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Participation by Design: Three Inspirational Installations by Candy Chang

This post, by guest blogger Jasper Visser, is the seventeenth in a slightly-more-than-a-month-long series on the impressive diversity of participatory decision-making tools that communities can use for land use plans, transportation plans, sustainability plans, or any other type of community plan. Our guest bloggers are covering the gamut, from low-tech to high-tech, web-based to tactile, art-based to those based on scenario planning tools, and more. Jasper originally published this post on his the museum of the future blog on July 19, 2011. We welcome your feedback and would love to hear about the participatory design strategies that you’ve found to be the most useful.

Amy Halverson photo (Flickr).

Candy Chang is an artist who makes public installations that address urgent social topics. Using simple tools she makes accessible art that is often participatory in nature.

Her business card says Candy likes to make cities more comfortable for people. Many of her projects close the gap between the public and the often almost intangible stuff that surrounds them. Her work connects people and asks for their contribution. Here’re three of her projects I’m sure many of you will appreciate:

Photo by Candy Chang.

Looking for Love Again

What to do with abandoned buildings? There’re hundreds of them in every city (especially once you start looking for them). For one specific building, the Polaris Building in Fairbanks, people were asked just that question. Plus, they were asked to tell their stories about the building. There’s also a website attached that asks for contributions in a refreshingly simple way. The number of contributions is overwhelming and I’m sure this will influence the future of the building.

Photo by Jason McDermott (Flickr).

I Wish This Was

This project also takes on vacated buildings with the help of the public. People can leave special stickers on empty storefronts to express their wishes for specific businesses or services. Policy makers can use the input to make policy (obviously), or even better: entrepreneurs can find a place to start their business. The website collects examples of people’s wishes.

Ed Merritt photo (Flickr).

Before I Die

Another similar project, but aimed much more at the public themselves, Before I Die tries to get people to focus on the things that are important to them. Originally it was installed on an abandoned house in New Orleans. Also, you can buy one of the chalkboards in limited edition to wake up everyday remembering you need to do what you love.

I’ve been using the Before I Die project in workshops ever since I discovered it to illustrate some key characteristics of good participatory design: it’s simple, accessible and there’s an urgency in the project.

The urgency is the most obvious: life’s short and there’s so much we’re postponing that we might miss out on the things we really want. Urgency doesn’t have to involve death, though (a topic you might want to avoid in participatory design), as I wish this was shows. Urgency compels people to participate.

Before I die is accessible both in the choice of location (really public) as in the make up of the project: everybody can answer the question. Accessibility is important in many ways, both physical and “psychological”. Accessibility allows all people to participate.

And finally, simplicity. All of Candy Chang’s work is simple in the way that it uses simple materials and tools (there’s no need for a manual) and addresses simple issues (no need for inside knowledge or long studies). Simplicity facilitates people in their choice to participate.

Urgency, accessibility and simplicity are just three take aways from Candy Chang’s amazing work. Another one (bonus!) is that participation is open and fun. It’s interesting to discover what your friends would like to do before they die. Certainly, there’s more to discover in her work. Be sure to check out her website to find more great projects.

This post was contributed by Jasper Visser, a cultural innovator and cofounder of Inspired by Coffee, an agency for digital strategy and innovation. He helps cultural organisations discover new ways to reach and engage people with a special focus on new media, technology and innovative business models. Jasper regularly speaks internationally about cultural innovation, gives workshops and keeps the blog themuseumofthefuture.com.

The Tension Between Participatory Art and Participatory Decision-Making

From the new The Machine Project/Hammer Museum ebook.

From the new The Machine Project/Hammer Museum ebook.

Nina Simon wrote on her Museum 2.0 blog several days ago about a new ebook describing a year-long residency by the art group Machine Project at the Hammer Museum in L.A. We’ve been playing around with the notion that there may be useful parallels between designing for effective engagement in an art context and doing so in the public participation and community decision-making context. Nina’s lengthy post, and the Machine Project’s own blog post about the project and the new ebook, help highlight those parallels as well as the limits of the idea.

On the one hand, it strikes me that the goal of a museum or art-anchored engagement is different than what we typically strive for in a community decision-making project. For us, the goal is explicitly to make it easier for community members to participate in a community decision process in an informed and meaningful way. We have to design processes that engage people, but it’s also critical that we provide tools that help participants understand the issues, weigh the trade-offs between options, and craft their own options to the conversation. One mark of success, then, is the extent to which people feel informed, empowered, and respected in the process, and the extent to which they feel their contributions meant something to the final outcome of the process.

For museums and artists, however, as Nina articulates, the goal may not always be about clarity, understanding, and problem solving. In some instances, the goal may be precisely the opposite, aiming to leave visitors uncomfortable and uncertain. The goal may not have anything to do with reaching a decision or resolution, and it may not make any sense at all to evaluate the experience in terms of critical community decision-making values like fairness and transparency.

I don’t think the “Houseplant Vacation” project described in this video, for instance, is designed to produce a clear community consensus or even clear participant input.

On the other hand, part of the goal in both instances is design a circumstance that people choose to step in to. It’s important in both contexts that people actually accept the invitation to participate with the process and with the questions. And the process has to be interesting enough, and sufficiently well crafted, that participants really do offer something to the process, and walk away when it’s finished feeling like the experience was worthwhile.

I don’t think the contrast undermines our hypothesis that there are useful parallels between the two. On the community decision-making side of the fence, it’s clear that we can learn from the creative participatory strategies adopted by folks on the art side, and I suspect the inverse is true as well. But the contrast does highlight that we should be thoughtful about how we import specific participatory strategies in either direction, making sure we refine them to be appropriate for whatever the specific goals might be.

It also suggests that art can offer a great convergence opportunity. We’ve had and seen some terrific success when integrating art into the community decision-making process (like the LANDvisions project in Philadelphia), and I suspect there’s a lot of great work still to be done here.

Finally, it suggests some intriguing opportunities for museums and artists themselves to create spaces for civic participation, an idea that I know Nina has given some thought to and one that we sometimes encounter elsewhere in the art world (like Candy Chang’s “Before I Die” projects). This may not be a simple proposition, since there may some real tension between designing participatory experiences with very tangible, policy-oriented outcomes in mind versus designing them for different purposes, but our experience so far is that expanding the range of ways we ask people what they want for their community can make for richer, more meaningful input.

We are looking forward to exploring these themes in the coming year, and if you’ve got thoughts or examples, we’d love to hear about them.

PlaceMatters Blog Roundup: February 2, 2012

Photo by Flickr user kmakice.

The value of crowd- and group-based thinking has drawn some attention lately. The New York Times ran a guest editorial (“The Rise of Groupthink“) arguing that people are more creative when they are able to work in solitude rather than in groups, a theme covered by the New Yorker as well (you can read the summary but the full article is behind a paywall). There’s quite a bit of thoughtful commentary on the subject, including posts on the National Charrette Institute blog and Fast Company’s Co.Design blog.

Involve explores a related theme, suggesting the value of crowdsourcing may be more about generating ideas and enthusiasm than generating consensus.

The National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation offers some great tips for designing a successful online collaboration or deliberation process.

Engaging Cities summarizes the highlights of an online discussion (on Cyburbia) about increasing public participation in rural communities.

Intellitics writes about a new IBM report called “A Manager’s Guide to Evaluating Citizen Participation.

Digital Urban posts a characteristically cool Twitter data visualization.

Ascentum reports on German Chancellor Merkel’s web-based national engagement effort, “Dialogue about Germany’s Future.

Museum 2.0 explores the challenges of designing interactive activities that work for both adults and kids.

What did we miss?

PlaceMatters Blog Roundup: January 5, 2012

TechCrunch reports on a seriously cool new augmented reality application: instant translation of foreign-language text. It’s not hard to imagine how useful a tool like this might be for community decision-making efforts in mixed language communities.

Cooltown Studios describes Popularise, an unusual private sector approach to crowdsourcing development plans. I’m not convinced the “long tail” metaphor makes sense here, and it’s not clear how the developers will actually use the crowd-supplied preferences given all the other considerations that the developers have to take into account, but it’s an intriguing idea.

Museum 2.0 has a great list of lessons learned over the last year about designing for participation (and links to another great list on The Museum of the Future blog).

Gov 2.0 Watch points us to a fascinating online, multiplayer city-building game called “Crowdsourced Moscow 2012.” Although we haven’t had a chance to play the game, a few things stand out in the promo video: players adopt one of several roles, each with specific interests and strengths; making tradeoffs is embedded in the gameplay; background information relevant to the various choices players must make is part of the game experience; and the game is intended to help participants imagine a wide range of possible futures.

As Intellitics reports, the New York Times launched another crowdsourced budget cutting project, this time focusing on the planned $450 billion in Pentagon spending cuts over the next decade. The problem, common to budget calculators, is that it’s very difficult to determine the real impacts of any of the choices. While those impacts are often the subject of fierce debate (e.g., just how valuable is the V-22 Osprey or the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter), without this context it’s not clear how well participants understand the trade-offs between the options they are presented with.

Intellitics also reports on a new study exploring online deliberation design. The study evaluates a range of design considerations and the empirical evidence on their utility and effectiveness.

What did we miss?

Crossing the Chasms

PlaceMatters’ work is focused on helping communities make decisions, especially around difficult issues and complex questions. We are, most fundamentally, process designers. Our role is to architect community decision-making processes that engage community members, give them the information and tools they need to understand the challenges and compare the trade-offs between options, offer them the space and support they need to contribute their own ideas and solutions to the conversation, and help guide all of that toward a clear, actionable, and durable decision. We spend about half our time on the think tank side of the equation, researching and exploring and tracking, and about half our time providing our services to communities around the country.

We’ve got a bunch of terrific colleague organizations doing similar work and exploring similar questions, and across this community of people committed to improving community decision making we communicate a lot. We share lessons learned with our colleagues all the time, we collaborate with them often, we read tons of blogs, we all participate in the same conferences, and we engage in focused conversations around research projects and important community questions. It’s great for us, great for the folks dedicated to helping communities in these ways, and great for the communities across the country that actually have to grapple with tough decisions all the time.

Interestingly, there are a bunch of other folks out there designing engagement processes. Museum folks design exhibits to engage their patrons. Architects and interior designers often aim to create buildings and spaces that engage visitors. Branded companies design campaigns intended to engage their brand evangelists. Nonprofit membership directors work hard to create deep engagement between their organization and their supporters.

But I can’t help but notice – despite how similar our basic challenges are – how little conversation occurs across these boundaries. Museum people, even the ones most focused on cutting edge engagement strategies (see the excellent Museum 2.0 blog, for example) by and large don’t talk with community process designers. Architects (A Daily Dose of Architecture is a nice architecture blog example) don’t generally talk with social networking experts. It’s actually quite difficult to cut across these boundaries, however deep your domain expertise might be. You have to realize that you are doing similar work in the first place, then you have to figure out where the important conversations are happening, then you have to figure how to effectively engage in those conversations, and, finally, you have to figure out how all of that actually helps you do your job better.

I don’t know what the answer is, but because our work is fundamentally so similar – design engaging, meaningful, participatory experiences – it sure seems like there are some great opportunities waiting to be uncovered.

PlaceMatters Blog Roundup: April 19, 2011

A high-end, high-def, multiuser, multi-touch table. Photo by flickr user ideum.


FutureGov has a really nice overview of Planning 2.0 concepts and tools (thanks to Engaging Cities for the link).

Engaging Cities posted the slide deck from their “What’s Next for Planning Technology” panel at the APA conference, and it’s worth a look if you didn’t make the session. Their ten: text messaging, social media, mobile interaction, 311 reporting, virtual worlds and gaming, community mapping, crowdsourcing planning, interactive data, augmented reality, and touch tables. Most of these are subjects and technologies close to our heart at PlaceMatters: powerful tools that can, if integrated thoughtfully, add a great deal of power to a community engagement process.

countably infinite reflects on the APA conference and gives our Beers in Beantown event a nice shout-out.

Open Source Planning also offers a nice word about our Beers in Beantown event and mentions IMMBYs (“I Mapped My Backyard”) and their implications for planning.

Cairns Blog posts a thoughtful reflection on the open government movement.

Planetizen reports on the upcoming Urban Design Marathon (quoting from a Good Magazine article): “A hundred designers, 10 urban challenges, very little money, and no sleep. That’s the recipe for 72 Hour Urban Action, a three-day marathon for designers to improve their city.” This approach doesn’t include any public engagement elements, but it fits the charrette model of quickly and intensively powering through what is often a very long, drawn-out process. The really interesting twist would be figuring out how to fold in real community participation.

You know QR codes are starting to hit the mainstream when the Denver Post writes about them. Although their use is still early-stage (but growing in buzz and popularity), they can clearly have value in public processes. Mashable offers some tips for making your QR codes a little more interesting.

A guest post on Museum 2.0 covers civility and conviviality in museum design, the idea of which seems to translate well to designing public engagement. A good design will enable people to “share their common humanity and to offer opportunities not only for learning and social engagement, but also for reflection and solitude in the presence of others,” and, in the case of community engagement, help lead to genuinely participatory decision-making.

SocialFish posts a great slide deck on the seven core concepts of effective gamification. Whether gamification per se makes sense in a community engagement process will depend a lot on the process and the circumstances, but elements of good gamification are probably useful in process design regardless. Their seven core concepts: 1) know who’s playing; 2) Build fun, pleasure, and satisfaction into your core activity loop; 3) Change the user experience over time; 4) Build a system that’s easy to learn but hard to master; 5) Use game mechanics to light the way towards mastery; 6) As players progress, increase the challenge and complexity; 7) Embrace intrinsic motivators.

The Augmented Reality Blog writes about the future of the technology. It seems pretty likely that augmented reality tools, as they mature, will become an important component of community engagement efforts.

On the PlaceMatters blog, Ken reviewed a pile of new online idea creation tools (and the winners are: Spigit and UserVoice), Jocelyn talked about avoiding public participation pitfalls, and I ruminated on the magic of good decision-making.

ReadWriteWeb reports on Microsoft’s new software development kit for the Kinect, scheduled for release this spring. While you can do a lot with clever hacks of the existing device, the SDK opens things up a lot, enabling third party developers to create a wide range of applications that take advantage of the Kinect’s cutting-edge motion sensing technology. We should expect to see plenty of innovations with direct application to community decision-making.

What did we miss?

PlaceMatters Blog Roundup: April 4, 2011

A clever public engagement approach: Common Sense California posts a video involving legos and something that vaguely sounds not-quite like hip-hop.

Common Sense California also posts about Yo Yo Ma and the Citizen Music Initiative, a music-based approach to community engagement.

Museum 2.0 describes a terrific crowdsourcing participatory engagement technique they developed at the San Diego Museum of Natural History using visitor feedback to develop labels for the museum specimens. I’m guessing the technique could be adapted for any number of community engagement purposes.

The Collaboration Project reviews online idea generation tools for public managers and published a guide to designing online community brainstorming.

The Spring 2011 issue of Planning and Technology Today is out, and it includes pieces by Anthony Flint of the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy (“New Technologies for Visualizing Sustainable Planning”), Karen Quinn Fung (“Urban Planners and Open Data: Making the Connection), and PlaceMatters’ own Ken Snyder (“The Power of the Kindergarten Art Supplies in Planning”). Thanks to the Goodspeed Update for the heads up.

Deliberations reports that Recife, Brazil is the recipient of the Reinhard Mohn Prize for democratic innovation for its participatory budgeting process.

Another flavor of participatory budgeting, the Backseat Budgeter, is the subject of this Denver Post article.

We’ve noted IBM’s new City Forward effort a few times already, but Engaging Cities offers a bit more background.

Engaging Cities also posted a video on the Kennedy Plaza planning process in Providence, Rhode Island. Part of the effort involved actually programming community activities and events in the plaza as a way of testing ideas and introducing community members to the redesign possibilities.

PlaceMatters Blog Roundup: March 30, 2011

I had a week off because of a few conferences in Washington, D.C. (including the terrific Nonprofit Technology Conference) and then an unplanned week away from the office as a raging wildfire threatened my town (we learned some great lessons about communication, community, and social media – I’ll blog about that separately), but I’m back and have got a great set of links to share . . .

PlaceMatters is presenting a panel at the APA conference in Boston in a couple of weeks called “What to do When Public Participation Goes Terribly Wrong?” Ken, who is a Planetizen blogger as well as the PlaceMatters‘ CEO, posted on the panel and invites folks to send in their own stories of near misses or total disasters. (He also cross-posted on our blog).

Bridges of B offers a lengthy description and generally favorable critique of Akoha, a civics-minded mobile-based direct action game. It offers a game-based platform for creating community-oriented missions, using game mechanics to motivate engagement. One criticism: “Place matters, especially in civics,” and Akoha doesn’t tie to one’s place very well, but Bridges of B seems pretty enthused about Ahoka as an early stab, and about the promise of the approach more generally.

National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation links to a National School Public Relations Association post called “Recipes for Innovation in Public Engagement,” focused on community engaging in the context of public education.

The Irish Cultural Center blogged about a photography project in which the subject of each photograph held a Polaroid image of the previous subject, so each photograph subject is connected to the person photographed just prior and the one photographed just afterwards. (Thanks for the link, Ethan!).

Ragtag posted a terrific (Euro- and Wikipedia-centric) data visualization relying on a cross-referencing of the location and date data in Wikipedia articles on historic events. (This one was Ethan, as well).

Reimagine Rural describes their Front Porch Forums tool, a social media application designed for smaller, rural communities. They contrast the tool with conventional social media languages and tools: it’s designed to encourage face-to-face interaction (rather than designed to maximize the time engaged with the tool). It’s focused more on general community and civic engagement as opposed to community decision-making, but it seems applicable to a wider range of situations. One post describes the Front Porch Forum and the other post has a short video explanation.

Intellitics blogs about the central role small group discussions can play in anchoring a community process.

Digital Urban continues their ruminations on the use of QRCodes in the context of museum exhibits. We find the technology and the applications pretty interesting from a broader public engagement perspective as well.

Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space grapples with the challenges of web-based engagement around redistricting.

Orton Family Foundation blogs about a story-gathering, asset mapping, and visioning effort undertaken by high school students for their Biddeford, Maine downtown.

Augmented Reality posted about two interesting innovations. The first, including a video, described an application involving driving a radio-controlled car around a track, with cameras for a real-time cockpit view and “augmented reality scenarios overlaying animations onto the live-video image which were triggered either with a light barrier or optically.” Very cool. The second shows the use of an augmented reality app to create a racetrack for a video game by mapping Red Bull cans laid out on the floor. Both illustrate ways in which augmented reality technologies can be used, and for us it’s always with an eye toward planning and community decision-making.

Common Sense California writes posts on the Marine Corps’ version of a town hall meeting at Camp Hansen.

Engaging Cities writes about the QR Code trend and offers some best practices tips for folks who may want to experiment. QR codes clearly offer process designers a tool for sparking certain types of engagement, and will be increasingly useful as camera phones continue their market saturation.

Engaging Cities also reflects a little on the use of film and community storytelling in urban planning.

My PlaceMatters colleagues have been busy with other posts as well, including Jocelyn’s on IBM’s City Forward online tool (about which Fast Company wrote recently as well), Jason’s interview with ESRI’s Matt Baker about geodesign and sketch-based feedback in ArcGIS, Ken’s thoughts on integrating DIY touchtables with GIS, and my post about the iPad 2 Best Buy vs. Mac Store face-off.

What did we miss?

PlaceMatters Weekly Blog Roundup: February 22, 2011

Nina Simon, the Museum 2.0 blogger and author of Participatory Museum, posted a video of her “From Place to Presence” talk at the Nodem 2010 conference. Although she is focused on museum design, her comments might as well have been about designing for effective participation in any community venue. Her three key observations: a) scaffolding and constraints are critical to effective participation and engagement, b) the design of the prompts matters a great as well, and c) responsiveness to participants is even more important than the design of the process or the prompts.

National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation offer a nice roundup of participatory budgeting tools and resources.

Next American City interviews PennPraxis director Harris Steinberg about the role of community participation in Philadelphia’s riverfront development plan. He touches on the importance of understanding the politics in order to move the ball forward on the planning process and produce a plan that was likely to be implemented.

Full Circle Associates describes a cool post-it note-based coalition-mapping process to better understand their existing social networks and how those networks can either be weakened or strengthened. We’ve used and seen this type of approach in other community decision-making contexts, but the explicit network-weaving lens is a helpful twist.

Our friends at Strongtowns write about crowdsourcing sidewalk design.

GigaOm reports on Zynga’s massive (closing in on $10 billion) valuation. What is Zynga and why do we care? They’ve managed to attract a reported 45 million users to their various social games, including the breakout Farmville. Social gaming and gamification are here to stay, at least for now, and the trend seems to offer a lot of promise to the civic participation and community decision-making universe. By embedding game dynamics in an interactive process, process architects can improve the likelihood of engaging community members and keeping them engaged. Do a good job of designing the game dynamics, and you might also find ways to generate high-quality input from those very same community members. As if the press the point, TechCrunch just reported that Foursquare – the icon of geolocation-based social gaming – is on the verge of hitting the seven-million users mark. Yes, that’s seven million registered users. They saw 3,400 percent last year in check-ins. Some clever community engagement folks will figure out how to use Foursquare directly in their work (including Foursquare’s new-ish photo uploading feature), while others will create engagement strategies that riff on the basic Foursquare setup. One way or another, games – geolocation and otherwise – offer a lot of potential.

This Thursday at 2 pm mountain time I’ll be joining Jon Verville of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center on the Community Matters Open Government call. Jon and I will talk about two different versions of the same basic challenge: how human nature, inertia, and caution all figure into the challenges of persuading governments to become more open.

New Geography challenges Andres Duany’s recent argument that public participation impedes great projects.

I posted yesterday on the PlaceMatters blog about the future of community participation. And check out the PlaceMatters web site’s new look.