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Hub2 wins MacArthur Digital Media and Learning Competition

I’m very excited and honored that Hub2 has won one of this year’s MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and Learning prizes, alongside our partners the Asian Community Development Corporation and Metropolitan Area Planning Council. Hub2 offers a robust process for community constituents to participate meaningfully in the design of their public spaces. This iteration of the project is called “Participatory Chinatown.” Read more about Hub2’s previous work.

Hub2 participant

Hub2 uses virtual 3D technology to enable community members to experience, not just look at, architectural designs. The project strives to augment typical community deliberation about neighborhood planning, recognizing that few laypeople possess the technical skills needed to translate inert design documents into vivid spaces. Instead of just looking at and verbally talking about design proposals, participants manipulate avatars through 3D simulations of the proposal, removing the need to translate from design to words and back again. We think of this process as providing a different language for community deliberation.

In 2009 we intend to build on last year’s success with Harvard’s Honan Library Park in Allston. One of the key innovations we will expand is the practice of putting participants into specific roles as a way to test the design proposals. This practice emerged from our realization that abstract interaction with a virtual space, even if bound by an avatar, doesn’t provide most laypeople with a robust enough experience to evaluate the experience, except perhaps aesthetically. Instead we assigned participants to characters who have to perform tasks like walking a dog, buying groceries, signing up for an ESL class, or getting to work. This role-playing serves three purposes: (1) to enable participants to evaluate the appropriateness of the space for these different purposes; (2) to give them different perspectives on the design that may not match their own; and (3) to immerse them in and provide a grounded view of the proposed space.

We began to realize that we were essentially asking participants to play video games as a way to give them some compelling reason to interact with the proposed design. So this year, with the help of MacArthur funding, we are highlighting and enhancing these game-like elements. We’ve been meeting with the folks at MIT’s Education Arcade to design the Hub2-Boston Chinatown project explicitly as a game – a game that is ostensibly about architectural design but really about civic engagement and citizen empowerment.

There are myriad research questions that this project might advance, for example: What elements of game design encourage players to adopt alternate perspectives? What level of realism or abstraction makes a space that is already semi-real believable (see, e.g. Grand Theft Auto IV’s Liberty City or Fallout 3’s Washington DC)? Then there are practical challenges, like what the scope of community input will be given the state of the existing Chinatown master plan, whom we will recruit to the sessions and what will entice them there, and how we will overcome multiple language barriers. (I should mention that I wrote my college thesis on politics and land use issues in Boston’s Chinatown). As with last year, we also plan to retain a retinue of youth “interpretors” to mediate between the computers and less technically proficient participants.

With all of these exciting questions and challenges ahead of us, we’re very happy to have the support of our community partners and the MacArthur Foundation to advance this vital civic engagement project.

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