Beta Blocks, or, an open question: what is civic technology?

Matthew Claudel is a Summer Fellow with the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics and a doctoral candidate at MIT’s Department of Urban Studies & Planning.

TL;DR Beta Blocks is an old idea, newly funded by the Knight Foundation and Bloomberg Philanthropies. The project is an opportunity to define what truly civic technology might be.

We are caught in a buffeting whirlwind of technology for cities. Out-of-home advertising (digital kiosks), in-home retail (lightning fast delivery), mobility apps that transform existing cars (on-demand ride services), entirely new kinds of vehicles (dockless electric scooters) or ones that drive themselves (cars, not scooters. Yet?) Each is promising, each has dangers and faults. As we collaborate or regulate or celebrate, we’re learning along the way.

But there’s one one thing we’ve noticed about almost all of these. Even if they make the city better (up to you) they don’t make the city better for everyone. Surely they used “human-centered design,” and most have “mission statements” and “values.” But it is increasingly clear that the “humans” technology “centers” on are a pretty small subset; that “values” are useful until they get in the way of “valuation” from venture capital.

Most obviously, there a glaring imbalance of access in cities — look at a map of which neighborhoods are served by various startups, or even basic amenities like wifi. A handful of inspiring initiatives in Boston are doing the hard work to address these inequities right now (take a look at the brilliant StreetCaster work that Public Works, DoIT, and MONUM are collaboratively undertaking). That matters.

But there is a deeper fold in this problem. It’s simply not profitable for most technology startups to operate with equity. That’s not something solved incrementally; it’s a crisis of initial design. We need to go back to first principles and ask: what is “good” city technology? As a thing itself, and as a design process?

I believe, perhaps naively, that if we find a way to productively ask that question — critically, optimistically, and collaboratively — we might find a new kind of truly civic innovation. We might see how technology (defined very, very broadly) could make Boston better for everyone in Boston. Beta Blocks is an opportunity to step in that direction.

The Challenge

The conversations, ideas, research, and work I’ve done this summer are connected by that troubling and optimistic question. What is “good” city technology?

It’s tangled up with a terrific multitude of sub-questions:

How can we dynamically regulate the agile, digital, and disruptive technologies that are sure to keep appearing in our city? How can we develop and distribute new tools that democratize the design process? Can we do real-world experiments safely, rigorously, and joyfully? Are there creative models based more on future value or social capital than on financial speculation? Can we manage data collection wisely, to ensure privacy and dignity, while embracing their technological possibilities?

These are ambitious questions. They touch on deep themes of democracy, design, agency. The right to the city. The answer to all of them is… we don’t know. But we are determined to find out.

Alpha Blocks

We have a few ideas of how to start. The most obvious is MONUM’s rich history of projects. The Public Space Invitational, for example, is an open design challenge for interventions that joyfully enhance daily life. The Smart City Playbook has become a formative guide for technology vendors. The Robot Block Party brought together Boston’s roboticists and 6,000 of its residents — an unruly pairing that demystified AVs and drones. We’re working with some inspiring startups, like Nesterly (an intergenerational home sharing platform) and Spaceus (transforming vacant spaces into temporary artist studios). We’ve worked with other offices and departments in city hall. Some projects have become long-term initiatives and some have been… well, learning experiences.

From these, we’ve learned the importance of real-world experiments that invite people to get their hands on a new piece of technology. We’ve cultivated relationships with researchers, and found ways for them to test their work in public space. We’ve expanded the very idea of “research” to be more democratic and civic. We’ve learned the value of a block party, getting people together to talk about the future they want. We have a sense of what startups are going through, and how we can work together. We’ve realized that almost all of this, at some level, is simply a matter of building trust.

Beta Blocks can be a way to continue and expand this work. It can also be a place to explore policy ideas we think will be important: dynamic regulation, agile permissions and temporary interventions, alternative financing. Summer fellows Katie, Emily, and Raina have taken bold first steps in this direction, with autonomous vehicles, artist interventions, and drones, respectively.

We will be exploring all of this, and more, over the next 18 months, with a team from the Emerson Engagement Lab, Supernormal, and Soofa. But most importantly, Beta Blocks is about putting residents at the center of creating civic technology. And that’s not a matter of research or over-analyzing — it’s a matter of actively creating an entirely new narrative about what technology means to our city.

Why care?

It’s no surprise that, for the most part, “urban data” or “civic tech” or “smart cities” don’t mean much to anyone. Sure, people think it’s interesting. But I mean really caring, in a personal, habitual, fun, sharable, trustable way. The kind of thing you would describe when people ask why you like your neighborhood, but also the kind of thing you turn to when you need last minute help picking your kids up from school. The kind of thing you do on a Saturday afternoon. I suspect that we can’t design that kind of thing if we think of it as a technology product — because what I’m describing is actually a civic experience of care. A city where people care about the city, and about each other. The Engagement Center, a project advanced by my fellow fellow, Ryan, this summer, is a beautiful example.

Ultimately, Beta Blocks needs to create the conditions for people to use technology (again, broadly defined) to create their own civic experience, and to shape the development civic technology, and be a part of how technology shapes the city. We — all of us — should get tangled up in the constant co-evolution of the synthetic world. This can become what Lewis Mumford called for in 1964: “the replenishment of democratic technics.”

A New Narrative for Civic Technology

This summer I put thought into how we might inspire people to join in; welcome everyone to ask tough or silly, provocative or naive, heartbreaking and caring questions about city technology.

There’s a role for fiction here. That sounds like a weird limb, I admit, but I think it’s one worth climbing out onto. A good novel, speculative design, science fiction, storytelling, blogging… these are how society has explored the opportunities and dangers of tomorrow, for about as long as we’ve had human language. Let alone blockchain. This is where we explore the futures we don’t want, as much as the ones we do, and where norms begin to crystallize. Science fiction has an uncanny tendency to become science fact.

So I made a zine (including a Civic Mischief Toolkit). It’s a bizarre and ecstatic carrier bag of fragments; speculative fictions, case studies, cautionary collages, proposed guidelines, et cetera, all bound by a strap (which you have to tear in order to open the booklet) printed with text that just about sums it up: Disclaimer: The contents of this zine are mostly fictional and should not be taken seriously. By opening the cover, you agree to the ludic Terms and Conditions of satire.

The cover spread of the Beta Blocks zine, a mostly fictional and highly ludic collection of case studies and cautionary tales

Jokes aside, I tried to get at some of the big tensions where technology intersects with daily life, in the crossroads of city space. Things like monetizing access to urban resources, or targeted advertising, or playfulness. These are things we all care about.

Now what?

What has become clear is that we don’t need a particular method of innovation, or a trendy approach to urban tech. We don’t need a clean, rigorous, thought-through model to implement. What we need is an orienting set of values, a creative and playful spirit, and a new way for anyone and everyone to talk about the future of the city, and what it means to them personally. We need a way for people to care for their space, and for their neighbors.

Following Donna Haraway, I want to make a critical and joyful fuss about these matters. I want to stay with the trouble, and the only way I know to do that is in generative joy, terror, and collective thinking. Collective thinking. It seems painfully obvious once you look for it, but that missing piece — critical, optimistic, collaboration — is precisely the most important one to start with as we design civic tech, if we really believe that cities should be democratic. I hope that Beta Blocks can be an opportunity to constantly reimagine our city, in the context of technology, not in its image.

The New Urban Mechanics Summer Fellowship is designed for entrepreneurial graduate students interested in working in public service. During this highly selective, eight-week program, summer fellows work as a team and on individual projects, generating and implementing creative and thoughtful new prototypes to benefit the City of Boston.

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