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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.)

Untangling positions from interests in the Uber debacle

Since I first wrote my previous post describing my reactions and thoughts on Uber, the topic has since, as expected, exploded — both across the continent and here in Vancouver. Uber itself has stoked this fire. Since Uber’s business model makes it technically a limousine service, the Passenger Transport Board is requiring it to charge $75 per ride minimum as per the way the board classifies the types of trips being served by Uber and contends it is a transport company, which Uber disagrees with. Uber has encouraged its users here in Vancouver to bombard the Passenger Transport Board (which regulates taxi and limo rates and license policies), Mary Polak, the Minister of Transport, and Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson with social media condemnation.

Earlier this week, David Eaves offered his thoughts to the Passenger Transportation Board through a thoughtful blog post that broke down some of the pros and cons of the minister’s response, and what cities have to gain with the experience Uber offers. He linked to my post saying that I don’t make the case for not letting Uber into the market — and since I don’t think I intended to (though I admit it may not read that way), I don’t feel bad that I failed in that regard. What I had mostly hoped to argue for was some measure of thoughtfulness about the complexity of the situation.

I’d like to borrow a tack from the field of negotiation and separate the interests in this situation from the positions to navigate conflict and collaboration. In short, a position is a preference for a specific outcome, whereas an interest often pertains to the reasons underlying our desire for a position. (Thanks again to David for blogging a reminder about these helpful concepts recently.)

Uber and its supporters have got a position and they’re sticking to it — that any body that deems to regulate its services is corrupt, engaging in privileged protectionism of taxi and limo companies to the detriment of innovation, and that this is an injustice to consumers who are being gouged with inefficient, pricy and poor service. They’ve insisted upon a David and Goliath reading in which Uber and the customers are the victims and the only thing that is satisfactory is a return to the way when Uber, frankly, was operating completely off the radar. Granted, they did so with drivers already working for companies that, we assume, were licensed.

Having never worked or interacted with them directly outside of Twitter, the Ministry of Transport does not have a reputation amongst the urban transportation advocates I’ve been in contact with as the most, shall we say, with it of bodies. So their main mode of responding to the deluge was a somewhat cold and sterile press release statement that made some allusions of collaboration with Uber. This happens to feed right into the way Uber would prefer us to see things — a faceless bureaucracy that doesn’t care about you and I or our transportation challenges. Fault me for not being too cynical about the board’s motives, but it looks to me more like the Ministry and the PTB were blindsided by a company that (and this part is ambiguous) never seemed to try to engage it in good faith or did anything but start yelling about being a victim.

I don’t have a position. As I said at the end of my last piece, I don’t pretend to know how this should all play out. But I also categorically reject the way Uber is framing this situation, because they have something to gain from it, such as an angry raging public to do their bidding to strongarm regulators into doing something that may privilege Uber at the expense of a benefit we actually might kinda like.

That said, my interest — and what I hope others’ interest should be too — is in seeing policy developed that allows innovations in service delivery (such as Uber) to work in the space with some adequate consideration for the reasons the industry is regulated, of which the price is an important factor among many. Some participants in the conversation on Twitter have brought these up, such as issues of safety, inspection of cars, distribution of costs and benefits, and the opinions of the people employed in the industry.

A recent Vancouver Courier story on the subject includes statements from the director of the Passenger Transportation Board and Uber’s Vancouver manager, and seems to reinforce the story being told by Uber rather than shedding light on the nature of those considerations. That’s disappointing but befitting a process that has never been transparent. Jan Broocke, the director of PTB, alluded to the fact that the pricing was decided as recently as July 2011 and agreed upon by the limo industry. In transport policy time, this is considered recent.

Some similar companies as Uber have run into the same roadblocks, and have chosen to approach it differently, as this piece by Brian X. Chen in the New York Times briefly describes. This reinforce my points — the way this story is being framed is not the only way possible, and far from the only valid one.

That being said, the truth and the way forward likely incorporates a little bit of all approaches. To speak to that, I want to emphasize that I am NOT saying that taxi companies should not be subject to competition. I am NOT in favour of making things unduly difficult for companies doing heretofore difficult/impossible things with technology to improve the experience. And I certainly don’t think that the poor quality of taxi service or the transportation system in Vancouver more broadly (since some have tried to bring the scarcity of late night transit into this discussion) is something we shouldn’t be frustrated and willing to speak up about.

For the benefit of those who might not know me or where I’m coming from, I advocate for public transit as a volunteer with the Vancouver Public Space Network and am getting a master’s in planning with a focus on transportation and study the interaction of society and technology. So I’m curious and passionate about the experience of urban mobility and issues of access, and have written elsewhere on the topic.

I don’t have a position. Instead, I am deeply interested that the public as a whole get a policy that works for all of us — those employed by the taxi and limo industries, consumers of varying stripes (i.e. not just those of us with smartphones or money for taxis as they operate right now), and I’m far from satisfied by only one side’s story on the costs, risks and benefits.

Being curious about interests is harder to convey in a tweet than simply asking for something, but for me much more worthwhile. (And since my thesis in progress is on Twitter as a site of policy dialogue, this whole thing has been eminently useful and enlightening.)

Unpacking Uber’s role in the transportation system and policy

Earlier this year, I wrote a brief piece looking at existing and on the horizon taxi and taxi-like transportation services in Vancouver from the user perspective. A month or two after this, I was very glad to see Luke Brocki at The Dependent tackle the structure of taxicab licensing in Vancouver — an area rich in questions and history that deserved (and still deserves) a lot more attention than it usually gets.

An image of a taxicab on Vancouver's Granville Street at night

Photo by Alejandro Mejía Greene from Flickr, CC.

The story is ever-evolving, with the new smartphone-savvy sedan service Uber making a splash. The gist (from Uber’s FAQ):

Uber is an on-demand car service that allows everyone to have a private driver experience through iPhone, SMS, and web based requests. We are a technology startup that has created a more efficient means of transportation, making your city more useful and more pleasurable to move around in. Uber connects clients and our network of professional town car and limo drivers in the simplest most elegant way possible, and we do it at a fraction of the cost.

(If you’re curious, here is a detailed account of using Uber in Vancouver).

Over at Boing Boing, Xeni Jardin shared her personal experience with Uber. Xeni offered the story as a reaction to the news that Washington D.C. is considering reviewing its bylaws in order to protect the existing taxi industry in light of the competition Uber is presenting. From Xeni’s post:

I absolutely love the smartphone app Uber, which allows you to order car service on demand, instead of trying to hail or call a cab or order a black car. It became an essential tool during my radiation treatment for cancer in LA, when treatment made me too weak to drive, public transportation didn’t serve the route I needed to get to the hospital, and I was just too flaked out to arrange rides in other ways. When my friends Tara Brown and Sean Bonner “gifted” me some Uber credits, I tried it once and was hooked. Uber wasn’t a luxury for me, but a truly practical service.

It is also the very definition of a disruptive technology: as Napster was to the recording industry, Uber is to taxi unions. And, not coincidentally, the guy behind it is Travis Kalanick, who was once sued for $250 billion by the MPAA, RIAA, and NMPA over his now-defunct P2P search engine Scour.

In his latest round of pissing off legacy industries by building great internet-based services, Kalanick has managed to upset the forces that represent Washington, DC area cab drivers. And the DC city council is now considering regulation that would mandate much more government oversight over Uber’s operations, and severely cramp its style.

Uber is along the lines of the kind of thing that I wrote about in my previous article — a service that only works when individuals on both the supply and the demand side have access to real-time location-aware information about each other’s supply and demand respectively. One of the challenges with Uber is that it doesn’t create new transportation supply in a form we are more accustomed with — such as new moving infrastructure (like new transit vehicles) or new or re-allocated static infrastructure (such as a new water crossing or bike-lane). This is, in fact, improved allocation of moving infrastructure — coordinating excess supply that always existed (in the form of off-duty limosines) with demand that either would have been previously fulfilled up by taxicabs, transit, people begging favours from friends, (in some cities) car-sharing, or, in the worse case, resulting in trips not taken.

What I’ve done above is describe Uber’s contribution using my modest toolbox of transportation economic terms. What prompted me to do so is the face I pulled when I saw the word Xeni chose to describe Uber in her post: disruptive. That word carries a lot of baggage that and disguises a lot of problems, in my view. Disruptive can certainly be descriptive in the sense that it disrupts the situation as it currently exists, the status quo. But the occasional tone with which people use the word disruptive — the glowing, revalatory air — overly attributes positive social change with private business entrepreneurs 1. Disruptive implies that a change is positive and desirable by virtue of the fact that it upends existing systems. It reeks of a kind of economic determinism: that by virtue of something being more efficient, it is unquestionably better for everyone involved. As you can pick up from the tone of the first quote, this is undeniably a large part of Uber’s self-image.

That assumption makes me cringe really, really hard, because it makes it seem like the winners and losers in the re-configuring of a system somehow each deserve their respective successes and failures; or, that all else being given, those involved will always, unwaveringly back a bad system as long as they personally see benefit. That is profoundly reductionistic for all the players involved, and a really bad faith way to characterize policy decision-making. Don’t misinterpret me as taking an extreme position by this; I’m not a pollyanna believing everyone will put aside their differences in selfless support of the common good. The realities of the politics surrounding such decisions are not lost on me. But a neoliberal approach that automatically says we should let Uber re-configure our transportation system however it will simply because it can just because it’s amazing fantastic technology, strikes me as a pretty myopic position biased towards people with smartphones and saying taxi drivers should either adapt (which some will find easier than others) or fail and have only themselves to blame for their fate.

To me, what is worse is that it purports to have some kind of moral certainty that the existing system is worth overthrowing. Here’s a completely hypothetical situation that illustrates how problematic this can be. Earlier this year, TransLink was considering cutting the Taxi Savers program, which provides seniors with taxi vouchers to use for unexpected trips when using transit or the HandyDart door-to-door service wasn’t feasible. This program was costing TransLink $1.1 million per year and they were about to get rid of it, but seniors anticipating its impacts managed to save the program through a dedicated letter-writing campaign. I know nothing about how the economics of this program work out for taxi drivers, but let’s hypothesize that taxi drivers do see a bunch of their business impacted negatively for Uber. What happens to their ability to provide services to Taxi Savers? Do they bill TransLink more? Does that impact different demographics differently? Transportation systems are integrated and complex in that way. Private businesses get to make choices about their business models in ways that allow them to focus narrowly. Governments don’t technically have that luxury — even though circumstances dictate that they have to, to the detriment of those who slip between the cracks. (This, without even considering the question of who drives taxis anyway?)

Is the existing arrangement worth defending? I wouldn’t pretend to know what the answer is — and I’m uncomfortable with the idea of anyone, tech or transportation startup, asserting that they do, even if I get why they have to say that. If nothing else, this is a heads-up to transportation departments in cities everywhere to think about who wins and loses as a result of tools targeting and serving new segments, and being proactive in helping us talk through how this tracks with, say, the next 30 years of the city) or region‘s transportation future.

1 – Not to play favourites, but social entrepreneurs, seem to at very least pay lip service to the complexity of the systems into which they enter. Not all of them, of course.

Me on Vancouver Transportation in Spacing Fall 2012 issue

Spacing Magazine cover image, Fall 2012 (National Edition)
TonightOn September 25th, the fine folks at Spacing Magazine will celebrated the launch of the latest issue of Spacing Magazine. As Spacing has done since last year, they publish one two national issues a year with contributions from cities across Canada. I am grateful that the editors extended to me an opportunity to contribute, alongside three other knowledgeable local movers and shakers, a brief piece about some of the strengths and challenges related to (in my case) Vancouver’s transportation system.

For those familiar with Vancouver, most of what I wrote will seem pretty obvious, as I was glossing over for a 200 word piece, but for the purposes of painting a picture for national audience, I hope it gives an effective summary of transportation now and in the near future. This was completed, of course, before TransLink started their draft base plan consultation for 2013, but much of what we have seen from that process further emphasizes the points I made in my Spacing piece (and in my post here last week) about the challenges we have for expanding (and in many cases, maintaining) high quality transit service throughout the region.

I’m hoping I’ll get to grab a copy soon to read the rest of it! Here’s a list of stores in Canada that carry Spacing if you want to get your hands on it as well.

Today’s Transit, Tomorrow’s Pipeline: Connecting the dots between the headlines

The big story for yesterday was TransLink unveiling their draft 2013 base plan (which TransLink is bringing out for public consultation starting September 20). The gist of it is this: because Christy Clark’s BC government scuttled the Mayor’s Council proposals for drumming up the funds to maintain and expand existing transit services, TransLink is having to make the hard calls on what will go forward and what it can’t afford to grow or keep around. TransLink’s Buzzer blog, Stephen Rees, Civic Surrey and Vancouver Observer go into much greater depth on the implications of this plan. Thankfully, we’ll still see the Evergreen Line rapid transit being built in Coquitlam, and a B-Line express bus service (though much curtailed) will still make its way to Surrey.

Meanwhile, a story from today’s Globe and Mail: BC Poll finds staunch opposition to pair of pipelines, referring to the proposed Northern Gateway and TransMountain oil pipelines. Quote:

The poll found 60.3 per cent of those surveyed oppose Gateway, while 49.9 per cent oppose plans by Kinder Morgan to twin its Trans Mountain system, a half-century-old pipe that already carries substantial volumes of Alberta oil to Burnaby, B.C.

(A warning on nomenclature for any non-locals: the Enbridge Northern Gateway proposed oil pipeline should not be confused with the Pacific Gateway Transportation Strategy, which sees the expansion of road capacity for Deltaport, the twinning of the Port Mann Bridge, and the constructions of the South Fraser Perimeter Road. That bridge is not tangential to this discussion either, as Gordon Price blogged today regarding spending priorities.)

On the surface, these stories seem to have little to do with each other — even though the pipeline story has become a lightning rod for a whole host of issues, from the future of resource-based economy in BC, to the division of oil pipeline revenues versus who assumes the risk of handling potential oil spills, and the perceived meddling of the Federal government with environmental assessment and protection safeguards, climate policy and scientific due process. Isn’t the story of public transit being underfunded in Vancouver just this region catching up to the public transit story for pretty much all of North America?

Peter Ladner penned a piece for Business in Vancouver that hit the bullseye on the real meaning of the TransLink base plan announcement. From his article (long quote, but it’s a good one, I promise):

When will we reach the tipping point where it will be considered safe for a political leader to authorize sustainable funding for public transit? Or will we ever reach that point again?

For now, many are convinced we’re not there, hence the mania for auditing TransLink, as though that will miraculously yield enough bus loaves and fishes to feed transit to the multitudes. It’s not going to happen.

[…] TransLink needs to be more efficient. It needs to be policed by people who aren’t double-dipping. It needs to regain trust with voters. But after all that, it’s still going to need new funding to properly maintain, service and upgrade transportation infrastructure in Metro Vancouver.

Much of the public chatter about TransLink reminds me of the joke about what men really mean when talking to women.

“What kind of work do you do?” really means “I want to go to bed with you.” “Do you like hiking?” really means “I want to go to bed with you.” “You look terrific” really means “I want to go to bed with you.”

According to Langley-based Jordan Bateman of the Canadian Taxpayers’ Federation (what is that, anyway?), most people think transit is a good idea for their friends and neighbours but not for them, so they don’t want to pay for it.

That’s the message that caused Premier Christy Clark to kick aside, without any consultation or negotiation, a painfully crafted proposal to approve a vehicle levy to keep transit moving and improving.

Here’s what I think is really going on: “We need to wait and see TransLink run more efficiently” really means “I don’t want to pay for someone else’s transit.”

“TransLink is politically unaccountable” really means “I don’t want to pay for someone else’s transit.”

“We’re being taxed to death” really means “I don’t want to pay for someone else’s transit.”

“We have to wait until the economy recovers before investing in more rapid transit” really means “I don’t want to pay for someone else’s transit.”

The angle that ties these two things together is the one that considers the economics of generational shift. (Gordon Price has been keeping tabs on the issue of the generational shift at Price Tags.) Interestingly, the pipeline poll showed concerns about the pipeline to be second only to those about the economy. What is transit for or about if it’s not the economy? In the places where it works, transit costs about the same, in the long-term, if not less, than paying for a tonne of metal that depreciates the moment you take it off the lot, along with the gas, maintenancea and insurance it runs on. That means it frees up money for people to spend on goods, services and experiences — which often results in more jobs.

Decision-makers are framing problems according to concerns of the past, not problems of the present or future. Yesterday’s economy relied on people building cars and choosing to live in places that depended on them. The people buying houses don’t want to spend their lives in — or their livelihoods on — their cars. It’s well-documented that people across the continent are driving less, putting off getting their licenses, and choosing to live near transit. Go ahead and call us “The Cheapest Generation,” like the Atlantic Magazine did last month.

But dig a little deeper. Who will bear the ill effects of altered climate resulting in extreme weather events becoming more common? Those being born now, and their children. Who will have to live with the social effects of an underdeveloped transit system, congestion and sprawled development patterns? Youth and children. Thinking of the concerns about the pipeline, who would have to foot the long-term costs of restoring and pay the price of not being able to enjoy affected ecosystems, should oil spills damage BC’s coast? Taxpayers of the future. And don’t forget the realities of the demographic shift and its implications on income and pensions.

Cheap’s looking pretty smart for a whole bunch of good reasons.

This is a powerful transitional time on the local, national and international arenas, as the developed world comes to grips with our understanding of what we value and what we want out of the good life. We’re also in the awkward position of having to figure out how to correctly price the impact of a car-based lifestyle, while creating alternatives that actually work. It’s uncomfortable and unsettling — but will be even more so if it doesn’t happen at all.

Ladner still put it best in his closing paragraph:

[..T]he question becomes: When does “someone else’s transit” become “my transit, my way of getting around,” or something that benefits me – not just my friends and neighbours? When will enough voters view transit as being in their interest?

When will enough voters view transit as being part of their legacy?

Urban stories and other thoughts: Digital Storytelling Unconference Vancouver, July 7th, 2012

This past weekend, I attended the Digital Storytelling Unconference at New Westminster’s River Market. In the morning pitch session, I introduced myself, then said I was very glad to hear that the Unconference was being held in New Westminster, and attributed to the revitalization of the Quay and its market as a phenomenon rooted in storytelling, and thus a very appropriate venue for the conference. My session was scheduled for the end of the day. There was a ton of good discussion, but I probably glossed over a few things that could have used a bit more explaining.

I attempted to start with a video about Participatory Chinatown, a game from Emerson College’s Engagement Lab which allowed people to get to know the lives of people living in Boston’s Chinatown, and wove it into discussions about the neighbourhood’s future. It’s an intriguing example of game dynamics being applied for the task of envisioning the development of a neighbourhood.

I then showed the website Disappearing Main Street. I think I mentioned that I have some mixed feelings about the project. In spite of that, it still strikes me as a great example of the kinds of stories we are able to now tell, where previously it might have taken a lot longer and reached a lot fewer people compared to being online now. I put this in the same vein as the interest in hyperlocal news, which I recall someone remarking on during the session as a “failed promise” of some sort. My opinion is that even if those early experiments didn’t pan out, I don’t think we’re seeing the desire to use our online tools for bettering and improving our understanding of our immediate surroundings; just that those experiments are still continuing to find their footing.

Aside from the technical plumbing questions of what data is available (although those are all very important), I am fascinated by digital storytelling for cooperation and coordination on either responding to urban issues or creating new things altogether. (Frankly, that’s probably been the thread tying together most of my obsessions since I started my undergraduate thesis on Toronto Transit Camp.) What I think is interesting is that planning is the existing institution with which we have traditionally addressed these issues (and for which we have a lot of language for describing the trajectory of change we want to see). What the tools for cooperation and collaboration allow us to do is scale up that conversation, although it doesn’t necessarily give us any shortcuts in understanding how, precisely, to work with each other on things we care about. That last bit of work still happens through the stories, and for that we need safe spaces to bring who we are into those tales. And, ways to find our interested audiences.

What I lacked the cohesiveness to say is how digital storytelling is becoming symbiotic with the act of placemaking. We can see this when we see that the most common question on a city’s Reddit board is often some variation of, “I’m in town for / I will be moving to your city in a day / a week / a month, where should I live / what should I do while I’m here?” I see the footprints we leave in the digital cloud (your Foursquare check-in today, your local restaurant review tomorrow) taking on the digital equivalent of foot impressions in wet concrete, our individuated marks in the informational infrastructure.

But stories also happen on different scales. As I mentioned in the day’s first session on mobile hardware for storytelling, the ideal (for me, anyway) is that we gather and archive these minutiae as the raw material for the larger stories we want to tell; they themselves can’t be a story. Jay Catalan relayed the experience of his friend who diligently kept a blog, then started using Twitter for a year. When he looked back at his blogs, he realized they stood the test of time much better, conveying a better image of where he was in his life; whereas his tweets hung there, its context long since faded, empty and meaningless. (As I said in response, from my personal experience, it is entirely possible to have a future-directed Twitter stream; it’s just not how most people use Twitter, so most people don’t do it, and that may impact follower count, etc.)

During the last part of the session, I brought up This Is Our Stop, which was kind of fun because both Denim and Steel‘s Todd Sieling and I were in the room, so I was able to speak to some of what I had when I came up with the idea (such as connecting with people sharing an experience of space and service, across time), and Todd was able to speak to how people have actually used This Is Our Stop (as well as how it has been received by TransLink and how it has fared in its incarnations in other cities). As I’ve blogged before, I think there’s a great deal of wisdom behind the way TIOS was implemented, as an extension of the somewhat fleeting experience of interacting with strangers at a bus stop. Just because our digital tools can do certain things in exchange for hooking up with our identities in other systems, doesn’t mean it should or would be particularly beneficial.

As an aside, I did mention that, in my opinion, This Is Our Stop strikes me as one of the more intriguing and interesting uses of TransLink’s GTFS service data, and I haven’t been aware of too many others (either specific to TransLink or from other transit agencies) aside from mobile scheduling applications. TransLink is holding a developer camp on Wednesday, July 18th (no additional information out of TransLink’s Buzzer blog aside from a brief mention) for app developers interested in working with TransLink’s API, as part of its I Love Transit week activities. Those interested in keeping abreast, TransLink has a Google Group for their API developers.

Reading Raul’s blog post on the value of storytelling reminds me of something I had wanted but didn’t get to bring up in the session: why stories for policy? Aren’t the big decisions of government too important to worry about the stories or one or two or ten people? For those who argue for the use of dialogue in policy decision-making, stories have everything to do with who’s telling them. The issues at hand are often so complex that stories end up to be the primary way by which we understand why people think certain things — such as what the most pressing parts of an issue are, what the causes of those issues are, and what effects result from those issues. To take an example from urban planning, affordable housing is a huge issue affecting large swaths of the people living and who want to live in Vancouver; but how are questions of what gets built affected by our stated goals, such as compact development, transit-oriented development, or access to greenspace? What are we willing to trade off on, and who wins and loses when we decide that (or if we don’t decide at all)?

Since the conference I’ve stumbled on yet another interesting experiment in this space, this one also by TransLink: the Buzzer Blog is doing a series of blog posts on the topics of planning for the future. I really have to applaud them on highlighting the tradeoffs inherent in the activities that further TransLink’s goals. Even though, as one commenter put it, there is a sense of, “How does us knowing or talking about this change anything?” the fact is that systems have stories too, and even the largest, most powerful individuals or entities in the region influence that story at best; they don’t have the singular ability to write it.

See my Storify page on the Digital Storytelling Unconference for more tweets, pictures and hopefully blog posts as I find them. There was a really great session on interactive conversations where I had some interesting ideas which I’ll perhaps write about another day…

Re-visiting co-design as participation in planning

20120504-105203.jpgSource: Co-Design Group

About three years ago, prior to entering UBC’s School of Community and Regional Planning, I had a chance to attend a demonstration of the co-design method pioneered by architect Stanley King. This article will give a brief rundown of the major activities involved in a co-design process, This will be followed by some links to other resources about co-design, examples of projects that have used the co-design method, and how King is moving forward with integrating co-design methods into current work.

What is Co-Design?

Broadly speaking, co-design brings members of the public together with artist-facilitators to dialogue and collaboratively produce a community vision. These visions can guide and inform planning and design activities as a project unfolds. Stanley King has been using this method with communities since 1971 through The Co-Design Group, an informal association of architects, designers and researchers based in western Canada.

The bulk of these activities occur during an event commonly known as a co-design workshop (although, depending of course on the circumstances of the project, this may be paired with other activities such as an ideas fair). Members of the public are invited to the workshop – often, a day-long event. As with many participatory activities, broad representation — by age, background, activity — is key, although groups within the broader community may need special consideration.
As with all dialogues and participatory activities, setting expectations and boundaries is key. As explained in the report of the use of co-design in Vancouver’s Woodwards Project:

Participants were asked to observe 3 rules during the visioning:

1. Speak for yourself – say “I” not “We”- let others speak for themselves.

2. Avoid negative criticism – if you don’t like an idea suggest your alternative.

3. Don’t attempt solutions – think of the life of the place, consider possibilities.

Co-design Agenda

A co-design workshop often starts with a Site visit and Walkabout, allowing the facilitators and members of the community to jointly learn or re-discovering salient features of the site, like lighting, topography or existing infrastructure.

With the atmosphere of the space fresh in everyone’s mind, the public is asked to brainstorm an Activity Timeline. As a group, the public discusses what kinds of activities they envision taking place in the space over the course of a day. I sometimes refer to this as, “A Day In the Life.” This brainstorming serves as an opportunity for people to give voice, in a large-group setting, to how a place would fit into their daily lives.

Next comes what is referred to as the Image Creation phase, and the heart of the co-design experience. The artist facilitators take what is said in the brainstorm and categorize it into general guiding themes that they will be focusing on for their drawing. Members of the public are then broken up into smaller groups and assigned to work with the artist-faclitators on those themes. The artists then begin to sketch an image of the place, in close discussion with their group as they discuss specifics. It can often result in a dialogue process rooted in the constructive: what should be here? What will the people here be doing, and how will they be doing it? (Artists, King notes, cannot draw absences — at best they can draw two desired things co-existing.)

Once all the groups have completed their images, the specific elements that have been included and highlighted in the image are listed. The images are displayed and the larger group is invited to view all the images produced and to express their preferences for the qualities and features in the images, as well as their suggestions for what might make them work or not work in the particular place.

Co-Design in Action

  • This site from the City of Vancouver has three co-design reports for the Woodward’s Project in Vancouver, and can give you a good idea of the output of a co-design process as well as the way a co-design workshop might be coordinated with other community engagement activities.
  • I was fortunate to get to see King and the artist facilitators at work as part of my course work focused on a community visioning process for Britannia Community Centre in Vancouver. See him speaking about co-design in this video on the Britannia community engagement process. (Disclaimer: I shot and edited this along with two colleagues in my Multimedia for Planning Engagement class in 2010, and also participated as a student in the urban design class.)
  • This video is from Stanley King’s work on the Little Mountain Housing Project. It has been edited together by a local community group and provides an overview of the workshop and shows some of the resulting images. (Stanley himself appears 7:53 into the video.) The community’s groups description of the video highlights an important point that is true of all participatory tools — that what happens during a co-design process needs to be integrated and followed-up in a planning and development process.
  • My blog post of a co-design demonstration from 2009 also contains some images of the consensus process where people vote on the features in the images.
  • Here is a photoset of images from an adaptation of the co-design workshop adapted for the City of Vancouver’s Transportation 2040 transportation plan update public consultation activity.
  • See more about the co-design method in this 1973 film called Chairs For Lovers. (Note: Dial up the National Film Board nostalgia.)

Co-Design Moving Forward

Stanley King and his colleague Susan Ng Cheung are applying their experiences with co-design to better engaging youth in planning activities. They recently released a book called Youth Manual for Sustainable Design:

Together they created a Co-Design Youth Program to help youth participate in the ecological design of the spaces they will ultimately inherit. Recently, the program has enabled youth to participate in school garden design, architectural design of a waterfront and also in transportation planning. Currently, Stanley and Susan are researching the connection between co-design and the ecological interactions of communities.

As you can tell, I’m a big fan of the method, because I think people inhabit a different frame of mind when they are in engaged in constructive processes of making things together in addition to the usual talking, discussing and deliberating.
It’s been pointed out to me that it may be challenging to some for relegating planners in a seemingly passive role, of recording and notetaking the public’s interests rather than more actively applying planning skill. I would respond that by hypothesizing that an awful lot happens in those conversations while the artist-facilitator is drawing. Furthermore, I’d be interested to see what role the images created in the process might have in identifying community assets for implementing what is brainstormed, and coordinating that with more formal activities involving developers, architects, designers and planners.

Reflecting on This Is Our Stop

Last Thursday, friends and local web app artisans Tylor Sherman and Todd Sieling (principals of Denim and Steel) launched This is Our Stop, a web application they have spent the last few months developing and testing. It is a refinement of my original concept of “a Facebook wall for every bus stop” I proposed back in 2009 (then called Adopt a Stop) for a Knight News Foundation grant.

I’m absolutely thrilled — on the one hand, for the app itself, which I’ve had the joy of watching proceed from its early days to its current iteration, simple, effective yet inviting; and on the other, the amount of interest for the app has absolutely blown me away. Todd and Tylor have received a bunch of coverage from media. Most of all, I’ve really enjoyed going through the comments to see how it’s received from TransLink transit-goers. But perhaps most telling about the appeal of This is Our Stop, is that the app hasn’t even been out of launch a week and, astoundingly, it’s already been replicated for Toronto through the site MyStop.to. Denim and Steel has a first week round-up with links to all of that coverage, as well as a good selection of some of the comments people have been leaving at bus stops through TIOS.

It’s been hard to keep the smile off my face when I think about this. It seems just like yesterday, I was at an open data hackathon at the Vancouver Archives, grabbing a sharpie and a piece of flip chart paper, and dragging Richard into the lobby, determined to finally put down on paper the idea I’d had bouncing around in my head for months in order to interact with other people taking the bus waiting at their stops.

Here are three quick thoughts on what I really enjoy about both the app itself and the process through which it has unfolded.

1. Making community conversations accessible

Adopt-a-Stop was originally built on my viewing bus stop numbers act as a low-tech, SMS-friendly form of GPS. I was also heavily inspired by now-defunct Block Chalk, a tool that used graffiti as an analogy for geo-located messaging. I’m deeply interested in tools and methods that allow us to transcend time and space in telling and hearing our collective stories. Learning more about the people that make their lives in our neighbourhoods, cities and region feels like a first step to better connecting to the people in our communities, in all their diverse backgrounds, goals and aspirations. (This is Our Stop references this desire succinctly: “Give voice to the secret lives of your favourite bus stops.”)

The concept is particularly close to my heart because I think, one the one hand, transit spaces are incredibly rich yet vastly misunderstood spaces (as I think this cultural geography paper starts to capture really well); and on the other, because public transportation (in North America) is seen extremely negatively in contrast to other modes of transportation — often because of other people. I don’t think that’s true, and I know that others don’t either.

Code re-use as inter-city learning — open data and open source

TransLink’s open data consists of (among many other things) the GPS coordinates and 5-digit codes for all the buses operated by Coast Mountain Bus Company, TransLink’s operating subsidiary. The fact that this data is made available in the Google Transit Feed Specification (GTFS) — which has become a de-facto standard for transit schedule information (see this excellent post at Xconomy on the development and growth of GTFS) means that the underlying code for This Is Our Stop can be re-used to deploy a system using the bus stop and route information of just about any other transit system with data in the GTFS format. That’s pretty cool — over 300 systems around the world cool, in fact. That doesn’t mean all the work is done for getting the system elsewhere — but it does make it much easier for those who are knowledgeable and willing to put in the elbowgrease to get it right for their system and city.

Cities have historically learned and taken a lot of inspiration from each other. There’s now a lot of interest in creating infrastructures that enable cities to swap tools and methods that allow residents to better understand, use and thrive in cities (Civic Commons is I believe only one of many such projects), in addition to the traditional systems that have supported this (I’m thinking professional associations, conferences, scholarship, etc.)

Start small, really well

Another reason I’m happy that Todd and Tylor have taken this on is because they really get (way better than I do) one of the guiding rules of open source tools: to get an app of the ground by doing a small number or even one thing really well, and to move from there once people have expressed interest in it or are willing to commit effort or resources into extending it. (I’m also kind of fascinated by how Todd and Tylor have framed it as “niche social networking” — a concept that I don’t think was quite as popular back in 2009 but which appears to be quite common now.)

Perhaps it’s not a perfect analogy, but as I learned at the Tactical Urbanism talk at the American Planning Association session this year, there is growing interest in doing more planning work this way too. As transportation planning hero Janette Sadik-Khan has advocated, start off with a temporary trial or pilot (for, say, reconfiguring a street, or re-purposing an underutilized space) that shows what is possible and takes advantage of what makes sense for that place; and if it proves successful enough to attract support and buy-in, only then figure out the model for making it permanent. I think it really taps into the experiential aspect that’s sometimes required for people to fully grasp the value of a proposal. Seeing (and possibly sitting in or walking through) is believing.

Another unofficial maxim of open source is to “scratch your own itch” — in other words, develop apps that solve problems that you yourself want to see solved. I’m unendingly heartened that others are wondering what the people around them are thinking and feeling and want to use an app to share that too. Thanks again to Tylor and Todd for making what probably started off as a flight of whimsy at a bus stop into awesome reality!

As I tweeted, there’s still plenty of ways to extend TIOS — such as making the service available to non-smartphone users through SMS (perhaps using Twitter as an intermediary in order to avoid the requirement of a text message gateway). Here’s hoping it gets a chance to happen!

#PlannersTweet: Learning how planning and planners use(s) Twitter

Inspired by my friend Raul Pacheco-Vega’s recent use of Twitter to encourage scholars to talk about their research, I’d like to get planning researchers and practitioners talking a little bit about what they get from using Twitter. There’s always been a lot of misperceptions — that Twitter is only for reading headlines, sharing what you ate for breakfast or following celebrity gossip. While it is, admittedly, fantastic for that, we’re also sharing important things like how we feel about our communities or being inspired to improve our collective experience.

With that in mind, if you are on Twitter, I invite you to post one or many tweets on the question:

How does Twitter help you as a planner?
What do you think planners or planning should know about Twitter?

Let’s get a conversation going using the hashtag #plannerstweet!

Why are you interested?

My research for my master’s thesis is examining how organizations have used and understand Twitter for public engagement on sustainability issues, so I’m interested in how planners see Twitter and how they carry these perceptions into their work! I have some more information on my research available in this blog post about my research.

More personally, I have been using Twitter since before I became a student of planning, and arguably it has been a pretty important part of how I learn about planning best practice and the many perspectives people bring to questions about the future of cities, and I think it is changing the way people form and understand community in ways that are relevant to planning.

How will you be using what you hear?

I’ve gotten a lot of advice from people I’ve talked to about my research to use Twitter itself to engage people in conversation about my research, and figured now, while I’m fairly early in the research process, is as good a time as any to let people know what questions I’m asking and how I’m thinking of answering them.

On February 2, I will be giving a presentation at the Canadian Association of Planning Students conference on February 2, 2012, entitled “Twitter for community and engagement.” I’ll be presenting some initial key ideas about how I’ll be conducting this research to fellow students (each with their own interests, opinions and experiences with both planning, social media and technology generally), and I will also do a summary of what’s been said about planners tweeting. I’ll make that presentation file available once the conference has ended as well.

This is pretty new for me and I’m looking forward to learning whatever I can from it. With any hope, the people I’ve been talking to and following who talk about planning, feel like weighing in on this!

This also seems like a good time to ask — the Transportation Research Board just held their annual meeting just wrapped up in Washington, D.C. (where I learned a lot just by following along on Twitter with the #trbam tag), where many were enthusiastically tweeting and pulling others to join in the digital backchannel.

Finally…, However you use Twitter is relevant. Although my personal interest is public engagement, planners do a lot of things that aren’t public engagement that are potentially impacted by Twitter and social media too. Whether it’s following along conference (like I do, a lot), keeping in touch with those people you connected with but are far away from, or just keeping an ear to the ground on who else is talking about what is going on in places that matter to you, it’s all fair game. Sky’s the limit. (Anyway, this is Twitter, I couldn’t stop you if I tried.)

Looking forward to hearing everyone’s thoughts on using Twitter!

A little more about #myresearch

Last week, I was really excited to see that friend, fellow scholar and local blogger Raul Pacheco-Vega had started something fun on Twitter — getting academics to describe their research in 140 characters and tagging it with #myresearch, in order to foster sharing and coordination in the knowledge-making process. I’m only now emerging from my bubble to weigh in. But hardly seems fair to just leave it at that though… so here’s the tweet, plus a little more.

#myresearch looks at how planning orgs have used & understand Twitter for public engagement on sustainability issues.

Why does Twitter matter for planning?

I’ve asked this question for a pretty good long while, as a consequence of not only using Twitter as I was learning about transit and planning, but also helping instigate Transit Camp (in 2007), learning about transit advocacy through the Vancouver Public Space Network (2009), reading bloggers and those familiar with planning (like Stephen Rees, Robert Goodspeed, Richard Layman, and countless others now that urban issues are enjoying a lot of attention — not to mention, the crew on Tumblr), and just tweeting what I was seeing and why I care about the experience of transit. I’ve previously spoken about this research at Barcamp a few years back, when I was just starting in the planning program.

As I’ve gone through planning school, I realized that I think planners are generally an awesome, fascinating and thoughtful bunch. But focusing solely on what they do or don’t do with technology wasn’t really squaring well with my interests in the social impacts of technology broadly. Planners think about technology through the lens of planning as work — so planners tend to use the frame “planning support software.” Planning is complex work, and technology helps them do many parts of it in more expedient, effective ways; so there’s a rich body of work around the use of different technologies (like PPGIS) for engaging the public on planning issues. But the approaches are generally still focused on practice — not on understanding how the lifeworld of the people engaged in using Twitter might help us reconsider public engagement.

For the most part, I operate on the assumption that citizens don’t see planning the way planners see it (by necessity). When the public talks about things that are relevant to urban planning on Twitter, they may or may not be variously interested in venting, gallows humour, letting off steam, sharing anecdotes, or getting to the point of becoming activists, advocates, and wanting to have some say in shaping the places that mean something to them. There’s maybe also some daring to hope, sometimes, that when we tell our story, that we’re not only coping through telling, but also hoping that something of our day-to-day experience could have some impact on decisions about what comes next.

Moreover, for those of us using social media regularly and integrating it with our offline lives (yes, it’s a false, long-standing dichotomy), it exposes us to multiple perspectives of the systems that we both participate in and are constrained by — be they social, economic, cultural, physical or otherwise. The affective dimension of the experience (which others have written very richly and persuasively about) is something we’re more able and (I argue) more compelled to voice and connect on, now, in ways that involved significant logistical challenges previously. This has potential for planning, but it’s not immediately obvious and there are plenty of challenges involved for the planner that wants to meaningfully involve Twitter in official work.

Twitter conversations about transit is a rich example of how tweeting — something pretty small and self-interested as far as doing things goes — might be interpreted as something bigger, more impactful and significant. To what extent are those persons working in and making decisions about transit1, seeing or understanding what this means to citizens (or being prevented, in various ways, from doing so), and what it could mean for their work? And what does this have to tell about how we talk about all issues related to sustainability, more generally, beyond transit? Those two questions, in a nutshell, are driving my thesis.

…and why Twitter?

On a somewhat practical level, there’s the simple fact that Twitter is slightly easier to work with than Facebook (there is some criticism of that, and I’ll grant it as a limitation). But on the other, there is, I think, a bit more of a sense of public-ness to Twitter. If you are posting publicly, using hashtags, and using Twitter in a way that nurtures any kind of notion of a public self, you will get people you don’t know messaging you, even if it’s just spam. Not everyone reacts well to it. (See StealthMountain, a cheeky Twitterbot provoking people with spelling corrections and auto-favoriting the snarky results.) That’s always been the exciting part of Twitter to me — that you get mentioned or retweeted (and sometimes, minsterpreted) by people who don’t know where you are coming from, and who are genuinely seeing what you say through their slice of experience, their interests, their bias. And as jarring as that is to experience sometimes, to feel that 140 character like a brick wall in your throat, some hope always persists that the conversation might turn into meaningful connecting.

I contrast that with my very recent experiences with Facebook, where I see in my News Feed my friends commenting on their friends posts — yet I’m not able to weigh in on the thread due to the original poster’s privacy settings. That drives me bonkers, frankly, to the point where I consider changing my settings so that I can’t see posts that I can’t myself comment on. It’s not all butterflies and roses on Twitter — I’ve broken some etiquette on responding to private accounts with my public account — but there is a feeling that it’s a semi-regular occurrence, that it happens, and that it is part of using the tool. The only places Facebook shows me people I don’t know, are in Events and sometimes, very rarely, in groups. (That said, what I find it most valuable for by far is showing me the sides I haven’t seen of the people I do know — and these are often sides that they might not feel so willing to share on Twitter, if they even use it at all.)


For a really, really long time, I considered but avoided making this topic the focus of my thesis for a whole slew of reasons, some involving how little work there was on it. Circumstances evolved, there are others doing work in this from a planning perspective, and now I’m committed whole hog to doing something interesting with this. I’m hoping to continue blogging the research as it forms beneath my feet (or, as the case may be, beneath my fingers, as I write it).

1 — And lest you think this is simple, there are a lot of them. Municipal governments, regional transportation bodies, provincial ministries, the federal government, entities doing economic development…all have a stake in what money goes where, to provide mobility for certain people doing different stuff.