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How to Launch a Project: Imagine Central AR’s Participatory, Celebratory Kickoff

Imagine Central Arkansas Kickoff

Imagine Central Arkansas Kickoff

PlaceMatters has had a bit of a blogging dry spell, but we have a good excuse! In the last month staff members have been to:

We’ve been working hard, listening to our partners challenges and successes, and supporting some great events. More info on some of these trips will be forthcoming on our blog.  I will start things off with some highlights from our first trip, where we helped implement Metroplan‘s (Central AR’s MPO) Imagine Central Arkansas kickoff event.

The kickoff was held in a pavilion at the River Market in Little Rock. Over 200 people enjoyed the local band, popcorn machine, and fantastic fall weather.  They also were able to provide initial input via several interactive stations:

  • An “I Imagine Central Arkansas” station where people could fill in a white-board with their vision for the future of the region and have photos taken with their boards (Metroplan has collected quite a few of these, check them out here).
  • A station for kids where they could draw their favorite places (some in great detail!) and/or build their vision for the future with Lego blocks and paper streets (I got to work at this station and enjoyed every conversation I had with all the young people who came through–not surprisingly, the pool is a popular place, but they also loved the Big Dam Bridge and other regional destinations).
  • Treasured Places Station had a (PlaceMatters’ DIY) touch-table that showed a map where people could place virtual “pins” highlighting places in the region they particularly value and “like” places that others have identified (this map and the Know Your Region quiz was set up by our friend Chris Haller at Urban Interactive Studio, who has done the project website)
  • A “Your Story” Station where we video-taped short statements about what people love about Central Arkansas
  • Know Your Region, a quiz for people to see how much they know about Central Arkansas.
  • A Participation Station where people could learn about how to participate in the process and scan QR codes using their smartphones to see more info on the project website.

PlaceMatters also set up live streaming for anyone who wanted to join the fun, but couldn’t come in person. We also had students from each class at the nearby eStem Charter School join us, and we loved seeing them interact with the technology and provide their ideas.

The following week, Brad Barnett, our Planning Analyst, was back in the region, helping use the touch-tables again for a round of “Hometown Visits” around the region. Along with Metroplan and Gresham, Smith & Partners, Brad helped provide opportunities for participation (similar to the kickoff) in places around the region, part of an ongoing strategy to reach people where they are in their day-to-day lives.

We feel that the model for the kickoff and round of local meetings was a good one, particularly with the level of interaction that both provided. We almost never want people to spend their valuable time at a meeting where they aren’t providing feedback and input. We’ll be pointing our partners and communities interested in a great model kickoff event to the Central Arkansas example. The hometown visits were also a good idea, and could be very successful in similar projects if the right locations are chosen where there is a lot of foot traffic.

Stay tuned in the coming weeks for additional posts about our current project work and our thoughts about what is working well and lessons learned.



Five Tried-and-True Rules for Screwing Up Your Public Process

Originally available at

This public meeting doesn’t seem to be going very well …

1. Decide on the outcome before you start.

2. Limit the conversation to the options you came up with before you launched the process.

3. Make sure that the path between the public process and the final decision is a black box.

4. Rely on outside experts without those experts ever earning the trust of the community.

5. Assume that the participants in your process are stupid.

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?

Town Meeting Day Brings Direct Democracy

Norman Rockwell's Freedom of Speech

Norman Rockwell’s “Save Freedom of Speech”

In Vermont, this past Tuesday was Town Meeting Day, a chance for community members to gather together, discuss local issues and vote on them.  Town Meetings, held in several New England states, are one of the few instances of direct democracy in the United States.  I wanted to learn more about them.

Here’s some of what Wikipedia had to teach me:

“The purpose of town meeting is to elect municipal officers, approve annual budgets and conduct any other business…The cities and chartered towns… are required by the terms of their charters to hold an annual town meeting, on Town Meeting Day. Many towns vote on matters of substance (e.g. budgets, elected officials, etc.) by Secret ballot. However…several towns still conduct all business ‘from the floor.'”

Wikipedia went on to tell me that many town budgets must be approved by “plebiscite,” meaning a direct vote by all members of the electorate (or, I suppose, all those who show up at Town Meeting) and that voters can also vote on non-binding resolutions.   Something I already knew was that Town Meeting Day is a state holiday, and that students over 18 can leave school to attend without a truancy charge.

Both Alexis de Tocqueville (in Democracy in America) and Henry Thoreau had something to say about the value of town meetings. Personally, I find Town Meetings to be fascinating, and I suspect they are a tremendously valuable learning experience about government and participation.  On Monday, all the morning public radio shows were discussing “Robert’s Rules of Order” with the Town Meeting Moderators, and discussing the importance of attendeing. Guest commentators also were waxing nostalgic about what Town Meeting meant to them. I can imagine (since I couldn’t attend myself on Tuesday) that learning about the details of a town budget is illuminating, providing a chance to really understand the tradeoffs governments regularly face and that the responsibility of approving a budget helps create community pride and a sense of ownership.

That said, there are also arguments against holding Town Meetings as a way of determining the town budget and other important items.  While New England has a distinct attitude about the importance of civic responsibility not often found in other parts of the country, there are still a lot of people who cannot or do not attend.  Perhaps the next generation of the Town Meeting will involve video-conference, mobile technology or online participation.  While I recognize that direct democracy is one of those situations where you really do want every person participating, via whatever mechanism works, part of me hopes that the face-to-face, coffee and doughnuts Town Meeting continues to thrive even if a few attendees do have to skype in from their home offices.

The Town Meeting is also an excellent example of why PlaceMatters tailors our processes to fit each community in which we work.  There are regional, state, and local differences in how things get done across the country, and our public engagement and decision-making processes need to work within, and even take advantage of, those differences.

Breaking the Ice With Twitter

Blogger and social networking pro Beth Kanter writes about different ways of using twitter to break the ice at meetings and events.  She described having folks take photos of each other and posting them on twitter as a icebreaker at a BlogWorld panel last week in Las Vegas.  While it might be simpler if everyone in the room is twitter-savvy, it could also work if only half of the participants are . . . make sure those that know how to post photos to twitter pair up with those that don’t (and all the better if you can ensure that folks pair with people they don’t know).  It could be a great opportunity to break some intergenerational ice as well if you have digital natives pair up with everyone else.  We’ve also had some great success with our PlaceMatters Walkshop technique, which could be easily altered to work as an icebreaker even for folks that don’t have twitter accounts . . . folks shoot images of each other with any camera and email them to a photo-sharing site projected on a screen in the room.

Epic Fail (or at least near misses in public event planning)

With the deadline for presentation proposals to the Annual American Planning Association conference looming, Windows 7 provided the needed inspiration — in the middle of a strategic planning meeting where we were using Skype Video to include Jocelyn in the conversation, without warning, Windows 7 decided to shut down all programs, install updates, and restart the computer.  It effectively shut down our meeting for a quarter of an hour.  While a huge Windows 7 fan (over Vista at least), this has got to be one of the most ridiculous features I have ever seen programmed into a new operating system.  Jacob was at a presentation of, none other than, Department of Energy Secretary Dr. Steven Chu when the same thing happened in the middle of his PowerPoint.  A Nobel Prize Winner in Physics, duped by the engineers of Microsoft.  Because programs like Skype and PowerPoint are set up to run on top of all other windows, no warning message appears before this happens.

For us, the 10 minute diversion turned into a 20 minute diversion because we started to recall some of the near disasters we have experienced in public events.  We realized highlighting these experiences at a conference would be fun way for us fulfill one of the core objectives of our non-profit mission to share lessons-learned.  What emerged was a series of Onion-like headlines that then turned into an APA panel proposal.  Here are a few we came up with.

  • Got Results? (speak slowly and carry a great staff) – SC Reality Check
  • Boston Snow Party – (transit commuters have their say while others shovel)
  • Homeland Security Jams Community Feedback (Plan C comes to the rescue in Shreveport, LA)
  • Wireless and Internetless in Poplar MT (“We’re going rouge!”)
  • Memphis in the Meantime – (When running keypad polling in VT, snow in TN can spell disaster)
  • The pen is mightier than the accidentally stollen laptop (Durango)
  • WTF, WebEx! (Callers number 16+, out of luck).

For now I’ll leave the full story to your imagination.  Each story will be brief followed by a set of lessons-learned.  The top two lessons in public event preparation and facilitation?  They’re obvious:  practice, practice, practice in all imaginable settings and create multiple backup plans (2-3 more than you think ever necessary).  We’ll go into more of the details on how to do this effectively.

If you have any near misses or actual disasters in public planning/facilitation, please send them our way.  We’d love to include your story.

Community Engagement: The Easy, The Difficult, and The Really Difficult

Some constituencies in community planning efforts are easy to reach. If you invite them to participate and they see themselves as stakeholders, they will show up. If the city council proposes height restrictions, the developers are likely to participate in the public process. It’s important to include them, but you probably don’t have to work very hard to get them to the table.

The real challenge is in engaging the constituencies who don’t realize they have something at stake or for whom conventional approaches won’t feel very inviting. Politically marginalized communities, low-income communities, and ethnic communities are examples of constituencies that may be more difficult to engage through the traditional public meetings, open houses, and advisory boards. If you really want their input and their investment, you have to figure out how to reach out in ways that make sense to them. The “go to them instead of making them come to you” paradigm is an important part of figuring this out.

And the even bigger – and often more important – challenge is in figuring out how engage that full range of constituencies with one other. The shared understanding and the shared problem-solving that can come from a genuinely cross-cutting community engagement process gives you better and more durable solutions.

The $10,000 public meeting

Basic rendering of small group exercises with netbooks and pico projectors

Recently, we’ve been doing some thinking about how to upgrade the public meetings to go completely wireless/cordless.  I know this may sound like a silly notion, but we are looking to reduce the amount of friction for planning and holding public meetings and collecting robust feedback.

We currently run most of our meetings using web-connected laptops, a note-taker, a facilitator, keypads, and lots of tape and power cords.  That last part is what we want to get rid of.  We have been using AnyWare (an internally developed brainstorming tool) to collect feedback from a large group of people and poll on issues on the fly.  Our interest in this is to reduce the level of public meeting fatigue by making the meetings iterative and productive toward a set of next steps or actions.  We want to reduce the cost per participant in a public process while increasing the quality of the feedback and interaction.  As such, our goal is not to remove the public meeting altogether but to augment it with innovative web applications that can help move a meeting toward real results and lower the amount of recording, synthesis and reporting that normally happens after a meeting. Continue reading

The End of Planning

The APA’s magazine Planning recently ran an editorial (anyone remember what issue it was in?) ruminating about “the end of planning,” arguing that traditional planning – with its extensive process, lengthy documents, and static end point – should be replaced with a more nimble, iterative, and flexible paradigm.  The editorial provoked an energetic and wide-ranging discussion inside PlaceMatters and with some of our colleagues elsewhere. Continue reading

Three Provocations for Planners

PlaceMatters’ director Ken Snyder, last week at our “Salon at the Saloon” in New Orleans, offered three provocations for planners:

  • What if we eliminated traditional public meetings?
  • What if we eliminated traditional comprehensive plans?
  • What if no more than 2/3 of staff at all planning agencies are traditional planners?  What if the rest were planners with unconventional planning backgrounds, fiction writers, community organizers and outreach folks, designers, architects, futurologists, or educators?