Update: Where we’re at in May 2012

Every now and then I look over and Dan has a new set of sketches on his desk. They’re usually boxes within boxes, which means he’s drawing out versions of the various screens that will comprise Brickstarter. The boxes are chunks of interaction that he’s nudging around. He draws, we talk occasionally, and eventually the result of those two get crystalized into pixels that look something like this:


Wait, did you think I would give it all away already? No… that will come soon enough, but for now this post is about some of the thematic issues we’re crunching on.

While Dan digs into the function and use of the site, I’m focusing on some of the structural issues such as who, really, is the site for? And what does a successful Brickstarter project look like in specific terms?

We’ve been writing scenarios which are brief use-cases that describe in narrative form how someone might plausibly use Brickstarter. These are currently organized into small, medium, large, and extra-large based more or less on the amount of money required to build the thing. Kalle, Dan, and I spent a bit of time making sure the scenarios we chose were representative and covered a good spread. Small looks something like this:


Yrjö had been warned by a friend that the cobble stone streets of Helsinki might vibrate the screws of his bike loose, but it wasn’t until his seat flew off that this became a problem. He and his trusty Pelago were in the middle of the city’s newest cycle path, Baana, a sunken laneway cutting through the middle of the city. It’s lovely… until your bike needs maintenance and you have to lug it up the stairs.
This personal need highlighted a civic opportunity for Yrjö. With hundreds of cyclists using Baana every weekend a self-service maintenance station would be a useful asset for all and it’s cheap enough that it can even be crowd funded. Let’s make this happen.

As you can see, each scenario describes the proposal of the imagined Brickstarter campaign, a dash of the back story, and the kind of help the campaign is trying to attract. This last bit is key because it really changes depending on the scale of the project. Sure, it’s possible to imagine crowdfunding something like a bike maintenance station which may cost in the thousands or tens of thousands of euros, but could you imagine crowd funding a wind farm which is many millions? Not so likely, at least not in the way that crowdfunding is generally understood. Instead, larger projects may use crowdfunding as a way to enable proper feasibility studies and permitting due diligence. That might sound like this:


________ has always been a small community that prides itself on sisu, the Finnish sense of perseverance. As this community of farmers look into the future, they’re concerned about energy prices and looking for ways to insulate themselves from price fluctuations.

Someone suggested a particularly 21st century version of “talkoot“. Rather than coming together to raise a barn for a neighbor, the people of ________ hope to pool their resources to build a small wind farm of three turbines. They’re using Brickstarter to bring attention to their project in hopes of attracting help from energy professionals and those who have navigated the approvals process before. Let’s make this happen.

We write these use cases because they help us make decisions about what’s worth keeping within the boundaries of the project and what should be put on a wish list for tomorrow. By exploring the possibilities through a range of plausible uses we make more coherent decisions. As a first stage, these scenarios help us articulate a v0.1 or so of the prototype.

The outcomes of this process will be mockups of the key pages on the site and those will go to a local firm to be converted from photoshop files into web pages that we can click on and interact with in a basic ways. In turn, we will be showing those clickable mockups to our key stakeholders, collecting their feedback, and iterating again. It’s cheaper, faster, and easier to make changes in these early stages than it is when there’s a real site up and running, so we want to maximize this phase of development and get the most out of it.

One of the things we’ll be paying close attention to when we show the prototypes to people is their reaction to the gaming aspects of Brickstarter. At the basic level Brickstarter is about enabling people to develop proposals about the world around them, but a substantial reason why an organization like Sitra wants to develop Brickstarter is tied up in our current mission of supporting sustainable wellbeing. If we’re able to offer the most compelling platform for attracting support to community proposals, we’re able to encourage those proposals which foreground sustainability in terms of social, economic, and ecological factors. But how? We’re looking to behavioral economics and game design for clues. It’s a subject we’re tiptoeing into.

When I was in New York last week I had the pleasure of being on a panel discussion with Colleen Macklin, a game designer who is Associate Professor in the Department of Communication Design and Technology at Parsons. Our conversation there touched on an instructive aspect of game design. Colleen was describing how her clients sometimes ask for games which teach players a particular lesson. A natural assumption may be that the game should direct players to a particular outcome e.g. “the only way to win is to collaborate with your neighbor every time”.

In fact, building a game like this can be frustrating to players and for good reason: a game that always ends the same way is a boring game. No one wants to play that. Instead Colleen suggests that games should allow a wide spectrum of possible outcomes but encourage specific desirable outcomes. These kind of games are more likely to convey the pedagogical message their designers are attempting to impart because they’re more compelling games and people engage them more deeply and for longer periods of time.

We’ve been toying with the idea of badges a-la-Foursquare as they’re a way to celebrate the projects which most clearly embody the values of sustainable wellbeing. It’s amusing to draft the lists of badge and I’ve gotten a bit lost in it: Pramistan… the project is designed to be convenient for parents and child carers. If you want to use Brickstarter to propose a drive through fast food restaurant you’re welcome to do so, but through basic game mechanics we expect that such suggestions will be rather short lived.

Here we tie Colleen’s advice to a thought from Richard Sennet’s latest book, Together: winner-takes-all scenarios are counterproductive to long term moral building and vitality because they’re essentially anti-collaborative. In other words: if we want to highlight and build long term support for sustainable efforts, they need to genuinely win against a background of other, less sustainable proposals.

Will it work? Don’t know. Can’t know a-priori! That’s why we build a prototype as quickly as possible and test it as widely as we can.

Brickstarter cannot magically ordain anything into existence, but we aspire to help boost up the best proposals. In that sense, Brickstarter is a statement of hope. Not generic hope but a particular, honed belief that communities will tend to make sustainable decisions if they’re provided a forum and tools to do so easily:one that makes shared values legible and actionable.


If Foursquare has taught us one thing it’s that the maxim to decorate is to celebrate is as legitimate online as it is offline. These are some badge sketches for things such as year-round operation, food production, and renewable energy.

The end of May looks like: information architecture, use-cases, mechanics, mockups, and paper prototyping. Next we’ll move into early clickable prototypes, looking for a small group of beta projects to road test the live version of Brickstarter, and fleshing out production look and feel, tone and voice.

Why do I blog this?

As a fund, we at Sitra are more used to paying for projects than developing them ourselves, with our own muscle. Brickstarter is amongst a crop of new efforts which are developed in-house first, with the project team actively engaged in all aspects of both the conception and delivery of the project goals. Posts like this are helpful for keeping a record of where our thinking was at during a particular phase of work, but it’s also important to play out the process of designing and developing a product in public. Product design is a new culture within Sitra and the public sector more broadly, so we want to be extra careful to make the process explicit. And especially to expose the intertwined relationship between the details and the big picture.

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