14 May

Participatory Chinatown Launches

Participatory Chinatown launched on May 3 in Boston’s Chinatown.  It’s a 3-D interactive game designed to augment the traditional community meeting.  Instead of the traditional model of people responding to a powerpoint presentation about the neighborhood, participants in this meeting played a multiplayer game about the neighborhood just as they sat next to each other to discuss the issues they care about.  During our launch, we had over 50 people gathered around 40 computers.  Each player, or team of players, was assigned a character. Some characters are new to the neighborhood and country, with poor english skills and seeking employment.  Others have advanced degrees and good jobs and are seeking luxury apartments close to the office.

character

Whatever the specific situation, each character is on one of three quests: to find a job, to find a place to live, or to find a place to socialize.  The players walk through the streets of Chinatown and are tasked with making the best decisions possible for their character.

After the players made decisions for their characters, the facilitator asked players to discuss how they felt about their experiences.  The room erupted in conversation as people spoke about their characters’ problems.   This conversation was then transformed by the faciliator to the specifics of the area being considered as part of the Chinatown Master Plan.  The second part of the game asks players to make decisions as themselves – no longer as their characters.  They are asked to prioritize their personal values for the neighborhood, choosing from labels such as ‘walkability,’ ‘identity,’ ‘affordability,’ ‘connections,’ etc.  From these priorities, people are informed with which of three planning scenarios their preferences most closely align – either residential, commercial, or mixed-use.  The values of the room are calculated and all the players enter into one of these scenarios where they can view what the area might look like and answer questions about their values.

All of the input provided during both parts of the game are saved and streamed to the website, where players can return to follow the status of their comments and continue the conversation.

The goal of Participatory Chinatown is to get people talking about their neighborhood in ways that involve a range of experiences.  Instead of coming to a meeting with a few pet peeves, playing the game gets people to think outside of their comfort zone and participate in a conversation that transforms the abstract concepts of urbanism into the everyday experiences of the characters in the game.

Perhaps most importantly, Participatory Chinatown extended not only the what of the conversation, but the who.  The mean age of participants was 30.  For a community meeting, let alone a community meeting about a master plan, that’s incredibly low.  By integrating a game into the planning process, Participatory Chinatown succeeded in bringing people into the process that are typically excluded.  In addition to the young participants, we also worked with 18 local youth to help design the game.  The youth helped make the characters by interviewing people in the neighborhood; they helped build the 3-D environments by photographing the neighborhood.  They were involved from the very beginning of the process.  And during the actual meetings, they functioned as “technology interpreters” and helped people play the game and operate the computers.

Participatory Chinatown changes the nature of the community meeting.  It makes democracy fun without being frivolous.   There is much more to do to realize the full potential of games for urban planning, but this is a good start.

16 Apr

Civic Multitasking

Local civic engagement is an outcome of local attention.  When people engage in their neighborhoods they are paying attention to their neighborhoods amidst the myriad other things to which they could be paying attention.  They are stopping to engage in a local group, a process, or a meeting, and for that brief period of time, turning their focus towards their local geographic space.  So, the problem of waning civic engagement, so thoroughly documented by scholars such as Robert Putnam, is not merely a disenchantment with group processes, but can also be considered a problem of attention.  And, if we consider attention as something that is multiple, rather than binary, civic engagement (local attention), is not undivided.  In other words, we have the capacity to participate in local affairs through many avenues – joining a neighborhood listserv is one; attending a community meeting is another.  Civic multitasking is a viable form of participation and it in no way compromises the value of that participation.  It is similar to what N. Katherine Hayles describes as hyper attention – “Hyper attention is characterized by switching focus rapidly among different tasks, preferring multiple information streams, seeking a high level of stimulation, and having a low tolerance for boredom.”

Civic multitasking does not presume shallow focus, but instead assumes multiple foci, with each capable of depth.  And with most instances of hyper attention, deep and momentary focus bleeds over into other foci.  For instance, seeing a powerful film will influence the way you see other films, engage in fan communities, etc.  Just because focus is multiple, it does not mean that it is equally distributed.  So I’ve been thinking about this in relation to the participatory chinatown project.  We have built a game to engage residents of Boston’s Chinatown in that neighborhood’s master planning process. The game is intended to provide a deep and meaningful engagement in the neighborhood’s issues over the course of a two-hour meeting.  It is intended to, through the process of augmented deliberation, create a deep and lasting experience.  It is clear how the game can create a deep experience – it provides a scaffolding of interaction that quite literally captures the user’s attention and focuses participation onto the local context.  However, how it provides a lasting experience is less clear.

The game is intended as a reference point for civic multitasking.  It becomes a powerful reference within the multiplicity of a user’s attention.  Through the creation of a deep experience, it draws attention back to the locality, when attention might otherwise have gone elsewhere.  We have devised many, less time consuming mechanisms of paying attention to the game space after playing it, without playing it again.  Users can consult the website for continued updates on the process and on their own contributions to the game.  Paying attention to the game’s website, if only periodically and momentarily, is precisely the kind of civic engagement we are seeking.  The game provides an attentional reference point that can be continually called up within a psychological and social environment of multitasking.  In order for a game like this to be meaningful and effective, we have to adjust our terms of assessment.  The game will not result in a return to focused civic engagement; however, through the lens of civic multitasking, the game will hopefully provide that moment of deep attention that will ground the hyper attentional realities of civic life.  Our goal is to get people to pay attention to their local communities; but, likewise, our goal is to reorient expectations of attention and to discover and develop new platforms for civic multitasking.

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.

22 Jul

Immersive Planning

Methods of engaging communities in urban planning decisions have remained relatively stagnant. Groups of people are assembled into community centers, school cafeterias, and libraries and are asked to provide input on the professional discourse of architects and planners. They are shown drawings, computer generated renderings, even 3D models and are then “listened to” as a means of informing the process. While these practices are designed to elicit useful, one-time feedback, they are not designed to build real understanding, or to provide the framework from which to build trust between the constituents, designers and stakeholders. Cities, towns, neighborhoods, and blocks are lived spaces. Design facilitates social interaction, individual perceptions and cultural production – but it is not an end in itself.

The strategy of “Immersive Planning,” on the other hand, begins from the assumption that community engagement through shared, collaborative experiences of space provides the necessary framework from which people can meaningfully engage in the urban planning process. Inviting communities to participate in the transformation of their lived spaces is not simply about assisting in the design; but also, and more importantly, it is about creating the trust and understanding necessary for trained professionals to collaborate with the lay public on reaching good decisions. Immersive planning typically implements new media tools to reproduce the qualities of urban space, including:

1) an individual’s co-presence with others (public spaces are typically not solitary)

2) participation (public spaces typically invite some kind of participation from shopping to talking to eating);

3) social experience (public spaces are not experienced out of context – individuals bring financial hardships, fast pace of modern life, and relationships to them).

Immersive planning builds off of some existing experimentation in planning practice: Participatory GIS (PGIS), where groups collaborate on designing and plotting maps, and visualization, where 3D, realistic fly throughs are created to give lay people a sense of cinematic realism.  But these existing methods of engagement are lacking in some important ways.  While PGIS is collaborative, it is largely abstract and cerebral; and while visualization implies immersion, it does so only through cinematic distance.  Immersive planning, on the other hand, is an attempt to correlate the best qualities of these various techniques, providing a platform for collaboration and cooperation, while also providing a premise for presence through narrative and role play.

In short, immersive planning connotes immersion both in a virtual space, but also in issues and social experience.  After all, urban space is nothing, if not immersive.

10 Jul

Creating Empathy Through Role Play

We’ve made some good progress on the Participatory Chinatown (PC) project.   Building off of the first iteration of Hub2, PC will continue with the focus on creating platforms for “augmented deliberation,” but it will do so by more thoroughly exploring the power of role play in people’s ability to understand urban issues.  In the past project, we experimented with role play by giving participants a piece of paper with a character description on it and asking them to “inhabit” their avatar “as if” they were that person.  They were immersed in the space via Second Life, but they weren’t sufficiently immersed in the character.  This time, we’re taking role play to the next level by building the experience around character identification.  I’ve partnered with Eric Klopfer at MIT to develop the game concept and we’re using a new platform called Sandstone, developed by the good folks at Muzzylane, to build out the game.

The premise is simple: we want people who come to a community meeting to have the experience of Chinatown as someone other than themselves so that they might  be better able to make good decisions about the neighborhood.  By getting people out from behind their own concerns (if only for a few minutes), we hope to create the kind of empathy and civic mindedness that is ideal for providing valuable input into a planning process and also for developing trust amongst stakeholders.   The idea stems from some research done by Nick Yee and Jeremy Bailenson at Stanford.  In their article, “Walk a Mile in Digital Shoes: The Impact of Embodied Perspective-Taking on the Reduction of Negative Stereotyping in Immersive Virtual Environments,” they demonstrate how the strength of stereotypes that college students hold about the elderly is reduced when they inhabit an avatar of an elderly person.  By being in someone else’s digital shoes,  a player is able to identify with that person in a substantial way.  Yee and Bailensen develop their study from the concept of perspective-taking.  

When we judge ourselves, we tend to rely on situational factors (i.e., “I did poorly on the test because I didn’t sleep well the night before.”).  On the other hand, when we judge others, we tend to rely on dispositional factors (i.e., “He did poorly on the test because he’s not that bright.”).  Thus when people are forced to observe their own actions (via a video tape), they tend to make more dispositional rather than situational attributions.  The reverse is also true.  When participants are asked to take the perspective of the person they are observing, participants tend to make situational rather than dispositional attributions (148).

This is precisely what we’re trying to accomplish in PC.  We want players to make situational observations about their characters so that they might be better able to put their needs into a situational rather than dispositional context.  For instance, we want people to say “gentrification might affect that person adversely because of their social circumstances,” not simply to say “those people don’t know what they’re doing and what they’re missing.”

There are lots of questions remaining about the nature of the game we’re designing, but the goals are becoming quite clear. We want empathy to enter into the practice of community deliberation.  And we think we can get there by allowing players to literally walk a mile in someone else’s digital shoes.

22 Aug

Relationship model of e-government

I’ve been thinking about how we might begin to think about relationship model versus transaction model when it comes to digitally augmented government.  In most configuations of e-government there is a choice between open dialog and collective decision making.  This leaves two options: unstructured talk and structured input.  It would seem that there is something in between.   Consider something like YouTube as a platform for relationships.  If the real value in video sharing is building personal and / or intellectual connections, then the platform plays the role not of content provider, but arbiter of relationships.  Shouldn’t the government characterize its role similarly?  Shouldn’t the government be tasked with the responsibility of providing the framework for relationships, person to person, person to group, group to group, person to institution, etc.?  And not just the framework for individual transactions, but a framework that transforms transactions into a relationship investment.  For instance, one doesn’t post to YouTube simply to add to a database of videos.  The single transaction is a building block on which relationships can be built.  In other words, engagement doesn’t end with the transaction, that’s where it begins.

The most prominent examples in the States include Minnesota e-democracy or iBrattelboro, or even some of the attempts by various states, most notably Virginia, to provide web access to senate hearings.  These are all premised on the notion that the transaction itself is the act of participation (civic engagement measured by voter turnout, for instance).  Outside of the United States, there are some more interesting examples like Digital Birmingham, which has a complex big picture idea of digital democracy, and a bunch of examples in Sweden where the public is invited in to design and or participate.  Interestingly, a project in Stockholm to invite the public into the design of a new airport forced the government to pull the plug on the project because they couldn’t control the overwhelming resistance that built up against it.  But, in these participatory processes, or as one person put it, design by committee situations, problems arise when participation is limited to individual input.  The role of government is obfuscated by very specific features of the technology.

What is promising about the model of digital government as relationship platform is the possibility of turning priorities away from civic management and towards civic engagement.  Sure, efficiency and economy are important, but I think there are interesting opportunities to expand the role of government to include these more nuanced aspects of relationships.  This is what requires a change in culture.  Can digital media change the attitude that government is in place only to control or manage?  Can it instead be in place to foster opportunities for connections?

I wonder if this proposition is too heavily steeped in neoliberal discourse, or if its just the opposite?  Perhaps it succeeds in taking the emphasis away from the individual and away from established institutions by placing it on this yet-to-be-defined third space?

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.