APA 2013 – Participation & Thoughts on Unconference on Intelligent Cities

Civic Hacking Session room at APA 2013

From Christopher Pollard (@CRVanPollard).

I’m not at the American Planning Association’s annual meeting in Chicago! I wish I were (and yes, it would involve many a scene like the one pictured above). Here are some of the reasons why!

Taking on a Role in the APA Technology Division

I ran for and have been elected the Secretary-Treasurer of the APA‘s Technology Division. I have taken an interest in their work since I became a member of the APA and started attending the annual meetings when I started my planning degree, and take office in this position formally at the Technology Division’s business meeting (which was held on April 14). I’m looking forward to working with the rest of the executive committee on projects involving planners interested in technology, as well as learning more about the experiences and interests of other members! My statement as part of the nomination process is still online if you are curious.

APA’s first unconference (topic: intelligent cities)

Earlier I mentioned the APA’s annual meeting. I’m pleased that this year’s event in Chicago will be featuring an unconference on Intelligent Cities on Wednesday, April 17, as well as a session on Civic Hacking (hashtag: #hackAPA) with many of the interesting people working and thinking at the intersection of urban planning and the potential of online tools for organizing, participating, and making things happen. This is a hugely important conversation for planners to be involved in and I’m stoked to see an opportunity for planners to be leading the discussion, as I feel planners have important contributions to make around technology and the broader intents and impacts of policy. The unconference organizers are to be praised for opening up the conversation to non-conference attendees — something I find incredibly important given the misconceptions surrounding what planning does, how it does it, what it should be for, and how technologies will and ought to figure in all this.

Although I’m not able to attend the event in Chicago, I’ve taken a gander at the ideas that have been proposed and voted for the sessions highlight conversations I think need to hapen. As of Monday, there are 18 ideas on the site to lend support for some topics that I think matter. I encourage you to do the same! The session proposals are a quick skim and I think it will be interesting for those in room to get a sense of what those who couldn’t make it are thinking about.

Quick suggestions for first-time unconference attendees

Having facilitated a couple, attended a few, and thought a lot about unconferences — all of which had their own unique style, approach and cultures to consider in adapting Harrison Owen’s Open Space method — I thought I’d share a few quick tips and thoughts for those attending the unconference, especially since it is loosely affiliated with the annual meeting, a very different kind of event.

(A bit of background for those who might not know me — it was the experience of Toronto’s Transit Camp in 2007 that eventually led me to write my undergraduate thesis on the experience of public engagement, to help convene and organize Vancouver’s Transit Camp and TransLink’s SkyTrain Security Unconference, and to pursue my current studies in transportation planning.)

  1. See the diversity as an opportunity. Hopefully, the unconference gives you a chance or an excuse to get to know people from a diversity of backgrounds who hold different views and have different experiences. Embrace it! Diversity is an unconference’s strength. The people in attendance have illustrated that they’re interested in the topic enough to attend and share their time — dig in! You may be surprised where you might find support or refinement for your ideas.

  2. Turn your curiousity up to 11. The topic is definitely one on which strong views might be held. It is all too easy for us to make the assumption that views we disagree with are rooted in ignorance, misunderstanding, or ideology. As a prof teaching me intercultural communication once advised, “Turn your judgment into curiosity.” There are lots of things to question. Identify expressions of dissent in your conversation and make room for them — amplify them, even, and thank the people who have the courage to put it forth respectfully. Chances are good for every one person who has the strength to voice disagreement, there are a number of people who agree with it in whole or part.

  3. Look for common ground. There’s often a lot of focus on positions — things we want — with much less interest in why we want them. Respect the expertise of everyone in the room. It may mean it takes longer to figure out if the perspectives lend themselves to concrete action that you can offer once the unconference is over. Hanging on to that common ground is vital, especially if you think your follow-up will involve collaborating with people at a disance.

  4. Have fun! Unconferences get their energy in much the same way cities do — by acknowledging the role that everyone has in creating an informative environment.

My review of Evgeny Morozov’s new book

This is not directly related to the conference but if I were at the discussion on Intelligent Cities, it is doubtless I would make mention of this book at least once.

I penned a brief, 500-word review of Evgeny Morozov’s To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism for the Division’s most recent newsletter. Since the Division is in the midst of shifting gears on its web presence, I will re-post my review here on my blog. With any luck, I will get to expand on my thoughts on that article here on blog in the future as well. One criticism of Morozov (mostly these tweets from Alex Steffen) is that he doesn’t go far enough to suggest alternatives or be generative in pointing the way towards action. Morozov has responded in the past to this critique (although I’m not able to find a citation for it, curses!) by saying that it’s not his job. His job, as he appears to see it, is to point out the weaknesses and failures associated with the outcomes of the thinking he criticizes (and to do so in ways that are accessible and which engage with the broader history of human scholarship and knowledge), not to reform the system by ensuring it appropriately internalizes it into action going forward.

The book is perhaps thin on prescriptions for action if compared with a book like, say, Jack Manno’s treatise on the effect of commoditization, Privileged Goods. I think the main effect of making concrete suggestions is that it makes people zoom in on the content of the prescribed action, rather than the process of considering and assimilating the ideas. In short, Morozov would undo his own argument against solutionism if he described technology outcomes in any kind of concrete fashion. He does highlight examples of processes that lead to outcomes that he respects (such as adversarial design).

(I’ll admit to occasional frustration with the performance he engages in, though I see why he might think it necessary or helpful.)

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