While I was at South By Southwest Interactive last week, the tech news and event platform Tech.Co very kindly invited me to come in and do a video interview. I love Tech.Co and its folks because they do such an excellent job of not only documenting emerging trends in technology nationwide, but of also exploring how technology ecosystems work and how they can be better fostered.
I was particularly impressed with how Tech.Co reporter Ronald Barba pulled the sense and theme of what I’ve been thinking about out of what I said — better than I said it myself:
And, according to her, what they’re finding at EngagingCities is that there’s an overall higher emphasis on communities nowadays; people want to connect across different kinds of industries, across different tech sectors, and want to get involved in many different ways. This has really contributed to a kind of organic growth of several ecosystems.
Policymakers, however, can help push that growth further, and enables people to turn the ecosystems in which they live into their preferred kind of community. These policymakers can’t make that happen, though, when they’re the only ones developing the plans for these new communities. In order for a tech community to fully develop, legislators need to actually listen to the demands of those tech entrepreneurs.
I think good listening and community-building is actually more of a two-way street, and that in a lot of places the most robust tech startup communities are the ones that are also bringing new solutions and new energy to addressing bigger community problems. But I’m often surprised at the kinds of assumptions we sometimes make about what “those tech people” need to thrive in our community, and how often we don’t get into meaningful conversations with them about how to really catalyze those emerging opportunities. As I’ve said in the Small Business Ecosystem talk that I do fairly regularly, both parts of the equation need to understand each other — and flexibly lead or feed the ecosystem, based on what it needs and who is available to do it.
Even a tech hound like me gets overloaded with “platforms” sometimes. I’ve been resisting posting to SlideShare because… I don’t know, because I post a hell of a lot of stuff all over. And I could never get the login right. And whatever.
So, I finally dragged my butt into the new millenium and uploaded several recent presentations to SlideShare. As you know if you’ve seen me speak, my presentations tend to run to lots of pictures and few words. So while I think the uploaded presentations will give you a sense of what the session was about, in a lot of cases that by itself isn’t going to lead you to a high level of enlightenment. The good news is that for a lot of my talks, you can
I had the great pleasure and fun of moderating a great session at the American Planning Conference in Atlanta earlier this week. The session was called “Open Data, Apps and Planning, and it featured four of the brightest minds in the field. So I could introduce them, sit back and shoot some video of their comments, which you’ll find below.
Here’s a few of the bright insights that came out of this session (in a very, very dark room…)
We’re starting to realize the critical importance of not just creating an online widget thing, but making sure that it’s designed and presented in a way that makes it usable and accessible to the general public. That sounds self-evident, but there’s a lot of online tools out there that only make sense to you if you’re an insider (for example, the person who designed the thing). The importance of what tech people call the User Experience (UX) came through in comments from Brad Barnett, Director of the Decision Lab at PlaceMatters, who noted that we have to start designing for “layered learning” — the realization that people need to be able to start at an accessible place, such as a high-level overview or an issue that’s directly relevant to them, so that they can get a mental toehold, look around and understand their options for proceeding. Think about how that differs from some of the things we often do, such as provide an online map with a lot of parcels and layers and other data. No wonder people start looking immediately for their house — we haven’t given them a toehold or an orientation, so they go in search of one.
Just putting the thing out there is no where near enough, which is something we should have learned after decades of making jokes about legal notices. Frank Hebbert of OpenPlans notes that “how will you promote the tool?” is one of the first questions they ask new clients — if you’re not going to promote it adequately to the people who need to know about it and use it, you’ve wasted your effort. Similar to the issue raised in the previous bullet, this is such a critical element of effective public engagement — of this type or any type — that we really, simply, just have to do it. We just do. I don’t know why we’re so often reluctant to effectively promote our public engagement opportunities — whether we just don’t know, or we think that’s somehow too “commercial” an action for a civic event, or what. But the fact of the matter is that we have to.
Several of the speakers demonstrated that use of technology-enabled tools and open data isn’t just a cool thing: propertly designed and enabled, open data and online tools allow residents to directly impact the things that they need — the things that make a community better. Michelle Lee of Textizen told the story of how newly-integrated parcel and tax data was used to overcome an old assumption that chasing delinquent taxes would cost the city more than they would get — a realization that allowed the city to capture more of the tax money they had been missing, and lessen the burden on everyone else. Frank also told a powerful story about a neighborhood in New York that responded to children being hit by vehicles to crowdsource a map of places where people felt unsafe — and then shared that map with local police officials to help them target speed enforcement.
Michelle also encapsulated the important relationship between open data and apps better than anyone I have ever heard: she described the need for apps to function as the “ViewMaster” for open data, which in
the form that we get it is usually unusable to anyone except for the hard-code coder. As she put it, “the data is like the disc with the photos on it. You can hold it up to the light or throw it at your brother, but unless you put it in the ViewMaster, you can’t really benefit from it.” And most importantly, when we can see the data through the ViewMaster, we can use it to create a meaningful outcome that will last. This is one of the issues that I think the open data movement has struggled a little bit with so far, but all four presenters were able to clearly demonstrate the power that open data, combined with a good user interface app, can create.
Along the same lines, Alicia Roualt of LocalData very articulately noted that communities can actually use data to bridge between governments and citizens. In describing LocalData’s work with blight surveying in Detroit, she pointed out that the on-the-ground surveying was done by people who live in the community using an app on a phone or tablet, and that the data in the main project databases and maps was updated in real time. This allowed both staff and advocates trying to deal with the messy, multi-moving-piece, often immediate issues of the city’s vacant and abandoned buildings to understand the situation with the highest level of accuracy possible.
Videos of each presentation are embedded below. By sheer dumb luck, this session was followed by another conversation about the larger issues of technology in planning. Stay tuned for some selections from that.
The Wise Economy Workshop Tour of Schlepping Around A Lot of Places is underway… and the house already looks like a cyclone hit it. Perhaps by June someone else will learn to put the bowls in the dishwasher. A girl can hope….
If you’re near one of these locations and you’d be interested in a hosting me for a presentation or a training, let me know and I’ll waive the travel expenses.
May 10, I will be back in Middlesboro, Kentucky for Better Block Part Deux, exploring how a small city can use a comprehensive, resilience-focused approach to community development to build a strong local economy — in a place where a strong economy has long been elusive. I had a visit with Middlesboro last fall (you can learn a little about that here and here), and I’m looking forward to seeing more good stuff take hold here.
May 15, I will be keynoting the Clermont County Township Association’s annual dinner. I’m talking about the challenges of doing meaningful public engagement, and how we can change how we involve the public to make it better for everyone involved.
Managing a contentious public meeting requires a sophisticated set of tools to keep potential conflicts under control and to make sure that everyone gets a fair chance to speak up. It also requires knowing when to use those tools and how to do it in a way that makes all participants feel that their involvement matters. This session will explore various group management techniques used by successful facilitators to foster fair participation, lessen the likelihood of confrontational or counter-productive behavior, defuse conflict, and more. Participants will gain experience in using specific tactics through role-playing scenarios with fellow peers and colleagues.
This will be the third time I have done this session — which gets the participants out of their chairs and taking on roles like their favorite local crab and the dude who just wants to hear himself talk. And gives them ways to manage that in conventional public meetings, and ways to restructure public meetings so that you don’t need to do that! I’m looking forward to this — it’s not like Main Street people are shrinking violets anyways, so this should be something to see!
Ignite has become a fixture at IEDC’s recent conferences, but never has it been tried like this. In two separate Ignite-style panels, attendees will witness a succession of five minute, rapid-fire, get-to-the-point presentations, with time built in for speakers to answers questions on stage after they’re all done.
Ignite Presentation Sessions: The Power of Ideas: A brave new economic development idea. A twist in how people consider their roles within the profession. From new ways of thinking about impact to new functions for economic developers within their communities, these presentations are about dreaming big.
No idea what I’ve gotten myself into here, but it should be interesting!
June 17, I am leading a book discussion around the Local Economy Revolution in Xenia, Ohio. This is a test run for a discussion series I’m considering doing this fall. Stay tuned!
July 23, I’ll be giving a webinar for Lormanon strategies that local governments can use to support small businesses. That one hasn’t been formally put on the registration schedule yet, but I’ll let you know when it is.
August 21, I’ll be giving a keynote for the Michigan Economic Developer’s Association Annual Meeting on Sea Changes, partnerships and streamlining. That one also hasn’t been formally announced yet, but I will let you know as soon as it is.
September 12-14, I’ll be doing something with regard to the new Strong Towns annual event in Minnesota. More to come.
Somewhere between September 19 and 21, I’ll be leading a session on public engagement technology at a new and very cool-sounding event in Columbus, Ohio. More on that when details are available.
October 9, I am speaking at the Ohio CDC Association Annual Conference in Columbus.
April 25, I did a training for the Greater Dayton RTA on managing public meetings and using collaborative small-group methods to get better public involvement. It wasa great chance to learn more about the world of transit — and try out the training that I’ll use at the National Main Street Conference in a very different context!
April 28, I moderated a panel called “Open Data, Apps and Planning” at the American Planning Association national conference in Atlanta, GA. This session includes four amazing panelists, including the CEO of LocalData and Textizen, the director of the Decision Lab at PlaceMatters, and the Director of OpenPlans. That was a fascinating examination of the bleeding edge of technology and public engagement in planning, and the speakers were fabulous. I’ve got video and audio to share, so be sure to check out these links.
There’s several others floating around, so if you’re thinking about a speaker for your summer or fall events, please let me know soon. Thanks!
I, on the other hand, spent most of the day in “pop-up” conversations with Mike, Tom, Isaac (the downtown program manager) and many others about how low-cost, low-risk improvements like these impact local economies. With everything that was going on, we had a lot of food for thought.
As I was driving away from Middlesboro that afternoon, I started thinking more directly about how the principles behind tactical urbanism might be applied to revitalizing local economies as well. There’s several spoken and, sometimes, unspoken assumptions behind tactical urbanism that drive this strategy’s relevance and increasing importance for communities these days. Without cribbing from any of the standard sources, here’s my interpretation of why Better Block/tactical urbanism efforts have become such a powerful part of the urban planning landscape:
They focus on improvements that are achievable in the short term. Rather than waiting to pull together the funding, the plans, the approvals needed to do a Big Project, they emphasize doing what they can do with what’s available. Pallets get turned into chairs and bike racks and tables and hanging planters (how many uses can you think of for a wooden delivery pallet? A whole lot more than I had come up with, apparently). Vacant lots get turned into outdoor dining spaces and music stages, and extra parking spaces turn into community gathering spots.
They place emphasis on the community education that comes from the improvements as much or more so than the actual thing they build themselves. The goal of a pallet street chair isn’t just to give people someplace to sit. It’s to give them a real-world lesson in the impact of making public spaces comfortable for people to hang out in. The implicit realization: many places have had such paltry human-scale public space investment over the last couple of generations that building support for meaningful investments means physically demonstrating what we can do and how it can impact the community.
They know that iterative is OK. A Better Block event is by its nature a little messy. You have volunteers working on a dozen little projects, things being built out of castoffs, “scavengers” hunting for more wood or tarps or whatever, and a constant stream of “Where can I find an extension cord?” “Do you know where the staple gun is?” “What do you need me to do?” The goal isn’t to do everything. It’s to do enough, this time, with what we’ve got, to move things forward, to spark some understanding and some energy, to get farther down the road to something better than we are today.
One thing Mike Lydon told me is that when his firm proposes to design conventional streetscapes or park improvements or the like anymore, they add a tactical urbanism piece to their proposal — they want to build something physical, something temporary, to maintain the community’s desire to implement the full plan during the long period between finishing the pretty pictures and getting the funding and approvals together to build the permanent project. They’ve come to understand that people need to see forward momentum, that simply designing something to plop into a space often doesn’t empower the change in minds and hearts necessary to make real community change happen. After decades of working with urban planners and designers across the spectrum, I felt like a veil had been lifted.
The broad conditions that I think have led to the growth of tactical urbanism pull from the same zeitgeist that is impacting how we do a lot of the work that we find ourselves needing to do with our community’s economy. That includes:
Not enough money to do the big projects that we relied on in years past
Increasing awareness of the complexity and interrelated impacts that those big projects can generate
Increasing levels of peoples’ ability to access and spread their own information (or misinformation) about your Big Project’s feared impacts
Increasing distrust that the Big Project will have all the benefits that its supporters promise.
For physical planners, those Big Projects might have been multi-million dollar streetscapes or parks. For people in economic development and revitalization, that might be big commercial building projects, things that require big financial incentives, big business recruitment. Just like the streetscapes and the parks, those kinds of economic projects still happen in many places, but the broad trend seems to be that they are getting harder to do, demand more and more money and staff time and community energy, and too often fail to live up to their promised impacts.
So, this is the germ of an idea, and I’m putting it out to you for your ideas, thoughts, brick-throwing exercise, whatever.
I think that we need to start developing a Tactical Economy toolkit. When people want to do Better Block stuff, a quick Google search can give them all sorts of ideas for projects to try and stuff to build. Part of what people find when they do that search is simply ideas that they might not have come up with otherwise (how often do you think of putting up guerilla historic signs?), while the other part is specific plans and step-by-step instructions, such as to build a chair. Not exactly something you want to just take a flyer at and then leave out for people to sit on.
We need both of these in Tactical Economy toolkit. Some of the tools might be pretty straightforward to implement – the challenge may be simply helping people think of them. Others might require some how-to instructions.
This video apparently just surfaced…. back in February I participated in an Ignite session at the International Economic Development Asssociation’s Leadership Conference. If you’ve never seen an Ignite presentation, it’s a series of 5-minute presentations from different speakers. Each speaker is allowed 20 slides (no more, no less), and they advance automatically every 20 seconds, which is an effective, if slightly evil, way to make the session end on time.
This presentation gives a brief outline of my theory of small business ecosystem development…the premise being that the fact that businesses are different than they used to be means that we have to change the way we do economic development. That is, instead of thinking that everything we do in economic development has to be about twiddling the levers of a big machine, we need to realize that this isn’t working, and shift to a focus on creating opportunities and connections for smaller businesses.
Confused? Seriously, it’s five minutes. Just take a look. And while you’re at it, check out some of the other Ignite sessions. They were good.
I’m delighted to announce a new partnership with PlannersWeb (the new online incarnation of the Planning Commissioner’s Journal) to share interviews with people who are leading us into the future of public engagement and public participation — improvements that you can use in your community.
We’ll interview people who are
improving our understanding of how to do public engagement more effectively;
developing online and in-person tools to improve our residents’ ability to engage constructively; and (occasionally)
people who have a bright ideas in the hopper that are close, but not quite ready, to hit the street (everyone needs some you-heard-it-here-first, right?)
You can watch and listen on a computer, smart phone, tablet or other device — anything that can show you a YouTube video.
Our first interview, which you can watch below, is with Chris Haller, CEO of Urban Interactive Studio and developer of several online engagement platforms, including Engaging Plans, which is demonstrated here at about minute 10. Chris and Della talk about the new world of planning project web site development (hint: it’s much easier and more powerful than it used to be!), as well as the challenges of engaging our residents in the mobile era … and the importance of bringing online and mobile engagement face to face with real world spaces.
If you know of people we should talk to or issues you’d like to see addressed, let me know. Enjoy!
It’s no secret by now that Piqua, Ohio, is one of my favorite examples of a little city that consistently figures out How To Get It Done – thanks in part to my friend Bill Lutz, who has shown up on these pages several times. During a recent visit, (the same one where we talked about the amazing program-combining, commnity-determination-showing Fort Piqua Plaza), I had a chance to learn more about a relatively new program – and one that won’t win headlines, but I think is making a real difference in this community’s resilience and civic engagement.
The Citizen Government Academy takes those spend-a-day-with-your-friendly-local-public-servant activities and turns it into something transformative… for both the residents and the city. Imagine how differently your residents might feel about the quality of your local government services if they got a chance to try some of your toughest jobs for themselves, like:
Chasing an armed suspect (in a simulator),
Driving a snowplow through an obstacle course,
Mowing the park
Writing a grant so that it has a chance of being funded
You want your residents to understand why you needed that sewer repair truck with the camera that crawls through the pipes and shows you where the leaks are? You want them to trust you the next time you need a big expenditure like that? Easy… show them what it does and what return on investment the community is getting. All the City Council briefings in the world will never have the power of just letting a few people who care look through that monitor.
The power of the Citizen Academy lies in something simple and obvious, but almost never used in the local government context: people learn by doing, not by hearing or reading. If you want your residents to actually understand the value of your services, and understand it in a way that emboldens them to help support good government, show them. Show them what you do and how you do it.
Nuff said. Go listen to Bill. It’s 18 minutes you will be glad you heard… even if you don’t get to drive the snow plow.