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.

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.

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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.

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.”

25 Jul

Hub2

Second Life Emerson islandDespite the fact that the Boston Globe has declared that the city has plans for a full virtual conversion in Second Life, the truth of the matter is its goals are much more modest. Together with my colleage Gene Koo, we are offering two courses at Emerson College with the goal of guiding students and members of the community in the creative re-imagination of the city’s neighborhoods and spaces (using Second Life). From the very beginning of this project, our intention has been to use Second Life as a means of fostering real life civic engagement. We wanted to come up with a methodology that would allow individuals and groups to learn about their everyday spaces from the process of building and inhabiting the virtual environment.

We are calling this the IDEA method. The acronym stands for Imagine, Design, Engage and Activate. The strategy is simple: groups assemble to collectively imagine a particular space, they then design the “virtual equivalent” of that space in Second Life, they then test the space by inviting people to engage it, and finally, they activate that space by figuring out how it translates into real space. This process will unfold over the course of the semester.

We have every expectation that the IDEA method is scalable. During summer 2008, we plan to extend this program to Boston youth. But we understand it as having applications well beyond a single class. We hope that the method can be used by social, planning, neighborhood, or civic organizations who want to engage citizens in decision making beyond the standard yes/no template.

Thus far, we have received very positive feedback on the program. We are still waiting to obtain our first committed funder, and until then, we are riding on the fumes of moral support.