Engaging with Greenest City Conversations
I do try to get out to the often SFU organized public lectures and similar events, partly just to keep my brain engaged but also because the existence of a blog demands content. And it should not all be pointing to other web pages. Well, not all the time anyway. I usually go in person, but on this occasion there was a webcast. It was a live event and I do not know if at some later stage it will be on the web as a video.
However, I do think that the webcast itself says a lot about the process.
Greenest City Conversations, an innovative, interdisciplinary and wide-scale research project aimed at developing multiple channels for public engagement on municipal sustainability policies. Its two main goals were to facilitate discussion with the public on a variety of sustainability policies, and to provide a comprehensive understanding of the content and impact of different modes of public engagement.
Some of those modes involve “social media” – or information technology if you will. And on this occasion new technology was showing both its best and worst sides. Things got started on time with the usual throat clearing and acknowledgements which always seem to me to be protracted but, grudgingly, necessary. A lot of people were involved, and a lot of material was going to be covered. Some of it was already of questionable value as it had “failed to meet its objectives”. It is not clear quite what that was about as the first speaker is already showing that she was unaware that there was a webcast. Instead of the right laptop (there were two) she has her own tablet and she is talking about how much time children already spend with tablets. The people at the Wosk Centre are being shown pictures, but these are not being broadcast despite a split screen arrangement.
Then the whole screen goes blank – for quite a long time – and when the webcast restarts someone else is talking about land use and how to use “stamps” to create Utopia. What she has been dealing with is the standard problem in public consultation. The only people who come out to open houses or public meetings are the people who come out to open houses and public meetings. You feel you are talking to the same five people. The issue is one of engagement – how to reach a more significant number of people. It is also cleat that what we are currently facing is not simply a top down “education” program, where the experts who know what must be done convince the unwashed of the necessity of cooperation in a predetermined solution. They found, unsurprisingly that of they used new media like Facebook, more women wanted to be involved. If they used smart phones more young people got involved. I was especially frustrated to miss much of the talk on the City’s transportation plan which engaged people by asking them if they were happy with their commute and if not what they thought could be done about it. (Exploring Vancouver’s Transportation Future) Apparently there was a “heat map” which answered the question “Is Facebook Useful” but I didn’t get to see that: all I saw was a talking head.
The next presenter had managed to persuade people to be tracked by using their smart phones to study their travel patterns and modes. They tried getting them to answer questions like “paper or plastic?” when they went shopping but – not surprisingly – people seem to be a little tired with that one. I think it would really have helped me stay interested if this presentation had not been mostly him reading great grey slabs of text – and apologizing to the audience for the tiny size of his illustrations which were not visible at all on line.
Then we got into land use. They tried to engage citizens in place based design. In fact the city had already decided to update the Grandview-Woodlands and Marpole neighbourhood plans. We have of course discussed those at length here. They did this by creating a “sandbox” – a generic neighbourhood of as a 2D and 3D board game. They had only three variables – Land Use, Energy and Quality of Life. The City has, of course, already set its goal of a 33% reduction in GHG by 2020 so the only question is what does that do for our quality of life. I cannot tell you the answer as the PhD candidate is still working on his thesis – so watch for more on the next webcast.
The workshop materials are available online at http://gcc.sites.olt.ubc.ca/findings-and-results/exploring-neighbourhood…
The last speaker was actually in Newfoundland and joined in by Skype and managed to illustrate all the the things you should not do during a live webcast – including setting up an infinite feedback loop, and allowing the dial tone to be heard while someone else was speaking. I think that they might be better off giving the professionals at the SFU Creative Centre the evening off and bringing in a bunch of Grade 12 students to handle the technology. He was the presenter who had the enviable task of introducing art into the proceedings. He managed to use the words epistemologies, disingenuous and disenchantment all in the same sentence without creating poetry. Apparently we have to “shift away from linear engagement”. He asked how do we arrive at “truth” and “value” – and to help in that had hired a poet, an architect, a composer and a theatrical troupe. They produced “You Are Very Star” at the Space Centre which I told you about when I covered Northern Voice.
The issue you see is that no-one actually knows what a sustainable community is: what it looks like or what it might be like to live in. One of the things that artists are supposed to be good at is imagining possibilities. What baffled me is why no-one thought of bringing in some science fiction writers. I suppose they thought that might be too depressing for words. Certainly a recent collection of stories about a warmed up planet is not proving to be useful bedtime reading for me.
The final speaker was supposed to have produced “Cross Channel Evaluation” which he characterized as “herding academic cats”. In the end he decided to concentrate on the outreach to various age groups – as long as they were over 19 (something to do with the ethics of market research) which sadly left out all the kids involved in the first project. The people reached by this research were by no means representative of the population of the City but this is apparently not a Big Issue. The – very unsurprising – conclusion – digital channels attract younger people compared to public meetings and web based surveys. He compared processes and not outcomes since those are “emergent” and “contingent”. Because the process is pluralistic and poses open ended questions.
In the sum up John Robinson said that his intention was to scale up the process so that it could reach a significant number of “citizens of all stripes” – 200,000 would be good – in an interactive dialogue. The issue is no longer a one way flow outward as “we don’t know the story” that we have to get out to the people. They have to be engaged in creating the story – What Can Sustainability Really Mean?
Q & A
The first question related to the “white coat” (expert) syndrome – apparently participants in the studies did not see the researchers in that light.
The second commenter noted that none of the proposal to reduce GHG emissions seemed to aimed at big business “They got us into this mess”. The response was that people who participated did not share that view and were interested in learning about what they could do.
The City had already established its goal, so that framed the problem which meant the studies were about which levers you can pull. In some respect this created a “sense of security for government folks” concerned about an open ended process.
The distinction has to be made between “persuasive communication” versus an “emergent dialogue”. We do not know what a sustainble community is, and therefore we have to work with people in deciding what kind of community we want.
PICS wanted to encourage questions from those watching on line and suggested they use @PICSCanada as the twitter feed. They did not specify a hashtag. I subscribed to that feed and saw no activity – in fact they still have not said anything since I subscribed and the only commentary on it last night was from @carbontalks. Do you really think these folks know enough about how social media works?
In response to another question the response about the attitude of children was that they did not see “some predetermined world that their parents had messed up.”
A very keen observation was by someone who had seen the “Fantastic Four” movie and the enthusiastic public response to it. He compared that to participation in in local government planning consultation. But conceded the movie cost $100m to make. “Does it take that much to get people involved?”
The response was withering. The people who saw the movie plunked down $12 and gave up two hours of their time to be entertained. The commitment was wide but very shallow. This contrasts with the high level of commitment required in the processes they had been studying – the questions were not so much about cost but motivation and payback. Much of this came from the researcher who had worked on the transportation channel and I wish now that i had been able to hear more of her presentation.
The final question (and by now we were well into overtime) “Will the real and the imaginary use the same arithmetic?”
John Robinson: Getting the real into people’s heads won’t stop but we are looking at something emergent. It is worth noting that in mathematics the elegance of a solution is also an important consideration. We need to wary of the Dragnet theory of truth “Just the facts, ma’am. Just the facts.”
The next webcast will be on October 23rd at 6pm check the PICS website.