5 questions with Boston’s Kimberly Lucas

Kimberly Lucas is the Civic Research Director in the City of Boston’s Office of New Urban Mechanics. Part researcher, part practitioner, and part muppet, Kim has consistently kept one foot in the ivory tower and one foot on the ground, pairing research with practice to seek real solutions to social policy and planning problems.

Kimberly will be featured at Childhood by Design on November 6th in Atlanta. Presented by AIR Serenbe and Capita, Childhood by Design brings artists, architects, urbanists, and designers together with early childhood experts, policymakers, and the general public. This public conversation on stage at the Rich Theatre in the Woodruff Arts Center will explore and harness the power of art, architecture, design, and placemaking to reimagine the unique experience of childhood, to improve outcomes, and to co-create a brighter future for all young children and their families. More information and tickets are available here.

JW: At the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, you are piloting experiments that aim to improve the quality of life for Boston’s residents. What are some experiments that you are running which hold promise to improve outcomes for young children and their families?

KL: At the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, or MONUM as we like to call it, our projects are all person-centered, and they aim to improve the experience of the City across the lifespan. I’ll highlight two projects that focus on young children and their families: Boston Saves and Play Around the City.

Boston Saves is the City of Boston’s Children’s Savings Account program. Administered by the Mayor’s Office of Workforce Development in partnership with the Boston Public Schools, Boston Saves aims to provide young children and their families with a tool toward future-oriented financial stability: by providing a savings account with a $50 seed to every Kindergartner, and by saving alongside our families with a quarterly match, the City of Boston is actively participating in investing in our collective future. In the third year of a three-year pilot, Boston Saves is currently getting ready to go to scale to all Kindergarten classrooms in the City.

Play Around the City is a take on our Public Space Invitational — with a focus on children and families who use Boston Public School bus stops, we invited our local communities and community organizations to propose ways to make these stops places where children and their families can find playfulness, fun, joy, and maybe even learning. Right now, we’re installing the last of four Play Around the City projects, and on September 6th (the first day of school), we celebrated our success with our community partners.

Kimberly Lucas

JW: Good design is central to your work. Tell us a bit about how you are using design in your office and engaging citizens in using design to participate in developing solutions to the challenges Boston faces.

KL: Our office approaches design from several perspectives. We consider design to be as much of a process as it is a product. We see visual design as an opportunity to communicate more clearly and connect more thoughtfully. We employ qualitative design research practices to better understand the needs of our residents and invite them into the process. We also think critically about when, how, and why we engage with residents. This pushes us to consider the format of the moment we interact with residents and the context in which the conversation is happening (physically, historically and socially).

In the case of our Boston Saves program, we knew families were being asked to put trust in the City to save with them. We knew that in order for the program to be a success, it needed to be heavily guided by families themselves. We set out to find family champions and leaned on them to make decisions about key parts of the program, such as the option to choose a bank of choice.

Across our office we are using design as a method to push boundaries and paint a new picture of reality for both long standing issues and new challenges. We have developed materials and events to create an active dialogue around future technology such as autonomous vehicles or sensors. In the case of augmented reality, we collaborated with Niantec and the Engagement Lab to better understand how youth, primarily youth of color, would redefine the way the city was portrayed in the popular game, Pokémon Go. This project allowed participating youth to decide what the city’s narrative would be in regards to key monuments and important spaces in their neighborhood.

For us, good design must thoughtfully take in the context residents are in, allows us to fully articulate or fulfill the goal at hand, and invites all of us to interact differently — person to person, person to institution, person to city. We consider what we do as ‘acts of civic design’ in that they invite us all to participate in the future of our city. So whether we’ve created a program to gamify safe driving, developed a physical housing unit to tour around the city and incite conversations about smaller living, or considered small ways such as providing lunch or games to invite families to use City Hall as more than just a place to complete menial tasks, but rather a public place to gather, we are constantly pushing our work toward the goal of designing a better more delightful experience of the city.

JW: What is one project that you dream about, but you haven’t started yet?

KL: We’re constantly trying to think of ways that the City of Boston can maximize its value-add into the early childhood ecosystem in Boston. Lately, we’ve been thinking a lot about how we can leverage our small business development and workforce development assets to better serve early childhood service providers of all kinds. We’ve learned about shared services models from our friends at the United Way and the Bessie Tartt Wilson Initiative for Children, and we’re trying to figure out how this might look for Boston’s early childhood educators and administrators in terms of shared capacity and business sustainability models. Every day it’s more and more a reality, especially as we learn more about the kinds of things early childhood service providers need to not only provide high-quality early childhood services, but to also thrive as locally owned small businesses. This work has historically lived outside of government, and we’re trying to think of how we, as government, can support the work that is being done in the community.

JW: What is one book we should read, podcast we should listen to, or piece of art we should encounter to better understand childhood today?

KL: A handful of years ago, BJ Novak published a children’s book called The Book With No Pictures. We think it’s a good book for young children and not-so-young children…but it’s an even better book for adults…especially if you’re warming up to read anything else (to a child or to yourself or to someone else).

JW: Looking ahead, what signals or trends do you perceive that make you most hopeful about the future our children will inhabit?

KL: Every year, the Mayor asks young children in Boston Public Schools to imagine ways to make the City of Boston a more fair and more interesting city for children through the #OurBoston project. Kindergartners re-imagine their neighborhoods and create playgrounds, parks, hospitals, buses and subways — really any and every thing about the city. They prototype their work, and these go on display each spring in a public building. Every year, it’s inspirational and insightful to learn how young children both see and envision their world. This kind of insight isn’t limited to Boston’s kindergartners (though, they’re pretty brilliant). We’d suggest that you ask your local very young child how they might change their city for the better.