Building New Affordances for Citizen Engagement
To properly understand the role that city governments might play in the future, John Seely Brown, Independent Co-Chairman of the Deloitte Center for the Edge and Visiting Scholar at the University of Southern California, suggested that we “reconceive the city as a learning platform.” By this, he means that cities should attempt to use information technologies to create tools and spaces that “enable a fundamentally new set of social practices having to do with learning for the 21st century.” People and governments can join together to co-design, co-learn and co-produce civic infrastructures, public spaces, new forms of education, transportation, public safety and other services. A city that sees itself as a learning platform can open itself up to some very new “ways of being and living,” said Brown, citing the civic cultures of Barcelona and Copenhagen, which are pioneering new forms of citizen/ government collaboration.
The essential point is for city governments to regard their resources as flexible, open platforms that welcome citizen-led innovation, rather than government clinging to brittle systems of centralized, rule-driven control. Brown said this mentality can help municipal governments reimagine city resources so that they can provide new affordances—that is, a richer set of capacities for new and different uses: the city as platform.
“One thing we’re working on at the Knight Foundation,” said Benjamin de la Peña, Director of Community and National Strategy, “is the idea of civic commons.” In the face of budget cutbacks, fragmented bureaucratic authority and growing public needs, he said, “we want cities to start thinking about how to build new affordances for their civic infrastructure. Every time someone goes to a park, there should be some ‘thin layer’ of information technology that invites people to help keep up the park. And every time there is a bill that comes up in the city council, there should be a way to encourage people to get involved.”
Tim O’Reilly, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of O’Reilly Media, Inc., agreed: “One of the features of a smart city is that it has many new kinds of affordances for engagement. Think how libraries can be used for meet-ups. You could imagine a tool shed in a park where there’s equipment for people to help clean up the park—as opposed to a National Day of Service where everyone cleans up once a year.” Post offices offer other affordances for engagement, said O’Reilly, lamenting the U.S. Postal Service’s unfortunate failure to reinvent its affordances in the 1990s in response to the emerging on-demand economy.
“We tend to think of government as doing things,” O’Reilly continued, “but we should also think of government as a platform that lets things happen. A city is a space where, when everything is operating well, government’s role is just a tiny piece of what the entire city does. But it is a critical piece.”
Steven Adler of IBM said he once spent some time in Stone Town, Zanzibar, where governance is weak-to-nonexistent and yet people routinely spend time in coffee shops to talk politics. He realized that “civic engagement is a natural human activity that we may inhibit with government.” If sociality is a “default behavior” of human beings, as seems likely, said Adler, then we should find a way for government to “get out of the way to give people some space and let them engage constructively on their own, without much supervision.” Connie Yowell, the former Director of Education at the MacArthur Foundation, agreed, saying: “There are whole sets of policies and practices that have to be unlocked so that we can enable communities to co-design things and be a part of a larger ‘we.’”
The Joy of Participation
There is a wide spectrum of ways that city governments can use their resources to develop new affordances for participation. Their basic goal should be to imagine opportunities, often facilitated by information technologies, to invite citizens to bring their talents and imagination to the table. For example, when Code for America realized that it did not have the time to fix the City of Honolulu’s poorly designed website, it decided that the city website really needed better content, especially answers to frequently asked questions. So Code for America hosted a “write-a-thon” that attracted 65 volunteers, some of them city employees. The task for the day was to write clearer, more succinct answers to the top fifty topics that people normally searched for on the city website.
“You saw people having an amazing time building community,” said Jennifer Pahlka of Code for America. “They were loving what they were doing. They realized that instead of complaining about their government not working, they were actually doing the work to make it work for them and their fellow citizens. What tied everyone together was joy.”
City governments around the world have invented a variety of new affordances to engage their citizens:
IT systems are not only stimulating new forms of citizen engagement; they are changing how people learn. In a highly connected technological environment, the processes of learning are changing dramatically. A growing movement in this new environment supports a user-centric experience where people learn independently—as well as from experts and communities in formal and information settings. This “connected learning” makes learning accessible to all populations and provides greater opportunity to meet the demands of work in the digital world.
One way to validate new forms of learning—beyond that offered by the traditional school experience—is through “digital badging” that recognizes specific skills and knowledge acquired through online participation. Smart cities can lead and support this new platform for learning by encouraging partnerships with and among school districts, the nonprofit sector and public agencies to design badging programs that incentivize learning. Public libraries and museums are at the forefront of this movement by creating connected learning collaboratives for youth; the idea is to showcase their success in gaining new skills to potential employers, teachers and peer networks. These systems can also help address the inequity in access to information and technology, and provide new opportunities to help bridge the student achievement gap.
Open Data as a Transformative Affordance
Open data may be one of the most powerful new affordances that cities can provide to its citizens. It invites all sorts of positive changes—participatory crowdsourcing, interactive collaborations and augmentations of municipal services. One can trace this logic and working ethic to open-source hackers, whose systems are becoming deeply insinuated into the civic administration and urban culture of cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles.
“I think open data was the first affordance,” said Peter Hirshberg of City Innovate Foundation. “When we first opened the data from city systems,” he said, “lots of people began to see the city as something they could mess with. This was the founding moment of Code for America. People would show up at hackathons and begin to play with the crime data and tell a story, or play with transportation data and add their own data to the system. Data was a kind of affordance.” In San Francisco, which is so immersed in tech culture, the idea of “hacking this city” was a natural extension of hacker sensibilities.
It stemmed, also, from the experiences of many Bay Area hackers who attend Burning Man, the annual week-long festival in the Nevada desert in which 60,000 people actually build their own “pop-up city.” “We have a whole group of people who go out and make art and build stuff at Burning Man,” said Hirshberg, “and then that mentality comes spilling back to the Bay Area everywhere.”
Data can serve as an affordance for citizen participation because it can make myriad city systems function as an open platform. “Data is a medium for making government more porous,” said Jay Nath, Chief Innovation Officer in the Office of San Francisco Mayor Edwin M. Lee. This is so beneficial precisely because open data invites cross-sector, trans-departmental participation and cooperation. It allows citizens to engage more seriously with city government, not just in offering comments and critiques, but in providing their own data and innovative ideas. Or as Story Bellows, Director of the Philadelphia Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, put it, “Data is critical in giving us a shared bottom line. Data is seen as what we really care about as a city; it is that which we are managing to.” Seen from this perspective, data is something that can set and drive a city’s agenda, Bellows explained.
This is exactly why many cities such as Los Angeles and San Francisco have established their own open data portals. They realize that top-down processes of acquiring and analyzing data will privilege macro-level considerations, and not necessarily serve “end-users”—the citizens of the city. At the same time, open source software and open networks have already demonstrated the practicality and power of bottom-up collaboration on networks.
The Los Angeles open data portal, DataLA, went public in May 2014 and is now rated number one in the country on the Open Data Census. The site offers data for everything from the city budget and the regional economy to crime locations, building inspections, property foreclosures, parking citations and even checks written by the city government. Peter Marx, the city’s Chief Technology Officer, reports that the data portal is quite useful in measuring the effectiveness of government and in enabling economic development. By providing transparency on government performance, it also gives journalists ideas for worthwhile stories and builds public trust in government.
Precisely because open data can be used by anyone without permission, all sorts of unanticipated ideas and innovations emerge. After New Jersey Transit released open data on passenger flows in 2012, said Michel Chui, Partner at McKinsey Global Institute, various third parties analyzed the data and pinpointed underutilized rail stops. In response, the transit authority changed the number of express trains at different times and saved six minutes per commuter along that route. The websites of Los Angeles city governments now receive more than 7.8 million visitors per month. All of the city’s websites are tracked with data analytics.
City planners and tech analysts envision a wide variety of innovative uses of data to improve cities. Many of them are based upon geographic information systems, or GIS, especially when used in tandem with smartphones. The systems can be used to address everything from air quality to public safety to traffic. The City has also initiated automatic text notifications to registered smartphone users who have an interest in street closures, seismic activity and traffic, among other things. Peter Marx explained, “We do not want to put the information in the hands of the few; we want to give it out to everybody—and oh, by the way, have two-way communication.”
In a city where 40 percent of its land mass is dedicated to vehicles, Los Angeles has a keen interest in using digital networks to ameliorate chronic traffic problems. Some experts have suggested that Uber and Uber-like systems have great potential for reducing traffic and freeing up streets. On the other hand, Benjamin de la Peña of the Knight Foundation warned of the dangers of a future with “zero-occupancy vehicles,” in which people might tell their cars, “I am going to pick up my dry cleaning—just drive around the block,” or “Drop me off here and then go back home for an hour to pick up the kids and bring them here.” Could driverless cars make traffic worse?
A more promising yet neglected field of possibilities lies with “informal transportation” such as jitneys, suggested de la Peña. However, officialdom often has trouble recognizing the value that informal economies provide. As Jennifer Bradley, Director of the Aspen Institute Center for Urban Innovation, sardonically noted, “When people from low-income neighborhoods informally share cars, we call them jitneys and try to regulate them out of existence. When they do sharing economy things, we call it the black market. But when people like us do it, we think, ‘This is so cool!’” Can cities find data-driven ways to embrace the power, flexibility and conviviality of the informal economy?
One innovation that San Francisco has already embraced is data-driven parking. Many parking meters have sensors that monitor usage, which, when combined with data-driven analysis, can be used to enable real-time pricing for parking. (In practice, the city changes parking rates only on a monthly basis, not daily or in real-time.) In Los Angeles, 25,000 parking meters are connected to the Internet and generate dynamic pricing based on various algorithms. Many drivers are willing to pay higher prices for parking simply to avoid circling around looking for an open parking space. San Francisco’s answer to this problem is SFpark, a program that uses sensors embedded in roads and data-driven analysis to use real-time pricing for parking. The system has proven to be “very effective,” said Jay Nath, the city’s Chief Innovation Officer.
One data-gathering system that is quite intriguing is Placemeter, a system that automatically counts the number of people in public spaces— as well as the gender and general age of people—based on video camera feeds. To date, the system has been used primarily by retailers wanting to learn more about potential customer traffic in front of their stores. Mindful of the ethical and social risks, the New York City company that operates Placemeter has tried to assure proper usage of its system. But Placemeter could conceivably be used by police or other city departments to monitor public spaces. One could also imagine use of the technology in combination with facial recognition software, license plate recognition and surveillance of private spaces or only certain neighborhoods and zip codes. All of these uses would likely trigger serious legal and policy controversies.
The imagined applications for open data are now soaring. Some data experts speculate that open data could be used to help bridge the affordable housing gap by identifying mismatched needs among city residents—e.g., elderly people who may be ready to move to smaller homes, and young families that need more space. Others have suggested that the 3-1-1 telephone number, which is used by many cities to provide access to non-emergency municipal services, could be used as a more versatile platform for citizen engagement.
Jay Nath of the Mayor’s office in San Francisco envisions new forms of mass notifications of seismic activity based on sensors on fault lines throughout the Bay Area. It is apparently possible to know up to two minutes in advance that an earthquake will strike; prompt mass alerts could help save untold numbers of lives. “Imagine if we had a standardized Application Program Interface (API) for an earthquake early notification system!” said Nath. San Francisco is also exploring the idea of giving indoor air pollution sensors to low-income residents of buildings in zones with poor air quality; the city is legally required to improve ventilation systems in such buildings.
Yet another new frontier for municipal data collection and management is the video records of tens of thousands of police bodycams. The City of Los Angeles is in the process of putting 7,000 of these devices onto uniformed police officers, which will constitute about 20 percent of the total number of bodycams in the world, said Peter Marx. This will have an enormous impact on policing and on citizen complaints, he predicted, because currently about 86 percent of citizen complaints against police are dropped based upon video evidence. Prosecutors find that bodycam videos provide one more piece of valuable evidence, however limited it may sometimes be.
Some scholars are now studying the videos to learn how police can use body language to de-escalate tense encounters. However, there are also many legal and ethical issues that remain to be fully addressed, such as the privacy of innocent citizens who are videotaped without consent in private circumstances. (One possible solution is a software system that can blur faces of innocent third parties and children who are recorded by police bodycams.) Another vexing challenge is devising appropriate archiving and public access policies for bodycam videos.
As the many examples above suggest, digital technologies and data-streams are becoming intimately integrated into new corners of everyday urban life. We explore some of the policy implications in subsequent chapters, but for now, let us just note that the growing overlay of networked information on city life is altering our sense of ourselves and our social and civic interactions. In his 2013 book, Ambient Commons: Attention in the Age of Embodied Information, Malcolm McCullough, a University of Michigan architectural professor, observes:
We move around [the city] with and among displays. Global rectangles have become part of the scene; screens, large and small, appear everywhere. Physical locations are increasingly tagged and digitally augmented. Sensors, processes and memory are found not only in chic smartphones but also into everyday objects.
McCullough notes that human cognition, memory and thought are not computer-like, however; we are embodied creatures who literally “think with the objects” that constitute a city. The spaces, artworks and buildings help us orient ourselves, remember things and assess situations. Thus our consciousness is shaped not just by what we choose to pay attention to, i.e.: the explicit data streams and information, but by all sorts of embedded designs and stimuli that are precognitive and even atmospheric. A networked city is not just about content, but also context.
Barriers to Better Use of Data
There is a dawning awareness, then, that deploying new data systems is not a straight-forward matter. There are many barriers to overcome. All sorts of social, ethical and policy complexities need to be navigated. New ways must be found to collect more and better types of data, and then to interpret and make sense of that data. Policy must address legitimate security, privacy and reliability concerns; citizens must be engaged as collaborators with city government in providing, using and acting upon data.
Steven Adler of IBM worries that city governments do not have as much data as they truly need: “They do not know enough about transactions that are happening, businesses in the city, why different neighborhoods are growing and dying. They do not know why some communities like Watts and Compton in Los Angeles are locked out and do not ever seem to improve.” Yet at the same time, there is often plenty of appropriate data, but no way to find significance in them. Adler, while arguing for more data, agrees that “the more data we collect, the more we need forums like this one to talk about what the data mean. There are many ambiguities and confusions, and that requires human interaction and dialogue to figure out what the data really mean.”
Another problem is connecting data with decision makers and citizens. That requires leadership and institutional change, said Story Bellows of the Philadelphia Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics. “It is a real challenge sometimes to get the people who make decisions to respond to data that is right in front of us. We need to figure out how to have a better understanding, capacity and literacy around what we need to interpret data and use it for much better decision making.” San Francisco City Librarian Luis Herrera agreed: “We must figure out how data can make a difference in people’s lives, and break down silos within departments.” One approach: the City of Rio de Janeiro has built 32 separate training facilities for digital technology, said Patrick McGovern of Aura Inc. Rio is training 69,000 people in how to use the technology so that the city can affirmatively take advantage of its data resources and network systems.
Tim O’Reilly, the tech publisher, suggested that cities might want to begin wrapping their minds about big data and networks by developing “an inventory of the kinds of assets that cities should be collecting, and to make sure that there is an open data interface for them. The data really has to be available to third parties so that they can do interesting things with them, such as build mapping apps.”
Open Application Program Interfaces (APIs) for data would be one way to assure open access to data and thus enable innovative third-party uses of them. This would help break down some of the inter-departmental barriers and resistance to using databases from within a city government. Open APIs would also help bridge the misunderstandings and tension between public and private actors. The system would invite closer scrutiny of government performance, and citizens would be able to contribute their own data into the system, for the benefit of all.
One example of using open data to surmount departmental silos and address a serious urban problem is Vision Zero, a traffic safety initiative that seeks to eliminate all traffic deaths and injuries. The project, which originated in Europe, uses data to help identify hazardous intersections and design problems (among other things) as a way to develop more effective strategic responses. It is a highly data-driven approach. But as Peter Marx, Chief Technology Officer of Los Angeles noted, “Vision Zero requires that the police, libraries, education system, firefighters, transportation officials and others actually work together.” Crowdsourcing of traffic data via networks is one way to help develop holistic information and cross-departmental collaboration (see following section for more detail).
A recurrent challenge in exploiting data more effectively is figuring out how to take a system to a larger scale and take account of the fluidity of geographic movements (of drivers, businesses, crime, homeowners, etc.). A municipal open data portal with open APIs is an excellent framework, but it is also important to spark genuine interest and motivation in using data. To this end, Allen Blue, Vice President of Product Management and Co-founder of LinkedIn, commends thinking about what he calls the “nice/want/need” value proposition. If you have a value proposition that is merely “nice”—that is, pleasant but does not fill a real need or want—said Blue, “then no one will come and actually do anything based on it. But if you have a ‘want-to-have’ or ‘need-tohave’ proposition, those are things that you can build real strategies on top of. You need to engage people about things they want and need, and use that as a mechanism to involve them.”
Blue suggested that data systems could be used to identify wants and needs that the city government is not solving, which constitute opportunities that entrepreneurs could reasonably address instead. But Blair Levin of the Brookings Institution is troubled by this “bounty hunter model” in which “somebody else can step in and get paid to do that which the government should otherwise do. Something is amiss with such a scheme,” he said. “We should try to figure out how to address these problems within the government’s spectrum.”
Ryan Panchadsaram, the Deputy U.S. Chief Technology Officer at the White House, suggested that governments need to find an improved way to surface better, more effective design ideas. Governments may not be able to engage in the same dynamics of market competition, but state and local governments could share their most successful projects. Panchadsaram also suggested that design should take account of different levels of citizen engagement. Just as only one percent of all Yelp users may write reviews, and ten percent may register “likes,” the great bulk of users, perhaps 90 percent, are simply users. Similarly, the design of data systems should probably take account of the differential motivations and interests of super-users and frequent users versus those of relatively light users.
City governments should preserve some humility about their capacity to design data systems to solve problems, warned Benjamin de la Peña of Knight Foundation. He recalled how, following the successful moon shot, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) hired hundreds of NASA scientists to use data-based algorithms to solve various city problems. But by putting so much stock in overdesigned single solutions, HUD produced some expensive, colossal failures. When the City of New York emulated this approach, hiring the RAND Corporation to redistribute its fire stations to produce more efficient responses to fires, the reductions in fire stations in the Bronx and outer boroughs later meant that the city did not have enough firefighting capacity, as more fires broke out.
Notwithstanding its limitations, city governments can and must use big data to improve its engagement with changing urban realities. Some of the most notable examples may be the new business models being launched by the gig economy, as exemplified by Uber and Airbnb. These ubiquitous, disruptive, network-based businesses defy the premises of existing regulatory regimes, yet it is not obvious how municipal laws and regulation should respond.
Blair Levin, believes that a dual-track system of regulation could be one solution: “In one system, the government certifies the legitimacy of something; the second lets customers legitimate it by virtue of the data they generate. That’s the reason why Uber and Airbnb work. So you can create a kind of dual regulatory scheme.” One could imagine direct feeds of customer data to a government API serving as a kind of regulatory oversight node relying on real-time data feeds.
Regulatory systems should strive to take better account of the valuable work done by the informal economy, said Jennifer Bradley of the Aspen Institute Center for Urban Innovation. As noted in her comments about jitneys and other informal services that serve lower-income people, Bradley asked: “How can we take what’s valuable in the informal sector and make it supported and legitimate? How do we come to terms with new American entrepreneurs who are starting businesses in their kitchens, who may not have access to commercial kitchen spaces? How do we think about regulation for people who run informal hair salons?”
One basic thing that municipal governments can do is to make online interactions with government simpler and more Web-friendly. Permitting and license renewals should be more easily transacted online, and regulatory processes should be accelerated so that unnecessary delays do not occur, which can be a serious frustration and impediment to economic activity. Jennifer Pahlka of Code for America described how food stamp applications can be absurdly long and complicated, something that she worked to simplify and shorten.
The larger challenge for city government may be more open-ended: developing systems and a culture that can constantly learn and evolve. Some important tools for doing this include data analytics of in-thefield results and user feedback. But some even more powerful feedback loops for better learning, described in the next section, include the crowdfunding of data from ordinary citizens and “urban prototyping” experiments.
A handful of cities are in the vanguard of exploiting the use of smartphones and other “Internet of Things” devices—parking meters, road sensors and air quality sensors—to gather on-the-ground information more efficiently and improve city services. The classic instance of this paradigm may be the pothole app, which allows people to report potholes to public works departments, and to review citywide maps of potholes. Chicago released a pothole tracker app in January 2014 that may be representative of similar systems in other cities. Chicago’s system, however, includes a metric of how rapidly city workers respond.
Mobilizing peer sentiment and making it visible to everyone can be particularly effective in changing behavior. One conference participant told the story of the former Mayor of Bogotá, Colombia, Antanas Mockus, who gave drivers hundreds of thousands of “citizen’s cards” bearing a thumbs-up image on one side and a thumbs-down image on the other. People were encouraged to flash the appropriate image to courteous drivers and reckless drivers, as needed; traffic fatalities fell by more than half within a decade. Such minor forms of peer “nudging” behaviors—such as utilities informing customers how their electricity usage compares to their neighbors—can have an outsized impact.
Peter Marx of Los Angeles described how the fire chief of San Ramon, California had the epiphany that he could potentially use people’s smartphones as a way to mobilize off-duty paramedics and ordinary citizens trained in CPR to come to the aid of people experiencing cardiac arrests in public places. This led to the creation of the PulsePoint app on smartphones, which allows 911 to alert CPR-trained individuals about a patient’s location while giving CPR guidance as paramedic units race to the scene. The app also notifies users of the closest available Automatic External Defibrillator (AED). The Los Angeles Fire Department inaugurated this system in March 2015. The PulsePoint app suggests that mobilizing “supply” and “demand” instantly via smartphones to address needs may be a versatile new model of the future.
Los Angeles has also embraced the huge popularity of Waze, a traffic and navigation smartphone app purchased by Google that lets drivers share real-time traffic and road information. An estimated 30 percent of Los Angeles drivers use Waze (the tagline is “Outsmarting traffic, together”) to learn about traffic accidents, police traps, alternative routes and other road situations. The app’s massive usage in L.A. makes it a de facto infrastructure tool that the city’s transportation and data managers have piggybacked through a symbiotic partnership with Waze. The City shares its data about active road construction projects with Waze in order to alert drivers about potential or actual traffic delays. Waze, for its part, reports its traffic data to city transportation officials every two minutes, providing the transportation department with a snapshot of traffic all across the city. Waze does not report, and the L.A. transportation officials do not receive, any personally identifiable information from the data, but its data-feed does include every reported pothole, traffic accident, police activity and other information, all of it crowdsourced by Waze drivers.
The City of Los Angeles has taken its partnership with Waze to a new level. After an epidemic of hit-and-run accidents, Marx entered into a “non-binding, non-exclusive, no-money, data-as-is deal” with Waze, asking it to post a notification on its app whenever a hit-and-run occurred. Drivers are asked in effect, “Did you see something?”
The frontier of potential uses of crowdsourcing apps remains wide open. Marx reported that a city investigator who works with the foster care system has developed an app that seeks to crowdsource reports of sex trafficking. The focus is on at-risk youth who are caught up in trafficking. One roundtable participant told of a local public health official and data enthusiast who shared city health data with Yelp in an effort to stimulate change—an effort that arguably improved public health but raised questions about the proper government procedures and policies for managing open data. Still, as Peter Hirshberg noted, “Through such experiments of pushing and innovating, the city eventually learns. And when the government actually learns to do this stuff, it’s kind of beautiful.”
One of the great virtues of crowdsourced data is its ability to identify patterns of individual behaviors, preferences and social trends with great precision and speed, which can be of immense help in city planning and intervention. The new capabilities have led to the idea of urban prototyping—rapid iterations of possible scenarios for a city space to which anyone can contribute, open-source style.
A bit of activist performance art in San Francisco unwittingly helped catalyze urban prototyping. A scrappy arts collective known as Rebar, which blends art, design and activism in all sorts of provocative ways, decided to stage what it called “PARK(ing) Day” by creating a “pop-up park” in a street parking space. The activists fed money into the meter while putting grass sod and lawn chairs over the asphalt and voila, a temporary park in the middle of the city! The stunt was intended to get the point across that 70 percent of downtown San Francisco is designed for the exclusive use of vehicles, not people. The PARK(ing) project inspired many larger, more ambitious public events that took over city streets and spaces, in which event organizers paid the city to shut down streets and re-route bus lines for short periods. Later the Hearst Corporation and Forest Cities, a private developer of the four-acre $5 million project in downtown San Francisco teamed with Gray Area Foundation for the Arts and scores of citizens to prototype possible uses of that large urban site.
What emerged from these experiments was the idea that the city could try out new visions of the future for itself through temporary installation projects and computer visualizations. By using open-source participation and multiple iterations, citizens and city planners could together imagine socially appealing transformations of city spaces. An early tool in this process, introduced in 2012, was a location-aware virtual reality device known as OWL, which resembles the swiveling pay-binocular viewfinders often found in tourist spots. OWL lets users look at visualizations of an imagined future or historical view of a location, which in turn allows planners to probe likes, dislikes and feelings about different scenarios.
This history recently spawned a new iteration of data-driven urban prototyping, the Market Street Prototyping Festival. Many city planners regard Market Street, a highly commercial district in San Francisco, as not particularly engaging or sociable. They aspire to transform it into a more pedestrian-friendly, private traffic-free promenade by 2017. To help ascertain what might appeal to ordinary city residents—and not just the hipsters and urban planners who pay attention to such things—the city issued an open call for proposed street installations: artworks performance spaces, relaxation zones, a six-sided ping pong table and many other clever ideas. City planners chose fifty of the projects for a real-world experiment on two miles of Market Street to see how people would engage with them. On the weekend of April 9-11, 2015, the city closed down Market Street and set up fifty temporary installations. Peter Hirshberg, who helped oversee the entire experiment, said, “We wanted to open source the whole project and incubate those things that work.”
Jay Nath, the Chief Innovation Officer for the Mayor’s office, explained how this “rapid prototyping” is a way to apply scientific methodologies and empirical testing to urban planning. Nath was interested in learning “how do we do temporary interventions through A-B tests and see actual outcomes, and measure those outcomes?” The Market Street prototyping offered a rare opportunity to use new processes to generate outcomes that might otherwise seem too daring or unusual. It is not yet known which prototype projects will be selected and developed for the final redesign of the boulevard, but the city considered the festival a big success.
In many respects, the Market Street prototyping is an extension and systematization of earlier collaborations that bridged enterprising artists with city government. Years earlier, Leo Villareal, a light artist who often built artworks for Burning Man, and entrepreneur Ben Davis successfully negotiated with the city’s Public Works and Planning Departments to install the largest LED installation in the world, “Illuminate the Arts,” on the Bay Bridge. It is a much celebrated, beloved piece of civic art. One could say that the Market Street Prototyping project seeks to achieve something similar on a more diversified scale. It wants to build a bridge between creative artists, entrepreneurs and citizens, with the labyrinthine, little-understood city bureaucracy: a way of opening up city planning to bring in as much innovation and experimentation and diversity as possible. “Our ultimate plan,” said Peter Hirshberg, “is to make that portion of Market Street work like a LEGO set, so that you can constantly update, manage and engage people in the co-creation of the street.”
The Market Street project bears a strong kinship not just with open source projects, but with the gaming world, or at least, one very popular geo-mobile alternative reality game known as Ingress. Game designer Flint Dille is the creative lead for this Google game, which requires people to roam urban spaces with their smartphones. The phone screens and geo-location capacities superimpose a game narrative on public landmarks, buildings, art installations and other sites (“portals”) around the world. The game, which is played in real-time by millions of people around the world, invests the physical structures of cities with rich emotional meanings that make sense in the context of the game. In this way, Ingress functions as “a fictional overlay” on the city’s public spaces and creates new meanings for actual city spaces via the shared virtual reality. In any given city with cell phone service, there are likely to be selforganized teams of Ingress players who create their own team logos and t-shirts—a testament to the “irrepressible social instinct of humans.”
Dille said that a key lesson to be learned from Ingress is the ability to “change people’s attitudes and perceptions of what they’re doing in public spaces.” He compared it to Dashiell Hammett’s fictional portrayals of San Francisco, A. Conan Doyle’s London and Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles. Dille said that one of the most powerful augmented reality experiences that he had was taking the so-called Grave Line Tour in Los Angeles that drives people in a hearse to the sites where famous people have died—John Belushi’s drug overdose, the Manson murders, and the spot where Superman killed himself. “I never looked at the city the same way again!” said Dille.
The point is that our perceptions of cities are based in part on such narratives. “You do not start a movie without a script or a game without a vision of what the game is.” A lot of the challenge facing cities in a networked culture, said Dille, “is figuring out what a city wants to be.” What is the narrative? Dille explained the importance of creating a city’s narrative. “Our cities have unique histories, areas, attitudes and living people. It doesn’t have to be a boastful thing, but a city should be more than a bunch of cement.” The problem is that “nobody has ever sold the city,” said Dille. The surprising thing, he added, is that “you do not have to sell it with reality. You can sell it with fiction!” He cited how Ingress players often express surprise at discovering what cool stuff exists in their own cities. “Ninety percent of the challenge is won by getting people to look at things in a new way,” he said. “We’ve probably delivered more mind-share to public artworks than many museums.” Dille said that the Ingress game designers are “thinking about adding a new app to the game that will invite people to propose what they would like to see—a coffee shop, a dry cleaners, a bench—in certain empty spaces.”
Smartphone apps and games: it is fascinating to consider that the Waze smartphone app resembles an alternative reality such as the Ingress game. In both instances, there are immense possibilities for reinventing the consensual realities that people experience and self-organizing vast quantities of on-the-ground data. But to go a step further, Dille believes that city governments can facilitate this effort of inventing “new narratives” about their cities. They need to do a better job of “selling” their unique histories, character and attitudes.
These points prompted Benjamin de la Peña of the Knight Foundation to reflect that while it is very difficult to develop reliable metrics for measuring civic participation, it is much easier to develop a proxy metric: the use of public spaces for public life. There is a pleasure and vitality that comes with such public activity—a feeling that we once associated with voting, said de la Peña, citing a March 2015 article, “The Joy of Voting” in The Atlantic. So much of the challenge is finding ways to make public spaces more useful, interesting and filled with human interaction.