America is changing. With each census we are discovering the cultural, social, economic and religious diversity of the country is expanding, and nowhere is this demographic complexity more evident than in the urban centers of America, especially Boston! Not only are many of these urban centers expanding demographically but they are also shifting physically. For a democracy these changes in cities raise two important questions. What role does the design process have in connecting and building trust among the increasingly diverse public? Can broad based engagement make for better design and a more inclusive city?
Aimed at equity in representation, traditional open houses and town hall meetings have become standard planning practice for public engagement. These methods, although well-intentioned, are becoming less effective as cities grow, as they tend to attract a narrowing community subset at the expense of other groups including immigrants, young professionals, and children. The Go Boston 2030 Question Campaign represents a massive step in the right direction for Boston. This unique and far-reaching digital engagement project was launched in mid-January, and for the first time Boston area residents are being offered an easy and convenient point of entry into an important city-wide conversation about the future of transportation—all by simply asking a question.
The digital platform was designed for the Boston Transportation Department through the collaboration of the Interaction Institute for Social Change and Sasaki Associates. A core objective of the project was to create an interface that has minimal barriers to entry, so the first engagement can be as simple as an SMS or a tweet. But no matter how they choose to participate, users are provided an equal opportunity for rich engagement. They are gently guided towards enhanced interaction with other contributors from their neighborhoods and from around the city.
This entire project was designed as grass-roots, word-of-mouth campaign, and Sasaki’s Strategies group was brought on to help shape the online engagement experience and to design a custom tool—making it interactive, shareable, and uniquely engaging. There has been a tremendous response with over 1000 questions donated in the first week, and social media has added an entirely new dimension to targeted online engagement with the ability to share questions directly from the website via Facebook, Twitter, and email.
The back-end of the platform tracks feedback and classifies each submission into categories based on content, making the data easy to manage, analyze, and mine. One of the more exciting features of this platform is a built-in mechanism for sharing personalized analytics back to participants in order to inspire them to rejoin the conversation: participants receive email updates containing metrics around how others are interacting with the questions they previously submitted. The questions that people donate will ultimately inform the City’s ability to prioritize near term and long term needs, and more importantly, to understand the embedded values that come from Boston area communities as they relate to the future of transportation.
“Go Boston 2030 is a City of Boston initiative to envision a bold transportation future for Boston for the next 5, 10 and 15 years. The plan will develop a far-reaching vision that proposes transformative polices and projects to improve transportation for the city’s residents, businesses and visitors. The two-year process will be driven by data and steered through an unprecedented and inclusive public engagement process.” – GoBoston2030.org
Our greatest asset as planners and designers is our ability to facilitate complex negotiations among diverse groups and help them move towards a common vision. Our greatest challenge will be to identify and proactively build upon the values of increasingly diverse communities. The GoBoston2030 Question Campaign takes an important step towards empowering Bostonians (and yes residents of Cambridge, Somerville, and Brookline too) by taking a values-based approach to generating, analyzing, and learning from Big Data—and by moving swiftly and deliberatively towards Big Democracy.
Welcome to the future of civic engagement—Big Data, Big Democracy, and Design Excellence in Boston.
Stephen F. Gray is a Senior Associate urban designer at Sasaki Associates, Lecturer at MIT DUSP, and Associate Director on the Board of the Boston Society of Architects. This Go Boston 2030 Question Campaign runs until February 8, so spread the word!!!
Questions can be asked online: www.goboston2030.org
Questions can be texted: 617-925-6914
Questions can be tweeted: #goboston2030
Tags: Big Data, Boston, Boston Transportation Department, city design, City of Boston, Civic Engagement, Civic Tech, design, Facebook, GoBoston2030, GoBoston2030 Question Campaign, Interaction Institute for Social Change, MIT DUSP, Sasaki Associates, SMS, social media, transportation, twitter, urban design