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Northern Voice 2010: From Tweets to Plans panel reflections

At this year’s Northern Voice, I was grateful to have been given the chance to moderate a panel, titled, “From Tweets to Plans: Online Conversations for Urban Planning.” I’d gotten the idea to do it from being invited to the SCARP Symposium by PlanningPool, where I found myself talking about blogging to urban planners, and wondered how it would be like to do the oppose: to talk urban planning with bloggers.

This was my first time moderating a panel, and there was also a bit of an “X” factor with Northern Voice: this year’s conference was so much bigger than previously, and the schedule had been re-jigged so that there wasn’t a MooseCamp day, which is a format that I’ve discovered I’m much more comfortable with. The part I find most fun about that format is that it’s interactive, which means I get a much better sense of what the people in the room are interested and want to know, and they’re encouraged to ask questions right upfront.

I was glad to have asked at the beginning of the panel who had attended the Government 2.0 panel, because I was pleasantly surprised by how little overlap there was. In hindsight, if there were more time, I probably would also have tried to get a better sense in the room of how much experience people had with what urban planning is. Because it’s huge! It encompasses and touches so many aspects of daily life that for all I knew, one person thinks it has to do with zoning and permits and taxes, and someone else is thinking about architecture.

I did feel good about having provided a bit of the perspective I think I share with the panelists, which is the idea of planning as the mortar, if you will, between the major bricks of city building, filling in the gaps to try and make it cohesive for citizens, aka users of the city. Engineers, architects, social planners, economists, advocates, politicians — planners have the potential to take the lead in visioning an outcome to get the pieces to sit right using information available.

My choice of panelists was hampered by one thing: befitting an online operation, only one person from the PlanningPool editorial team was in Vancouver during Northern Voice, and she wasn’t available for Friday. That meant Daniella had to come in through Skype. The room set-up, thinking back, kinda stunk. Both video and audio were quite choppy and I could see many straining to hear her — and combined with a non-specialized microphone, I think it was pretty much impossible for many, which is a shame because she had such interesting things to say. Despite me working every last UBC connection I had in order to ensure I had a wired connection for the room, it turned out I was sharing with the live video streaming, and it didn’t work. The other lesson for me, I think, is if there’s a Skype presenter involved, don’t make them the first panelist.

One thing that set my panel apart from many others was that I invited people who probably had less experience blogging than most other speakers, but who had more (or a more specific type of) experience aside from blogging, and every one of the panelists was doing it in a way that didn’t have as much to do on personal blogging — a subtle but important distinction at Northern Voice. Even though sessions like Darren Barefoot‘s on social change may be significant for him in a professional context, he was still focused on how it related to individuals’ use of social media (take the in-house Facebook example). All three of my panelists were blogging in a community context — a community of professionals, citizens with certain interests, or an imagined general public.

Online Community Building for Offline Issues

There was one suggestion from the audience from Mike Klassen to PlanningPool, to “channel [their] inner Kunstler.” CityCaucus go into further depth about their comment in their blog post. First off, it probably flew over the heads of at least a few people in the room except the panelists and a few others, and even though this came at the very end, it probably called for an explanation. James Howard Kunstler is known in urban planning for being quite brash and provocative in furthering his hatred of  urban sprawl, the inhumanity of car-centric lifestyles and his pessimism towards the doomsday scenario presented by peak oil and climate change. The above comment essentially amounted to encouraging PlanningPool to write in a more forward and perhaps controversial fashion, as a suggestion for increasing traffic and comments.

There are many schools of thought on whether this is in fact the way to go about changing people’s minds, rooted in differing conceptions of how social change happens, theories of power and how we conduct ourselves on the Internet.

There’s also a very compelling technology question that comes into it as well, which has to do with Daniella’s statement that pieces tend to get a lot more involvement with authors post links to pieces on Facebook. As a planning student as well as someone interested in technology, I’m extremely sensitive to what kind of an impression I leave online, and I think most of the students in my program are too — though that may be more out of habit than thoughtfulness. There may not be an awareness of what’s qualitatively different about posting a fully identified and attributed comment to PlanningPool — an open, Google-indexed forum — rather than just commenting on Facebook, where comments are more likely to circle around peer groups. So I think there’s a technology literacy piece to encouraging planners in training.

As for being more Kunstler-esque, I can’t speak for the PlanningPool folks but I know for myself I’ve been inflammatory on the Internet more than enough for one lifetime to never want to do it again. Doing it for the sake of prompting discussion strikes me as running the risk of being oversimplistic, reductionist and possibly manipulative. That said, I’m not very good at intentionally pissing people off offline either, which some might argue is part of the problem — after all, plenty of people are more than happy to piss me off.

Thanks again to Daniella, Andrew and Jessica for stepping up and being great sports in the discussion; Roland for moderating; and everyone who gave their time in attending. All in all, I’m happy with it and hope to have a chance to engage deeper in the issues brought up in this panel. If you attended the panel at Northern Voice, what do you think could have made it better, or how else would you have wanted to see the question of urban planning broached? I’d love to hear your thoughts either in the comments.

One Comment

  1. you wrote:
    Despite me working every last UBC connection I had in order to ensure I had a wired connection for the room, it turned out I was sharing with the live video streaming, and it didn’t work. The other lesson for me, I think, is if there’s a Skype presenter involved, don’t make them the first panelist.

    To be accurate and pedantic :-) ! : you were not sharing the wired connection with streaming.
    We took the working (at least I am 99% sure it was working) ethernet connection that David Cesarini was streaming from and attached it to my old laptop that you were using. So the streaming stopped (I told David not to bother with streaming over WiFi; WiFi streaming is always problematic) and your video skype was not competing with streaming. Not sure why the wired ethernet connection didn’t work. ‘Tis a puzzlement.

    I think the real problem was NOT the bandwidth. I think the real problem was the microphone and the speakers. Not sure if any UBC rooms are designed for remote video conferencing (i.e. properly set up sound board and microphone and speakers). If there are any such rooms, that’s what we should have used in retrospect.

    OR we could have brought in our own room high end microphones (1 for each panelist) and used the speakers in the room for Daniela.

    Lessons learned for me: 1. if it’s Mac to Mac, then use iChat video. It works better than Skype video in terms of audio and video quality.
    2. try out video conferencing beforehand and if it’s not great like it wasn’t great for you, think about better speakers (or use the speakers from the built in audio system if any) and bring in better microphones (one per panelist)
    3. or punt and don’t do external video conferencing if we can’t solve the audio in/out problems

    Posted May 22, 2010 at 12:30 am | Permalink

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