iA


Brickstarter prototype v0.1, and using sketches to ask questions

Brickstarter

Previously on Brickstarter: our project is about sketching new cultures of public decision-making, predicated on reversing NIMBY cultures to become YIMBY cultures. We’re creating a platform for making suggestions about how to improve your neighbourhood or environment, and then turn those proposals into projects. We do this in order to start constructive conversations within and around government and other relevant institutions. This aspect engages with “dark matter”: the often imperceptible regulations, legislation, organisational cultures and behavours that can either enable or block systemic change. As such, Brickstarter is actually a prototype of a service, or culture, that attempts to get to the heart of what democratic decision-making might be, of how we might develop our cultures of politics and governance in cities, towns and nations.

This latter aspect actually reveals that the point of Brickstarter is not really in making a website at all, necessarily, but rather in developing a sketch of “a 21st century social contract”. Or at least aspects of that. It’s not making a statement about what that should be, but using prototyping to explore what that might be.

SKETCHES

For a few months we’ve had some hi-res “sketches” of a notional and prototype Brickstarter service, which it’s time to share here. We’ve been using these sketches in conversations (with city officials, in other meetings with interested parties, with audiences locally and overseas, and so on) – they’re a token for conversations at this stage (as with our street food book and In Studio book.)

So, below you see a couple of the quick designs we’ve done for a notional Brickstarter service. I’ll probably post separately elsewhere about the design choices themselves, just for the record (though I’ll reveal here that the birdie is a magpie). This post will concentrate more on the meaning, and much of this is “thinking out loud”, or sketching out loud, perhaps.

Caveat: this is about a week’s work, a while ago, so be gentle with me! It’s a hasty sketch, and no more. But we hope it begins to make concrete some of what we’re talking about here, at least from this end of the project. This design will be thrown away at some point, as the project progresses. Note also this is what I call the “kitchen sink mock” i.e. the mockup with everything thrown at it; you couldn’t possibly reveal all this complexity on a live public service aimed at a broad, if not universal, swathe of the population.

WALKTHROUGH

In any case, there are two pages, which outline the bones, and some of the flesh, of a prospective system: a homepage, which lays out a series of projects (and people), and then an example project page, which indicates what a live project might look like. (Click the long images below for full size versions.)

The homepage is very simple—a very quick layout of an index.

Homepage

(View full-size .png version of this homepage)

This is a simple “welcome” at the moment, with some obvious hooks to start with—a sense of what it’s about, and some invitations to engage—and an explanatory panel for new users. But there’s little here for you to chew on, save a sense of the kind of projects that might be obviously catered for by such a platform. So let’s have a closer look at the project page:

Project

(View full-size .png version of this project page)

You’ll see a fictional project in progress, aiming to convert a bit of underused/disused infrastructure in central Helsinki. And yes, all the examples here are the usual clichéd set of co-working spaces, community gardens and so on, but each of the spaces and buildings mentioned here are “real”, with realistic proposals (and some genuine proposals like Cloud City—perhaps Brickstarter can help even this scale get traction? Whether it should is another question). Most cases happen to be within a 1km radius of my home (yes, I’m lazy)—yet it’s worth stressing that while you don’t know what you get with an open platform, you can set a direction.

Example projects

And on some of them—and others not presented here—we’re working with active community groups, or potential businesses, to understand how they approach such opportunities. This is part of our approach to co-designing the project around real participants. (If you’re in Finland, and want to join this aspect of the project, drop us a comment below.)

 

Language drop-down

Language
Before we go further, you’ll note that the page is in English, not Finnish! There’s a language drop-down implied top-right (“ENG” for “English”), which would offer Finnish, Swedish, English, Russian as basics, and perhaps more, ultimately. One of the things we’re interested in is how rapidly Finland, and Helsinki in particular, is diversifying. That means tools for Finnish communities—whether produced by public sector or private sector or in-between—need to handle this. Of course, cultural diversity is beyond language, but here’s a start, and this little drop-down is a hint to generate debate about that.

 

Targets vs deadlines

Target and deadline
The proposal has an apparently financial target, and a countdown of time remaining for the project to hit that target here. (Web design fans, spot the deliberate mistake with this layout.) The money, at this point, is probably about making this a convincing proposal (many such projects fall over at this stage, as they’re going up against a well-equipped planning department, say, with little or no resources.) So this money might pay for professional services, permits, some marketing and facilitation, and so on. In terms of timers, we’ve somewhat randomly given 60 days per project, as it seems more complex than a Kickstarter project (where they advise that 30 days or less is best, though they too can last for up to 60.) Those dynamics are interesting, and will need testing for these kind of projects which might have an element of permanence.

 

Overview

Details
Then you can see some sense of what that finance might be for. The idea here is that a Brickstarter service usefully bundles up “packages” of work, and paperwork i.e. this is a “medium-sized” project (there would be S, M, L, XL), and the package consists of the necessary permits, advice, contacts, guides and so on. We’re hinting that might be a service run by a municipality, or it could simply be in collaboration with it (both the little “YIMBY over  NIMBY” and municipality crests.) You can also see who’s behind the project, recognising it always takes one or two committed individuals to drive such projects. These are super-users, in a sense, but our imperative here is also to lower the bar on development, such that activism becomes activity, or that the heroics usually required to pull these projects off becomes in reach of mere mortals, who might also be doing other things. (Again, Kickstarter is an interesting analogue here, as the capital generated there is often used just to buy a bit of time to pursue a long-held ambition; this might also be useful in these projects.)

 

Badges

Badges
Then the badges, which we’ve talked about before. As an avid Foursquare user, the potential power of gamification is clear—at least for a certain type of user! This might be an admittedly sneaky way of testing whether we can get an open platform to tend towards sustainable outcomes i.e. you might earn a badge for people liking the fact that you’re trying to turn a parking lot into an edible garden, but you can’t get a badge for turning a garden into a parking lot. It’ll be interesting to test if that works, and exactly how to couch it in a way that is open and clear. I’d argue that any so-called “open platform” is never entirely open—it is always within a framework of sorts, with particular constraints, affordances and biases. We can at least be clear about ours.

 

Pitch

Pitch
Then we have a video pitch of the idea. We’re interested in video as a ‘higher resolution’ way of conveying ideas; higher than the standard text field implies, anyway. Again, this may be too much (Marcus Westbury suggested it was a bit much, when I showed him a sketch, and I added the short text underneath on his advice.) Then again, most people—in Finland, anyway—have access to being able to produce video now, and the nature of the project is such that it’s always possible to stand in front of a place and talk about what it could be. Behind each of these elements might be a Neighborland-like, or Kickstarter-like, “how to” guide for how to do a pitch. Much of this project might be about exposing tacit knowledge, such that each field required of a project proponent has these little how-to guides behind it.

 

Multiple ways to contribute

Get involved
We’ve sketched four different ways of getting involved; again, this is too many in reality, but we need to be explicit for now to flush out the right questions. The discussion around these affordances will need expanding later, as there’s a lot going on. But for most users—given most people won’t be running projects, but simply observing, enabling or discussing them—this is the crux of the service.

Meeting

Currently, we’re suggesting it’s mandatory to hold real, physical meetings (and the service suggests it provides a tool to store details of those—another thing we learnt from talking to Kickstarter is the value of giving light project tools to people.) We feel these kind of decisions, unlike Kickstarter decisions, might necessitate looking your neighbour in the eye. Note “Brickstarter South” implies an event (or even physical space), like a monthly gathering of prospective civic start-ups, which might enable peer discussion as well as debates and votes. It would actually be a genuinely useful kind of incubator i.e. unlike most. More like the Summit café in San Francisco, but more accessible, open and richer with possibility than the usual tech industry-oriented incubator; how great could that be? Note that this is a suggestion, a half-formed thought, rather than a statement of intent.

Invest

We have a way to invest in the project, if you want to help make it happen (and more on this below). With Kickstarter being at least one point of inspiration, this seems a no-brainer—and yet this area is fraught with complexity—and politics for that matter.

Vote

We also have a vote box. Again, in reality we might collapse this and the Invest box into only one interaction, of just “backing” the project. Financial backing is perhaps a meaningful form of getting behind a project. Then again, we don’t want money to speak too loudly, so the idea of a non-financial vote is appealing. It’s sort of a counterbalance here, as if these two boxes—Invest and Vote—are in tension. And vote needs defining, of course. It’s somewhere between a vote in a local election and a Facebook Like button. But where the latter is infinite, ad-hoc, and almost meaningless, and the former is finite, infrequent and outsources responsibility for a few years, we want something in the middle. Note also we might be able to infer locals from others—what does it mean when a non-local votes for it? (In this case, it might be a bit of civic infrastructure used by people who don’t live in the area—but then some people have to live with it 24/7, more or less.)

Invest time

We’re also interested in a Brickstarter service that can act as a kind of brokerage or switchboard for people to find professionals who are interested in contributing to such projects, on a pro bono basis perhaps, or via time-banking. There may be some changes in tax legislation required there, actually. We feel this is particularly important as it both reinforces the idea that amateurs need professionals and vice versa (these are not mutually exclusive), but also that one of the major hurdles for community-led projects is simply being convincing. Understanding who you might need, and then finding them, may be key to whether projects get a hearing from institutions—or not. Oh, and there’s the usual spray of social media icons there, but of course you should be able to embed project hooks elsewhere too, which I haven’t drawn yet.

 

Contributors and backers

Contributors and backers
Then we have a straightforward area for who’s contributed so far. Note it’s interesting to bring in the relevant councillor here, and maybe make their views explicit. Note they also look like any other user, more or less, and appear underneath the other citizens. Note also the is dialogic presentation of opinion, over and above simple thumbs up/thumbs down. Interesting to see if this scales.

mayor

You also have a one-click way of getting in touch, with the councillor, or organisers. All of these little details have implications! (Note, if you recognise your picture here, and you’re not happy, let me know and I’ll swap it! These are all somewhat randomly lifted from Facebook, with a Finnish-skew, but then given made-up names.) There’s some notion that we can pick out “locals” (though the local footprint of a project is an interesting question) and some kind of super-contributor (the stars).

 

Project decisions

Project decisions
Decisions is partly about denoting where this project is in the process (which might be different for different scales but we’ve come up with a fairly abstract set of stages at the moment). These projects are arguably more complex than 99% of Kickstarter projects, and we also want to make explicit the “dark matter” of these processes, to open it up and make it less opaque. In a sense, this could be an interface on top of the existing institutional interfaces, cohering, simplifying and user-centring. With these timelines, there are key decisions yet to be made about when projects appear in the system, when funding kicks in (is that about funding, in the language below, the “hatching” to “permitting” stage?)

Project in progress

It’s also clear that there needs to be some kind of service element on the way in to these projects, with people watching this (this is why we hint that Brickstarter might be a service, an agency, perhaps even a place, as well as a website.) As in, Kickstarter reviews and rejects projects as well as accepting them (most are rejected, apparently). As a private entity, that’s entirely reasonable. But there is a complex ethic at work here with something like Brickstarter—as in, with an open platform, about spaces, places or services that might be public, who’s to say a project should be rejected? That needs to be a decision made in public (although currently, most might be rejected by the municipalities, often with little information in public; and a few might make it through for a more public review). That public decision isn’t represented here yet, nor is the idea that many projects might ultimately not happen—yet rather than be rejected, perhaps they go back into a “pool” of projects waiting to be re-shaped, or looking for a better place, or the right time. (This is partly how Renew Newcastle works, as I understand it.) So this element of project progress needs a bit of work.

 

Permits

Permits
Note also the idea of rating permits—this is clearly a bad idea, as bluntly implemented here (every permit will score 0 out of 5, no?!) so it’s more of a placeholder. But the idea of users sharing experience of permits would be more useful (“no need to fill in question 5″, “describe it like this and you avoid this form”, “you definitely need this one” etc.) This is also a useful feedback loop for any government institution involved i.e. the only real feedback loop on such processes and permits presently is things not happening; here, we have a scalable system for capturing user feedback, enabling user-centred re-design of governance.

Beyond that, Finn Williams pointed out that one of the challenges with these projects is maintenance; it’s rarely thought about, which is why many councils knock things back (as they have to pick up the bill there). So the faded-out right-hand-side of the progress bar needs to actually be a little less faded-out, and explicitly ask questions as to maintenance and ongoing operations sooner rather than later (and that’s probably a conversation or negotiation, if public.)

 

Location

Location
Then we have a location (everything here probably has a location, though its conceivable some projects might have multiple, or a wider radius than a map marker would indicate. Can we draw that? How to convey the remit or scale of impact of a project? Equally, how might we convey other projects proposed for the same space? How to understand the opportunity cost from a spatial perspective? Or how might users suggest a better place for a project? One that isn’t NIMBY, that is.)

 

Debate

Debate
This again is too simplistic, clearly (and see below note about Facebook implementation hinted at here), but another placeholder. Debates around decisions often disappear into the ether; whereas online platforms are not bad at capturing and representing such things. We believe this is particularly a problem in Finland, where a docile media is combined with more deference for authority than is usual in Europe—some key decisions can often slip through without debate. Equally, there is a tendency towards quantitative analysis over qualitative—the multiple-choice survey over the discussion—hence this deliberate evocation of a conversation, no matter how neutered that conversational mode usually is via something like Facebook comments. So, a placeholder for a discussion in itself, rather than a proposed solution.

 

More like this

More like this
Finally, some related projects. As above, it would be good to more coherently understand and represent the spatial aspect of this i.e. the opportunity cost of projects proposed for the same space.

DISTILLING CONVERSATIONS INTO PIXELS

As this prototype develops, we might take each aspect apart and unpack in more detail, just as we’ve been sharing many of the research conversations that have gone into it so far.

Each of these elements—each of these pixels—have design choices behind them. I don’t mean visual or interaction design choices, though they are those too, but conceptual and strategic choices. This sketch exists only to suggest and clarify questions. I’d previously posted some early sketches from my sketchbook, which are often drawn in the middle of conversations, almost like reverse subtitles (improvised visual sketches to reinforce, translate, expand, explore what we’re talking about.) There are many more, scribbled after that those earlier sketches, which now lead more closely to the outcomes you see above. Looking back,  I note many of which are still drawings of systems and processes rather than interaction details or layouts, however.

Sketchbook

Though some show signs of heading towards what you see above:

Page layout

Sketchbook

But the resulting hi-res sketch (and I still call the webpages you see above “sketches”)  is informed by conversations with Bryan in particular, and the wider team, as well as the ongoing research presented here previously. You can see, say, the conversation with Rodrigo Araya forcing the requirement to have public meetings, and to compress the time for discussion (although this is also an idiom drawn from most crowdfunding platforms.)

Marcus Westbury was more equivocal about the need for public meetings—which are notoriously easy to derail, after all, though he was also wondering about which projects actually need them (Renew Newcastle towards projects that can be quickly taken down, if there’s a problem.) But he did stress the “process wrangling” required to get projects done, and so the idea of sharing experience of permits comes in. He suggested text to describe projects, rather than videos, certainly at the start of the process, as part of a general comment about removing as many barriers to entry as possible, enabling widespread and ongoing experimentation to become part of everyday city life.

Finn Williams also talked about the need to make these opaque processes legible in some way, or even a platform for creative interpretation of existing legislation (via “Sub-Plan”) as well as directly engaging local authorities and institutions. Hence the city council appearing here quite explicitly – we’ve actually poised this sketch halfway between a decision point, in that it could be interpreted as a public service run by a city (and so challenging the idea of how such public services look, feel and behave, compared to current offerings), or by a public partnership in collaboration with a city. It can be taken either way. It might be that Sub-Plan-like elements are part of useful “how-to” guides, as noted above (we also met Teele Pehk and Regina Viljasaar from Estonia’s Linnalabor this week, who have produced a similar user guide to Tallin’s planning regulations, which is equally excellent.)

We’ve had many more conversations which can’t be connected so directly to a chunk of interface, but have shaped the sketch nonetheless.

DETECTING DARK MATTER WITH DESIGN PROBES

We decided to draw from the idioms of contemporary social media practice and dovetail them with public services, again as a challenge to much current offerings. You’ll note lots of elements here drawn from existing services—this is on purpose, not least for the benefit of working with well-understood idioms (though looking to extend and improve where possible), but also as a statement that contemporary public sector web services could be just as “contemporary” as private sector web services. Not for the sake of being contemporary in itself, but because such idioms are tested, malleable, honed and popular. They are attractive.

Many institutions don’t understand they could easily be worked around; that they no longer have a monopoly on “running the city”. Thanks to the tools the average citizen has to hand – which can now enable Occupy Everywhere, Arab Spring, and mass, organised cleanups after London riots et al, as well as Justin Bieber fan pages – many unresponsive institutions could be what I call “Maginot Line’d” out of the way. In fact, increasingly, we might call this “Ravintolapäivä’d” i.e. neatly sidestepped, using transient networked organisational models, rather than engaged. So we might want to borrow elements of that culture and collide them with existing governance culture, to see what hybrid forms are possible.

So every little design cue here has a strategic point in terms of generating a conversation about that. This use of idioms and patterns, then, is a way of de-risking applied research, to rapidly generate alternative proposals to current practice, rather than simply being the outcome of a user-centred design process.

For this research to have effect, it has to look and feel like a contemporary web service, suggesting the kind of platform for citizen participation in decision-making we’ve been exploring here. And to be clear, we’d love something like this to exist. We might help make that happen; one of our partners might; one of the existing adjacent services might take on some of the aspects sketched here; or it might inspire someone else to do so. The field is growing so rapidly that we can assume this will happen. Since our project started some months ago, after years of background thinking, it’s incredibly heartening to see a new proposed service popping up almost every week (our emerging “Fact Cards” series will help track that a bit.)

What won’t “naturally” happen, though, is a thorough investigation of how “dark matter” might, or can, change. Few of these new entrants are genuinely grappling with governance and decision-making as a design challenge—nor is it their job to do so, necessarily. That is not something the market is likely to produce any time soon, and it’s also complex for government to move swiftly into this space too. As a result, you get some false dawns, like the idea that a crowdfunding site might be able to conjure up a light rail line by aggregating enough ‘Likes’. This will not happen without, as Gladwell might say, a little engagement with non-networked structures.

We’re also aware of the potential critique that some institutions and governments might nurture crowdfunding initiatives as it focuses citizens on the everyday small stuff—the things one can buy with merely tens of thousands of euros, their immediate neighbourhood, their individual concerns—as a way of distracting the same citizens from bigger questions, bigger strategies, bigger budgets, bigger procurements, wider societal concerns, and the potential need to genuinely re-engineer governance itself. It might placate with the notion of genuine local engagement, yet ultimately diminish engagement in broader politics. Personally, I don’t buy the “conspiracy theory” here, as I don’t think many governments really know what to do about this. They would not be that strategic. Yet it could indeed produce the same outcome, and so we want to understand the broader governance frameworks and cultures themselves as part of this project. To see this local experiment in its wider context.

So at this point, as you can see from the way things are framed above, the website is a token to enable genuinely pragmatic and constructive conversations about, for instance, what city government might need to be in the near future, or what legal practices might need to change to enabling crowdfunding of such projects, or what new social structures might emerge in terms of housing assocations or consumer groups, or what kind of richer understandings of citizens might be required in a diversifying Finland, and so on.

It’s a kind of “dark matter probe” that we can send over the top to attract and stimulate that engagement. It’s a kind of very-near-future version i.e. it could be launched tomorrow, of Phillips’ “far-future” design probes. Without “objects” like this, questions as to “21st century governance” are just too abstract, and daunting.

FROM BUTTONS TO QUESTIONS

Behind all these innocuous looking buttons, there are perhaps hundreds of unanswered questions. Again, this is the point. So let’s take an example.

Invest button

If we look at that simple INVEST button alone, we might generate questions like:

  • What actually happens when someone clicks “invest”? (We have legal experts looking into that, in terms of crowdfunding and current Finnish laws around investment, and so on.) But what should happen?
  • Should it be a direct citizen donation, as per Kickstarter? Or, given the “tradition” of paying for effective, quality public services here, should it be some small proportion of a citizen’s existing tax payment made available back to them to place on projects they like? Should it be akin to being able to direct charity donations, as in some countries? Here, there is a payment to the church, which one has to opt out of, so there is precedent for additional discretionary items added to taxes. What’s the right way to do this, given many of the projects might be public in scope, remit and value generated?
  • Indeed, how do we ensure that crowdfunding doesn’t begin to unhelpfully “destabilise” local taxation that pays for the often-excellent public services? (That is too precious a result to carelessly destablise through importing aspects of a model developed in a context where taxation is anathema, government is necessarily small, and any semblence of the welfare state barely exists never mind functions well. The corollary is that public finances may soon not stretch as far as they need to.)
  • How do we validate transactions? When is the money actually transferred? And to what form of legal entity? Can Finnish cooperatives accept this kind of funding? (Again, these question is currently being investigated by our legal team—we’ll publish a “state of play” in August)
  • Should there be some kind of City-led neighbourhood matched funding scheme, like Seattle and other cities, to top-up crowdfunded projects?
  • If we say “invest”, what does that mean? That your return-on-investment (ROI) is a form of non-financial “shared value” reward of a new service or space existing? Or should it actually be a projected financial ROI? ANd if so, how does that work in terms of legal and financial practice? Should we even make the idea of a shared value return an explicit, rather than implicit, part of the project?
  • What happens when a community group reaches 99% funding but doesn’t make 100% before the 60 day limit? Should some public body step in to make up the shortfall? (It would be almost heartless to build a system that lets a community group raise €29k and then take that all away because they missed their €30k total by two hours. And yet deadlines must be observed in order to have the focus-compressing effect.)
  • How open are the accounts of community projects?
  • How do we ensure due democratic process, such that money doesn’t speak too loudly? It would be possible to make particular projects more likely happen by dropping large donations on them – but with the opportunity cost involved in public spaces, and with public value generated, this wouldn’t be a democractic process. How to balance this button with the one beneath, voting?
  • How does the City council appear and participate in this open platform, in terms of its funding? Can it create projects in the system, and drop its own funding on them, to open up public financing around public projects? What happens when the citizen reject them all (for the sake of argument)?
  • Should those donating be made visible within the community? We assume so, as per web idioms and Kickstarter – but is this different when you can see what your neighbour is voting for, or donating to, and vice versa? How do we balance a healthy and rich public discourse alongside these simple mechanisms and transactions?
  • Should such a service accept donations for local projects from citizens in other countries? (We could! Perhaps there’s a bunch of people that want to make wind turbines and community gardens happen in cities they’ll never visit – but what are the local politics of that? We might call this the Detroit Robocop Memorial Dilemma, as referenced here and here. Who makes the decision about their engihbourhood seems a simple question, but what if a neighbourhood could take advantage of the internet to receivef funding from anywhere, as per Kickstarter?)

And so on. And you’ll be able to come up lots more. And that’s just one button! Over time, we’ll pick apart each aspect of this proposed interface, and reveal the complex dark matter wiring behind it; at least, that which we can see, and we’ll use the “matter” of the website to flush out the “meta” surrounding it.

We also need to understand all the potential connections, as part of an “ecosystem” (much as I don’t like that word) of services around areas like this. We’re keen that Brickstarter helps and promotes the various other projects that are kicking around in this space – Joukkoenkeli, Hukkatila, Helsinki Region Infoshare etc. in Finland, and others – by plugging into, or pointing to, those where they exist (Again, keep an eye on the “Fact Cards” that Maiji is progressively posting). This might be via some kind of “civic API” which enables us to share elements across multiple services. So, the crowdfunding mechanisms of one might be able to deploy the financial transaction-handling module of another; the voter registration or citizen identity records of one service might plug into another (it’s the lack of these interoperable modules, these small pieces loosely joined, that currently hold back “open government” services like Avoin Ministeriö for instance.)

Sometimes, even these syndication and interoperability issues throw up interesting questions.

We might, for instance, draw in data from Foursquare, so we can easily aggregate “surrounding attractions or services” for a project site. Equally, and given that we are Sitra, should we use OpenStreetMap rather than Google Maps in order to reinforce mapping refinement into open platforms? Similarly, my pasting in the comments module from Facebook (available via the Facebook social plugin) is both pragmatic and contentious. If a city government were to run a service, it probably couldn’t require its citizens to use Facebook to comment, in terms of open access. But if the city government enables commenting elsewhere, somehow – ensuring universal access – could the ease and power of Facebook’s social networking infrastructure be of such value that it’s impossible to ignore, and could augment existing discussions?

QUESTIONS, QUESTIONS

From a design practice point-of-view, I’ve recently written about the value of prototyping to flush out questions, as well as answers. This is a case in point. The value of strategic design is partly, we believe, in terms of aiding decision-making. When you’re designing something, you have to make decisions. The stairs have to go here or here, not in both places (usually). This courtyard can be a community garden or a parking lot, but not both at the same time (usually). The button on this website has to be labelled “INVEST” or “DONATE” or “FUND” or “BACK THIS” or “CONTRIBUTE”, but not all of them. It can only be one, and it must be consistent, and each choice has a subtly different inflection, and implication.

The practice of actually making something forces these decisions, in a way that most strategy and vision work simply does not, and so, we would argue, fails to locate, understand and answer questions seriously enough. (This is even before we get to the genuine public value of actually iterating prototypes into services—something that is just not usually done—and which is a whole other conversation.)

There is clearly a balance to be struck in terms of resolution of detail when sketching to flush out questions. And this is a high-res mockup, no doubt. Personally, I find it easier to sketch this way, but it can of course have the unfortunate outcome that people think things are set in stone, that this is closer to the end of a design process than the beginning. This isn’t the case, as these layouts are all entirely malleable at this stage—as I said, they’re entirely throwaway.

But more importantly, we believe that we have to make the website—and make it convincing, and work with real partners to co-create it—for the real questions to emerge. Otherwise, it’s all abstract guesswork.

To this end (and incidentally, reflecting the fact that designing and coding should be done at the same time—they are in fact the same thing), we have a coded-up prototype too, which we’ll post shortly. Even there, there are implications. Only a few in the public sector, like the UK’s Government Digital Services, for instance, are producing contemporary work at high-quality, quickly, and at scale, though some are doing it for public good from outside of that environment, such as the rapidly-built Ravintolapäivä app. We need more activity like this. So, just to geek out briefly, we asked the excellent Ville Kolehmainen at Fusion Inc to take a week coding our admittedly basic and untested prototype using responsive layouts, CSS transforms, masonry grids, and so on, partly to reinforce that this it is possibly to produce contemporary work quickly from a public sector position. Such a position also involves ensuring universal access, either through backwards compatibility, reductive simplicity, or creating a range of services for all citizens. With public service design, each technical choice is also a political choice.

From talking to other cities about this project we know that virtually all western cities are facing similar challenges, and we know our existing cultures of decision-making, as well as operating models, are under increasing stress. Partly this is self-induced, as organisational models, and many behaviours, have largely not changed significantly since the 19th century (according to the likes of Jocelyne Bourgone, for instance).

But also because, as the Mayor of Oslo put it at Cisco’s Public Services Summit in December, “our so many rules and regulations have made it easier to say ‘no’ and to find a way to stop things.”

But another of our principal beliefs is that such things are malleable. We have created every one of these outcomes, one way or another, either through conscious thought or emergence, and so we can choose to plot a different course if we want to. In order to do that we need to, as Marco says, understand the architecture of the problem in order to discern the architecture of the solution. This means producing an artefact that helps us flush out these connections, this dark matter. We also know from our work in food systems and culture that this dark matter is key to enabling systemic change, over and above installations, popups and isolated breakthroughs.

To paraphrase and slightly contradict the “duck test”, even though this looks like a website, and might behave like a webiste, this work isn’t actually about a website per se — we’re doing this work to help anticipate the characteristics of a more productive 21st century social contract, and how we might get there.

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13 comments on ‘Brickstarter prototype v0.1, and using sketches to ask questions’

  1. [...] / Nordkapp Strava.com Google Project Glass If this then that: http://ifttt.com Belkin WEMO Brickstarter by Sitra SDL Helsinki Transport Travel Time Map Nike Fuel Tesco QR Code subway ad: http://www.littledoremi.com/ [...]

  2. Torsten Adair says:

    Could a municipality post possible projects, and use BS (sorry!) to allow citizens to vote on which should be funded from a city’s incubation fund?

    Could they also use it as a means of updating the public on various projects? What if they did allow for voluntary funding? Perhaps a sports fan would be willing to donate money up front, so that a city borrows less. City agencies could also use it as a one-stop donation box, for pop-up capital campaigns (“Help the library buy books for our summer reading program!” ) Of course, businesses could also link to these projects, either to promote the cause, or via a matching-funds campaign.

    But then that gets away from city planning and more into Kickstarter territory…
    -
    Could BS be structured into municipality sites, such as:
    http://www.omaha.brickstarter.org
    where the City assigns a person (perhaps already hired to be a community liaison) who oversees the various projects proposed, and helps to guide and advise “prospectors” on what they need to consider to get government approval?

    Each local site would have links and resources to local regulations and organizations which can help someone to successfully plan (or evaluate) a proposal before launching it on BS?

    Could there be a local, non-profit “fairy godmother” who can guide neophytes on the proper and efficient use of resources, helping them to avoid the usual pitfalls? Perhaps someone either at a non-profit, or someone who can connect individuals and organizations?

    How do you balance activism with politics? How do you avoid a NIMBY mentality from developing, or negativity over excessive red tape? “I wanted to do This, but the planning board said I couldn’t.” or “I have this nice community garden, but the City is selling it to a developer.” How do you use this only for good? How do you control tempers and debates on your comments sections?

    If someone votes or invests, does their name then get added to a contact list, either as a supporter (“We need people to show up at the next City Planning hearing.”) or a volunteer (“We need help renovating this park.”)? When someone clicks that icon, will there be a survey people can answer detailing how they wish to help?

    Regarding the future maintenance of projects. Can that be part of the project? Could it be a secondary donation, “I am willing to give $X per year for Z years to help maintain the project.”? Or would the project overview detail public (and private) funding already pledged to the project?

    Each project should have a 1-2 page summary (more if there are pictures) which one can read quickly. It’s so easy to get lost in PDFs and skim, even with something interesting like the Summer Olympic bid books! Certainly present the full documentation, but also avoid losing the reader’s interest. This summary can also be used as a “cornerstone” which details the projects plans and philosophy, so that the goal is not sidetracked by minutiae or castles-in-the-sky.

    The badges serve as icons denoting the status of a project. How about another row of badges which remain to be earned? Also, badges can be used to define a project, so that a person can skim at a glance projects which interest them. (Parks, renewable energy, building renovation, cleanup, volunteer mobs) The same can be used for your “time investing” page, so that a licensed electrician can easily see projects which might need her skills. (Be sure to include an “unskilled labor” or “helping hand” icon, for general needs, like planting a garden.)

    Will there be an archive, so that if someone has a project, they can review previous, similar projects and see how something worked? (“I want to install a windmill at my school. Did anyone else try this?”) More importantly, there needs to be a review of each project, either when successfully completed, or when it fails. What worked, what didn’t, what problems were encountered, (how) were they solved, do laws need to be changed?

    A simple wiki page would also be useful, giving a quick history and overview of the project, providing links to organizations and news articles.

    Could BS be used as an incubator, to generate ideas and comments without proposing an actual project? Perhaps a university could post a student project regarding a particular intersection or neighborhood, and allow the general public to comment. Perhaps that would inspire individuals to take pieces from the proposal and initiate projects. (Why couldn’t a university become a shadow planning department?!)

    Perhaps cities could provide a “fast food” planning service, with a “1040 EZ” type form for homeowners or organizations to fill out. These forms would cover the usual, everyday projects. Maybe that initial form would require a longer form, but with a quick review (five business days or fewer), the applicant would know quickly what needs to be amended or refiled. Or the City Planning Department automates the initial filing with a simple online questionnaire. Then the relevant documents could be downloaded for an architect or lawyer to complete. Some lawyers or architects could even specialize in this sort of thing, just like H & R Block makes a lot of profit helping people file their income taxes.

    Good luck! Again, you will probably wish to change your name, as the abbreviation is not too flattering! Perhaps take a Finnish idiom or phrase, and alter it a bit to make it unique and trademark-able! (manyhands.org is already taken… yhteistyö on voimaa?)

  3. [...] prototype can be seen here, but the sample below shows how the site will basically [...]

  4. [...] is where Brickstarter comes in. Conceived by the design team at Sitra, the Finnish innovation fund, Brickstarter [...]

  5. [...] is where Brickstarter comes in. Conceived by the design team at Sitra, the Finnish innovation fund, Brickstarter [...]

  6. [...] is where Brickstarter comes in. Conceived by the design team at Sitra, the Finnish innovation fund, Brickstarter [...]

  7. [...] is where Brickstarter comes in. Conceived by the design team at Sitra, the Finnish innovation fund, Brickstarter [...]

  8. [...] is where Brickstarter comes in. Conceived by the design team at Sitra, the Finnish innovation fund, Brickstarter [...]

  9. [...] the heels of urban crowdfunding platform Spacehive comes Brickstarter, a prototype by Finnish design team Sitra that aims to facilitate the rapid funding of small [...]

  10. amanda says:

    There is a similar initiative in the US called Change By Us which is currently operating in a similar but more limited way than the proposal for Brickstarter. There are versions in New York and Philadelphia connecting locals to one another and public officials. The main difference is that groups can apply for funding from a central dedicated pool of money; it doesn’t come from kickstarter-like contributions… though that’s not to say it won’t in the future. Anyway, the sites might be helpful to see how projects like this can work in action.

  11. Maija says:

    Hi Amanda and thanks for your interest in our project! We’ve looked into Change by Us and featured it on our series of Fact Cards.
    Maija

  12. Edgar Cuesta says:

    Thank you for sharing the many thoughts and complexities behind the design of Brickstarter. Being able to see the process and rationale behind design decisions is a rare and welcomed opportunity.

    As per Brickstarter, I agree with Torsten above about enabling BSt to be also an incubator. Providing some sort of stewardship for citizen initiatives at early and intermediate stages would improve the quality of the proposals. This may also be a great opportunity for citizens to learn how to deal with regulations and City officials, for example. And it may start setting the ground for a common “language” (words and concepts) for all stakeholders, hopefully diminishing empty rethoric and ambiguity. BSt could be a great way of building “ownership” of the city among citizens and communities.

    Good luck!

  13. [...] prototype co-developed by SITRA and partners to explore 21st Century decision-making. Here is Dan Hill‘s -  SITRA’s Strategic Design Lead – introduction to [...]

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