So, Community PlanIt turns planning into a story, structured through simple interactions and game mechanics, and invites the public to shape the narrative.

We started work on the platform last year. It was first tested in Lowell, MA as part of a city visioning process. We did a larger pilot in fall 2011 with Boston Public Schools to engage the public in the question of “what makes a quality school?” And this spring, we did another city visioning project in Quincy, MA and were part of a citywide long term planning effort in Detroit.

Detroit 24/7 Game Finale Video from Community PlanIt on Vimeo.

The Detroit project was called Detroit 24/7 and was designed in collaboration with Detroit Works Project Long Term Planning. It lasted 21 days, and consisted of three weeklong missions. In that time, 1033 players registered and created over 8400 comments about their experience with city as it is now and where they think it should go in the future. After the missions ended, there was a Game Finale meeting at the Central branch of the Detroit Public Library, where over 120 people showed up to celebrate players’ accomplishments and to plan for next steps.

People in Detroit gather at Game Finale meeting at the Detroit Public Library

These numbers are impressive and encouraging.  And when you add to that the fact that 42% of players were between the ages of 14 and 17, and 74% were 35 or under, you have an impressive demographic shift in a process that is too often stereotyped as geriatric. But Community PlanIt was not only for young people. Some of the most active players were over 50 and were energized by the participation of youth. In general, the people who played the game were not your usual suspects. Many of the highest point earners have never been to a planning meeting in the past and those that typically dominate in-person planning meetings were not the highest point earners.

Unlike a traditional planning process, we consider the data collected to be community property. All the missions will remain on the site in a view-only state, and the data will be accessible in summary visualizations, like this interactive map and wordcloud. We will also make the raw, anonymized data available to organizations or individuals who want it.

Gaming Engagement

People played Community PlanIt because they cared about the issues, not because they wanted to play a game.  We used game mechanics, such as points and mission completion, as onboarding techniques – they increased people’s initial motivation to participate in the process – however, they did not maintain that interest. Players reported that curiosity about other players’ ideas and a sense of purpose around the planning process are what ultimately kept them coming back for more.  The leaderboard was only partly successful in maintaining interest. No surprise, however. This is a common problem with leader boards – once certain players pull ahead, it becomes near impossible for the casual player to “succeed.” This typically does not discourage players, it simply encourages them to ignore the leaderboard.

The most successful game mechanic was the framing of the process through time-delimited missions. Missions lasted only one week, and each had a very distinct theme that was communicated via an introductory video. The missions were: “Share Your Detroit,” “Living in Detroit,” and “Getting Around Detroit.” Players received an email at the start and end of each mission. And there was a direct correlation between the start of a mission and the amount of use. Interestingly, players reported that besides curiosity about what people were saying (you had to answer a question yourself before you could see others’ answers), completing missions was a major motivator. While players could earn badges for completing missions, the badge itself didn’t seem to matter as much as simply achieving the goal of doing all the challenges before time ran out.

Youth playing at the Teen Hype Center at the Detroit Public Library

There is a lot of debate about the value of gamification, specifically regarding the tension between extrinsic and intrinsic motivators. For example, if a kid only eats dinner because of the promise of dessert, does she fail to develop the habits of mind necessary for healthy eating? In Community PlanIt, it was very clear that the extrinsic motivators (points, badges, missions) never replaced the need for existing intrinsic motivations. The desire to learn about and participate in the local community drove use, and the game mechanics simply introduced the possibilities of that use. One of the things that characterized the players in Detroit, whether they were 14 years-old or 70, was a deep concern for the future of the city. The game provided an onramp and a roadmap to participate, but didn’t necessarily create the desire to travel.

The Importance of Backspace

Community PlanIt was a place to share ideas in a public process without the pressures typically associated with public speaking. Many people feel more comfortable expressing themselves when they’re able to think about what they’re going to say before they say it.  In a focus group we did with an all-girl high school, one person had this to say: “I felt really comfortable expressing myself on Community PlanIt because if I didn’t like something I wrote, I could just hit backspace. In real life, you stutter or don’t always say what you really want to say.” This was a common sentiment. Many players, both young and old, expressed their appreciation of non-proximate, asynchronous communication. People liked having time to formulate their opinions without fear of real-time, negative reaction.  While face-to-face conversations are often touted as the gold standard for democratic deliberation, people felt more capable of participating with the pressures of these face-to-face forums removed.

Screenshot of Detroit 24/7 on Community PlanIt

Still, the face-to-face town hall meeting remains the accepted platform for democratic participation. One reason for this is the technological divide. Many people don’t have access to broadband; therefore, the conclusion is that the only truly accessible form of participation is the town hall meeting. But, this logic is flawed. Many people don’t have time, the comfort, or the inclination, to come to a town hall meeting at six o’clock on a Tuesday night.  This is also a divide. Online platforms, whether it’s Community PlanIt or something else, are essential tools for onboarding democracy. We need to give people some time, a compelling story, some motivation…and a backspace.

My Dad Couldn’t Find the Mouse

We made a very deliberate decision to create a system for youth and adults. Too often, youth are excluded from planning processes (ironically, considering they’re the ones who are being planned for). And if they’re included, it’s typically in a parallel youth process. Community PlanIt was designed as a common space where youth and adults can meaningfully interact. Many of the adult participants reported that they felt good about youth having such a presence in the system. Even if they didn’t directly interact, it was important for adults to know that the youth were there. Similarly, while youth players mostly interacted with each other and their teachers, knowing that it was an official, adult space, framed their sense of public and, consequently, the tone of their answers and replies.

We also found that intergenerational collaboration happened on the family level. Many youth reported that they would talk about the game with their parents, and if they didn’t know the answer to something, they would engage their parents in a conversation before completing a challenge. Interestingly, when we asked them if they invited their parents to register for the game and play on their own, they often said no. One student said, “I tried to show my dad the game, but he couldn’t find the mouse.” So, while the youth were very happy that adults were participating and listening to what they said in the game, their sense of the adult public did not include their parents.

Conversely, while adults typically expressed their satisfaction with youth participation, they also tended to maintain stereotypes of games and online forums. One participant, who loved playing the game, told us that she had to ask her daughter to help her upload photos. When we asked her if she asked her daughter to register for the game herself, she said no, because her daughter’s “already on Facebook.” So, even though this woman found Community PlanIt to be a meaningful and powerful experience, she still characterized it as “the Internet” and didn’t want her daughter using it.

The (mis)perception of games and “the Internet” is a major factor in understanding the future of public participation. Whether it’s youth charting online spaces that are both their own and shared, or adults bracketing the process as “only the Internet,” these perceptions will shape how people trust and authenticate public processes. Let’s face it: in the public sector, it is still more legitimate to have a face-to-face meeting with 10 people than it is to have an online game with 1000 people. Even though Community PlanIt expanded who participated, and largely increased the quality and satisfaction of that participation, challenges remain not just in convincing planners to adopt new online platforms, but also in convincing the public that these forms are legitimate.

Time will tell in Detroit. The data is being used to inform the long term plan of the city. It is also being made available to community groups, advocacy groups, or whoever else sees the potential. But perhaps more importantly, the game framed the planning process in the city as a story that everyone gets to tell, not just a few planners. It started conversations, made people aware of resources, places, and other people in the city, and established the groundwork to do it again.

 

 

04 Apr

Six Principles of Designing for Engagement

Designing for local engagement within the context of net locality is a multi-faceted process.  Building systems of interaction that are capable of sustaining a user’s attention both to other users and the locality of use, requires the consideration of a wide array of features and modes of participation.  The following six design considerations provide a framework for transforming participation and maximizing engagement.

1) What’s the Reason for Engagement? Too often, community-oriented tools are built with the assumption that simply because they exist people will use them.  In fact, there is nothing inherently usable about a tool – a hammer is good at pressing nails into a hard surface, but not ideal for opening cans.  Good tools are built to address recognizable problems.  The nail is a recognizable problem; the can is a problem forced to fit the availability of a tool. In the case of a community, bad roads and rising crime are recognizable problems; lack of local bloggers is a problem oriented around a tool.  A good tool should reorient its user to the nature of a problem, but it should not create it.

It is one thing for a problem to exist, it is quite another for a group of people to be able to articulate the existence of that problem.  It is therefore imperative that along with the introduction of a tool, there is a clear articulation of the problem to which that tool will be applied and a general consensus on the importance of that problem.

2) Who’s Listening? A community’s engagement with solving a problem is dependent upon who is paying attention to the community’s efforts.  When designing for engagement, it is important to consider not only the internal machinations of community building, but the external considerations that ultimately play a greater role in defining the identity and task of the community. A group of people in a neighborhood can talk all they want about their opposition to a new zoning ordinance, but it is in the externalization of that conversation through a blog, public forum, or some other means, that defines the identity and the goals of the community. 

It is important to make explicit the internal and external features of a community’s participation.  A sense of community stems from personal connections and identification with shared problems; but the sustainability of that identification is dependent upon their being an audience.  Designing engagement, therefore, is partly a matter of designing the context whereby a community can find and approach an audience.

3) People Comprise Locations; Locations Don’t Comprise People. In designing for geographical locations, designers tend to approach the problem as a geographical one.  What are the concerns in New York, Paris, or Boise?  While this is a good place to begin, the location often supersedes the people that comprise the location.  There are people in New York, Paris and Boise that, in addition to the geographic specificity of those places, define the locality’s meaning.  The challenge for designing engagement is articulating the connection between a geographic space and the people that participate in its definition. How can a user of a local social software platform, for instance, feel as though their participation matters in the larger context of defining a place? Digital tools are quite good at aggregating user data into something that can reflect the general make-up of a located community.  But engagement requires that in addition to making a user aware of aggregated data, they are perpetually aware of the individual actions that comprise aggregation.  In some respects, this is standard protocol for social software – user data makes the network more usable, but mutual sharing between identifiable individuals makes the network meaningful.

4) Design for the Community you want, not the community you know.  When employing ICTs in any local design problem, there is a component of aspirational thinking.  There is a sense, that goes along with digital technology, that the solutions generated through the intervention will be bigger, better and more sustainable.  This assumption is rife with ideological implications that new technology is associated with progress and even progressivism. These can indeed be dangerous assumptions.  But, the reaction to the possibilities of these assumptions can be equally as dangerous.  To not employ new technologies for fear of bending to these ideological assumptions is equally detrimental.  Simply put, the tool should fit the problem.   And new technologies are both potentially efficient means of doing so and productive means of understanding the scope of the problem. For example, a hammer provides the solution to pressing nails into a hard service; an electric hammer provides the means of doing so on a much larger scale.  The electric hammer transforms the problem without necessarily erasing the original context of the problem.

As such, when designing for engagement, it is important to understand how the tool transforms the reach of engagement.  Digital networks can reach large amounts of people in a distributed fashion.  In some cases, the quality of engagement is contingent on reducing the numbers of those engaged.  In other cases, the quality of engagement is premised on expansion.  Participating in a neighborhood meeting can be more meaningful if those participating feel as though their neighborhood is adequately represented.   Designers of engagement need to consider how scale will factor into user perceptions of their participation.  If the scale is too large, they might not feel connected to others involved in the process; if the scale is too small, they might feel that their participation is not meaningful enough for those listening.  Quantity is not in itself a positive attribute of a process; it is a variable that should be considered in design.

5) Face-to-face Matters.  It is a general misconception that when using ICTs for community engagement, there is no need for face-to-face connections.  In fact, there is considerable evidence that online networks are bolstered by offline networks, and vice versa [2,3].  Intermittent physical presence can have a noticeable affect on giving a community of users a sense of each other and the directionality of online communication.  It can provide a useful visualization of an online network and a human face to many-to-many correspondence.  This can work in two ways: as an introductory framework for online communication; or as an anticipatory framework for online communication.  If people meet face-to-face before they engage online, they can better understand to whom they are communicating; if people know they are going to meet face-to-face after they communicate online, it can serve as motivation for productive and meaningful exchanges.

As a design consideration for local engagement, face-to-face meetings can be quite effective for motivating sustained attention to an online community.  These face-to-face encounters can be used as periodic reminders of the physical context of online communication or can occur only once.  In any case, good design should not just arrange for these meetings to happen, but give the design of these meetings equal and complimentary consideration. 

6) Design for Distraction. Engagement does not imply undivided attention.  When people are engaged in a community process, they are doing multiple other things simultaneously.  They have families, social lives, jobs, and other interests.  To engage them is not to have them sacrifice their commitment to any or all of these things.  It is to have them direct a limited amount of their attention to a particular matter. Designing for engagement is designing for distraction.  Engagement implies sustained attention, but it does not imply absolute attention.  Attention is spread out across time, not just across space.  The ideal user is a multi-tasker, switching from one thing to another with ease. In this regard, civic engagement implies the ability to take from multiple contexts and apply towards a specific matter when nudged by a well-designed system to do so.  With the civil uprisings in the Middle East dominating the media discourse about technologies and local engagement, it is easy to assume that successful media engagement must lead to social revolution.  In fact, in a much more prosaic fashion, civic engagement simply means being aware of civic processes and their corresponding communities and contributing some level of care to decisions made about them.

11 Sep

Community PlanIt

While it has been announced in a number of forums, I have not yet written about the Engagement Game Lab on this blog.  In August 2010, the Engagement Game Lab was born as a virtual research organization at Emerson College. The lab is a place to hone in on the production and research of local engagement games (LEGs); more directly, the work of the lab is to advance games that seek explicitly to foster local civic engagement and local community.  This includes the design of new games and the design of research methods that address how the experiential qualities of play correspond to the pragmatic concerns of local life.  We want to explore ways of evaluating the success of these games that go beyond the isolation of simple variables.  Does playing a game result in increased voter turnout?  I think that’s a silly question.  I would prefer to ask questions such as, does playing a game cause players to rethink how they approach their vote?  Games do not prompt new behaviors, in most cases.  They can, however, provide a new lens through which to view familiar actions.  In the case of LEGs, they can provide a new lens through which to view one’s neighborhood and the social and political structures therein.

Our current game that we are designing with support from the Technology for Engagement Initiative at the Knight Foundation is called Community PlanIt.

Community PlanIt

Community PlanIt is a LEG that uses web, mobile phone and tablet interfaces to engage communities in local urban planning issues.  We are building a game platform so that it can be used in any locality.  The foundation of the game is a mission system that gets players exploring their own neighborhoods in order to share the local knowledge they possess. They compete and collaborate with neighbors to create and gather data that will then factor into an official planning process.  The planning meeting itself will be augmented by the game.  Players/participants will demonstrate their understanding of the neighborhood and the issues by giving a virtual character a tour of the neighborhood.  They will have to see the neighborhood through someone else’s shoes before they are able to make their personal recommendations.  The platform we are designing will allow for the customization of characters and missions to make the game maximally appropriate for the local context.

Community PlanIt can be used for any community planning process centered on physical space.  For instance, planning a town square, creating a transportation plan, identifying healthy lifestyles, or mapping sub cultures.  We are building the platform in partnership with four communities so that we can anticipate possible uses and cover the widest array of necessary features.

We are planning a 9 month development cycle and hope to have a prototype available by April 2011.  

 

28 Oct

Augmented Deliberation

The central premise of the Participatory Chinatown project is the staging of what we call “augmented deliberation.”  We introduce augmented deliberation as a possible design solution that addresses uniquely difficult contexts where deliberation is complicated by one or many external factors, including language barriers, power differentials, visualization and challenges with communicating professional discourses.  It is specifically relevant in the context of urban planning, because the prospect of communicating complex urban concepts associated with rather abstract spatial dynamics is a significant challenge – one that requires creative solutions.  Augmented deliberation is the process whereby a group of people deliberate in a face-to-face setting while they are simultaneously immersed in virtual environments. It consists of three design values: 1) it is a multimedia group communication process which balances the specific affordances of digital technologies with the established qualities of face-to-face group deliberation; 2) it emphasizes the power of experience; and 3) it promotes sustainability and reproducibility through digital tracking.

The Participatory Chinatown project, which is the second iteration of Hub2, is coming close to realizing the goal of augmented deliberation.  We are in the process of designing a 3D game that will run in a web browser.  The goal of this game is to get participants playing a role whereby they accomplish everyday tasks in their neighborhood.  The game board is the existing space of Boston’s Chinatown.  Players are tasked with things like finding a job, finding an apartment, or finding a place to socialize.  In doing this, we aim to create the shared experience of the space in question that can serve as the springboard for productive deliberation.  Once the players have had  the opportunity to explore and complete their quest, they are then asked a simple question: “what does the neighborhood need now?”  They are then given the opportunity to make decisions both individually and collectively as a means of providing input into the process and, perhaps more importantly, to give them the sense that they are engaged in an ongoing conversation about the neighborhood.  They will have the opportunity to go back into the game to play different quests and to read and write comments about the neighborhood.

Augmented deliberation is the process.   The game is the form that we happen to be investigating.  We believe that providing the game scaffolding is going be very useful for getting citizens to deliberate over the complex matters of physical urban transformation.  Specifcally, the qualities of immersion and role play.  We are spending a good deal of time trying to make the game fun and engaging; this is the incentive for participation.  But we remain aware of the potential pitfalls in this kind of project.  If the serious work of community planning is fun, will it be misinterpreted by the community as frivilous?  We will see.

 


13 Aug

3-D Worlds for Land Use Planning

Holly St. Clair writes about the Participatory Chinatown project in an article for the American Planning Association newsletter.  In explaining what PC will do for the planning process, she says:

The emphasis is not just on the computer simulation, but rather on the conversations and learning or rather deliberation that happens in between gaming sessions. Participants are facing each other playing navigating their avatars through quests. The 3-D virtual environment augments the deliberation with additional information, tracking decisions impacts and results of decisions and helping to participants experience the space.  These new 3-D virtual environments are fun but not frivolous. They can help create an understanding grounded in experience and create a common ground for to continue conversations. These virtual works can help participants understand complex urban issues by literally walking in someone elses shoes.

The full article is available here.