A review of (my participation in) the Alachua County 2011 Community Conversations series

About 4 weeks ago I was privileged to attend one of the recent Alachua County 2011 Community Conversations series, gatherings. There has been some controversy about the invitation/RSVP based nature of these events but my perspective on that fact was the desire to get feedback from citizens actually active, civically. Either in a government, non-profit or volunteer capacity.

The conversations have been partially funded for the past few years by a grant from The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, to encourage “better communication and cooperation between citizens and their local governments“.

In the September 2011 (Vol. 25 #10) issue of the Gainesville Iguana Joe Courter writes about the conversations. One question I asked to the county Manager Randall H. Reid was whether or not the data-points from these conversations were summarized and provided to the County Commissioners to be used in informing their decision making process. The data he said was provided. It is up to the commissioners, then I suppose to rely on it or not when making their decisions. Obviously there are times when you may not want your public officials to simply follow the popular vote. That being said, I was disappointed to read Joe Courter write “And, while the public input probably has a limited effect on the actual decisions of the County government“. Although, I suppose the idea of instapolling and table-top exercises directly effecting public policy is perhaps the ultimate fantasy of a technocratic or utopian, participatory form of urban governance.

I would like to think fundamentally though that the commissioners would take notice of larger themes or citizen concerns.

Additionally, I can certainly agree with the second half of Joe Courter’s sentence, wherein he writes “it’s important to understand just how the budget works and where it comes from.” As a civically, educational experience the conversation process was extraordinarily helpful. The combination of work-shoping, table-top budget exercises and insta-polling also made me think of the possibilities of gamification as a tool for civic engagement. Making the soft design of local governance, “fun” and responsive or interactive as it were.

I was also pleased to see the open-source nature of the data collection. A summary of the last two years’ Conversation topics and response breakdowns for all questions and exercises (which can be found here)  provides the ability to get a feel for the values and beliefs of your fellow citizenry.

To close: four comments-data points that I found of particular, personal interest.

1. Regarding the idea of open-source, transparent data collection, due to the wide-open nature of Florida Sunshine State law(s) there was in fact only a brief appearance by any county commissioner, one in fact, and just for a minute  or two before she (Susan Baird) departed for another such event. Presumably, because then it would have been less easy to have a free and open but still anonymous(ish) conversation.

2. The response to the question “How many children live in your household” for my session was 81% and 77% for all sessions. Which when you consider that the session occurred on an evening during the week may not be all that surprising. Still, the majority were of also of child-rearing age, 26-65. Which implies their children (if any) must live elsewhere. I wonder then what kind of county and lifestyle these citizens imagine/desire in comparison to ones younger and more directly engaged in day-to-day parenting.

3. I think it is also note-worthy, given the commission’s previous (more here) and ongoing conflicts with Alachua County Sheriff Sadie Darnell over the budget for the constitutional office of the county sheriff, that as part of the table-top budget exercise the largest portion of the requested 10% budget reduction, was found via a 3.57 % reduction to public safety funding. The general feeling I took away from the conversation participants at my location was a questioning as to why given “the agency’s reduced call load, a drop in the crime rate and a higher officer-to-resident ratio than other counties” Darnell has been so seemingly “combative”  about her budget. It isn’t as if one could argue that perhaps the few (including myself, that spoke up/asked questions about this issue) were just the vocal minority.

4. Finally, in-spite of  the current economic conditions and high levels of unemployment (both nationally and locally) the next highest percentage of reduction was 2.88 % applied towards efforts (by county staff) to encourage “economic development”.  Interesting especially in light of the answers to the question “What one is the best strategy for growing our local economy”, “Reduce or streamline business regulation” and “Business incubators and venture capital” being the two top selected choices. From my perspective the need to grow the tax base of this county is obvious and while encouraging business and thus job, creation is key, one of the key forms of innovation that this county and the city of Gainesville seem to be pursuing is the incubator and startup support model. Using private-public partner -ships yes, but either way this requires public money. Whether in the form of infrastructure investment, various loan-capital programs, or better plus more agile but not less, regulation.

Social Design using feedback loops: guides and manuals

For Wired Magazine, Thomas Goetz looks at the idea of feedback loops and how they can be used as a powerful tool that can help change people’s behavior in Feedback Loops Are Changing What People Do.

The basic premise is that technology has advanced to a point that sensors have become cheap and powerful enough that data (ie: ubicomp) the key and necessary precursor to establishing a feedback loop, can be captured and transmitted about a wide range of factors. Which creates the possibility of increasing energy efficiency, medication administration compliance or calming traffic. The key however is for the design to be straight-forward. Goetz quotes David Rose

The best sort of delivery device “isn’t cognitively loading at all,” he says. “It uses colors, patterns, angles, speed—visual cues that don’t distract us but remind us.” This creates what Rose calls “enchantment.” Enchanted objects, he says, don’t register as gadgets or even as technology at all, but rather as friendly tools that beguile us into action. In short, they’re magical.

To me this implies a sort of pre-cognitive design. Reptilian or primordially evocative. Something that is almost instinctual affective. Early versions of this sort of interventional designed trigger ie: can be found in the example of  projects like Amphibious Architecture

which submerged ubiquitous computing into the water—the substance that makes up 90% of the Earth’s inhabitable volume and envelops New York City but remains under-explored and under-engaged. Two networks of floating interactive tubes, installed at sites in the East River and the Bronx River, house a range of sensors below water and an array of lights above water. The sensors monitor water quality, presence of fish, and human interest in the river ecosystem. The lights respond to the sensors and create feedback loops between humans, fish, and their shared environment. An SMS interface allows citizens to text-message the fish, to receive real-time information about the river, and to contribute to a display of collective interest in the environment.

How could such designs use feedbacks loops to highlight a psychology of ecologies. Creating social ecologies that are based on visible data, instruments for evolving environment ecologies. Wherein the idea of prosociality has been extended to include all species not just our own? This could result in an experimental altruism of ecological infrastructure(s). Soft infrastructures of resilience.

Next, think about the  idea of gamification. Of social gaming or networked social economies. Non-currency based earnings. Recently I read

A few hours of raking leaves might build up points that can be used in a gardening game. And the games induce people to earn more points, which means repeating good behaviors. The idea, Krejcarek says, is to “create a bridge between the real world and the virtual world. This has all got to be fun.”

Could this idea be applied to infrastructural, urban landscape design? I have wondered before about how one might create a less capital intensive form of maintenance. Could one solution be a form  based more on a knowledge building, community creating, recreational-volunteerism? It seems like one could take the growth of games like FarmVille to the next level.  Applying the concept of gamification to community development or urban ecologies. The result being a sort of social design (by designing social interactions and using social interactions to shape more traditional designed things/scapes) using feedback loops to develop recreational modes of doing and learning.

Finally, their would be in such a program a need for an owner/player, manual of sorts. Every game has one, right? Recently,  faslanyc in Surveying the Field: Guides and Manuals, wrote about the possibilities of the manual.

we are interested in the possibility that landscape and architectural practice might move away from the plan set and capital project as the sole primary document for design and towards a more open arrangement defined by the manual.  As Brett Milligan of F.A.D. and Rob Holmes of Mammoth recently noted, we had a chance to work this idea out a bit in the most recent issue of MonU.

He went on to contrast two genres: guides  and manuals. Whereas “the guide is a commercial endeavor” focused on identification the “emphasis of the manual is technique- the manner and ability of a person to employ the specialized skills to execute specific procedures.  The manual is instrumental and operational”  Then closing with “When the maintenance manual- already a part of traditional design projects, albeit a neglected and unglamorous part- is considered in conjunction with the theoretical and speculative efforts to construct landscapes that are more open, performative, and adaptive over time, the manual might be repositioned in design projects as the primary document, with plans becoming secondary.

 In conclusion what is the importance of manuals?  I would argue that particularly in the current economic times of austerity the importance of manuals is increased. For after all aren’t manuals more about manual (labor) rather than capital (flows). Many people also have more time than money now. Even in my case a manual could be a tool for strategizing. For the manual helps to sort the easily achievable from the more prophetically desired. In the end a manual can perhaps be thought of as a document focused more on the how to (including whens and wheres) than the final what. Yet, I would like to think that the manual can also be a form of critical speculative design as others have already articulated more clearly