I recently had the pleasure of returning to the PICNIC Festival in Amsterdam for a week of fabulous people and big bold ideas. This was my 3rd year speaking at the festival and IMHO it continues to be the greatest gathering of people focused on exciting new ways to combine new technologies, collaborative community practices, with urbanism, art and media to make a better world.

This year I was honored to give a keynote presentation focused on Playful Communities and Urban Experiments – drawing on recent projects like Snap-Shot-City, The Awesome Foundation DC, 24 Hour City Project, and DCWEEK. The full presentation is below:

It was a busy conference this year, and I was also honored to host a panel on The Social Capital of Collaborative Platforms, and participate in the Vodaphone Firestarters Talkshow on Gaming with Benefits.




I had the pleasure of interviewing several people for the livestream at the Intelligent Cities Forum at the National Building Museum last year.

Among them was Mark Cleverley, Directo of Strategy for Global Government Industry at IBM

And Mitchell Silver, President of the American Planning Association

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave a speech yesterday that touched on the concept of Digital Placemaking:

Two billion people are now online‚ nearly a third of humankind. We hail from every corner of the world, live under every form of government, and subscribe to every system of beliefs. And increasingly, we are turning to the Internet to conduct important aspects of our lives.

The Internet has become the public space of the 21st century‚ the world’s town square, classroom, marketplace, coffee house, and nightclub.

We all shape and are shaped by what happens there. All two billion of us and counting. And that presents a challenge.

To maintain an Internet that delivers the greatest possible benefits to the world, we need to have a serious conversation about the principles that guide us. What rules exist‚ and should not exist‚ and why; what behaviors should be encouraged and discouraged, and how.

The goal is not to tell people how to use the Internet, any more than we ought to tell people how to use any public space, whether it’s Tahrir Square or Times Square.

The value of these spaces derives from the variety of activities people can pursue in them, from holding a rally to selling their wares to having a private conversation. These spaces provide an open platform‚ and so does the internet.

It does not serve any particular agenda, and it never should. But if people around the world are going to come together every day online and have a safe and productive experience, we need a shared vision to guide us.

I wonder if she read my post?

Read the full text of her speech here:

I recently caught up for a chat with with the very awesome Jacob Smith from Place Matters and Mayor of the City of Golden Colorado. We ate some lunch, he asked me some questions, I answered them, he filmed it.

What does a giant space robot made of lions have to do with networked eco-systems and organizational capacity building?

In the face of increasingly complex challenges, organizations are recognizing that, impact of their efforts can be scaled by collaborating, instead of competing, with complementary organizations.

As a community builder, my work is increasingly focused on the development and maximization of multi-partner networks and organizational capacity building. I am often called on to facilitate tense situations to help organizations and partner networks find common ground and maximize opportunities to leverage the activities and efforts of individuals organizations for the greater good of the eco-system.

As you can imagine, talking through the theory behind this can get a little dry.

That’s why I have started to employ the use of VOLTRON – a 1980’s children’s cartoon about a force of space crime fighting robot lions with a jazzy theme song – to illustrate the awesome potential for organizations thinking about engaging in a networked eco-system approach.

The VOLTRON Force is made up of 5 robot lions who fight space crime. Each lion is an autonomous unit with its own unique character and particular skill set and expertise. Each individual lion can tackle small to medium size challenges on their own.

Every episode, a super evil bad guy comes along that requires all the lions to collaborate to overcome a complex challenge.  When this happens, each individual has a predetermined process to slot seamlessly into the infrastructure of the larger unit to form VOLTRON. Each individual forms a critical piece of the larger whole, maximizing their efforts as a single networked lion fisted entity – stronger than the sum of its parts.

By establishing backbone infrastructure and protocols for collaboration, and nurturing trusting relationships, organizations can continue to operate as autonomous service providers, maintaining a unique identity, while leveraging a larger eco-system of skills, support, resources and profile.

Fostering these networks takes time, trust, shared commitment and boundless enthusiasm. It’s important to get people excited about the process and the potential, so that when they hit the inevitable road blocks and the friction inherent in collaborating with multiple stakeholders, they can see past the immediate challenges, towards the rewards in the future.

1980’s synthesizer and lighting breathing lion-fisted robots are just what we need to get people excited!

Examples of Crime Fighting Collaboratives:

Examples of Networked Eco-Systems and Organizational Collaboratives:

From "Facebook connections map the world" from BBC

Ok – so lets get this straight. A community is not a place or a website. A community is a group of people, connected by a complex web of shared needs, that are satisfied by active exchange (or transactions) within the group.

Think about all the needs you have. How many can you solve all by yourself? Not that many right?

A diverse and active community is likely to have complex and multilayered needs and a high rate of exchange – buying and selling goods, telling and listening to information, watching and showing off, etc.

In our cities and towns, people travel to particular destinations like town squares and active main streets to undertake these transactions. These are places that facilitate exchange and satisfy our variety of needs in complex ways.

The web is also made up of destination websites that facilitate exchange. Sites like Facebook and Amazon are great examples of digital places that act like town squares or main streets, and provide the infrastructure to satisfy multiple needs in complex ways.

In cities, we create and manage thriving, delightful places that facilitate and enhance interaction and exchange. These places are designed and curated to satisfy a variety of needs, to engender certain types of behavior and interaction, and to produce certain feelings and emotions. We call it Placemaking .

Placemaking for Community Building
I talked to Kate McMahon – Director of Placemaking at Melbourne’s Village Well – about active communities, and she described the urban designers go-to example – a buzzing little town square.

She says, “there are lots of mechanisms for exchange going on here – shops to buy groceries and objects, cafes to grab a snack or a coffee, street performers and pedestrians to watch, posters and notice boards to get information – that attract a diverse array of people for a variety of different reasons”.

In addition to these core transactions, there are lots of other incidental exchanges (or ambient participation) happening, just because of proximity and because people are coming in contact with each other.

She adds, “people are sharing gossip, watching a performance, holding the door for each other, smiling at each other, noticing what each other are wearing, how people carry themselves, how they behave – information is being observed and shared, memes and trends are being generated and regenerated. It is an active community because people need each other, they need stuff from each other, and they can come to this place and have the majority of their needs satisfied by a series of simple social exchanges”.

These active places also tend to be highly programmed and managed – either by an elected group of vested interests, or a self selecting group of active community members. Ensuring that there is a diverse mix of opportunities to stimulate the senses, attractive places to sit, shop, eat and share information, and that people understand and operate within the socially accepted norms of that culture.

Isolated By Satisfaction
At the other extreme, we have the urban designers worst case example of an inactive community – a sprawling suburban housing development. These are often conceived at the hand of a developer, a designer and a branding expert, are built from scratch on fields or farmland, and tend to be more mono-cultured and have much flatter rates of community exchange activity. These cookie cutter developments tend to be designed to serve only one critical need – to house small groups of people in large buildings.

McMahon says that to the detriment of local community; “these houses are often so self-contained and self-sufficient that the people living there don’t have many needs that can’t be met within their own personal space – and when they do need stuff, they are encouraged to get in their car or on the internet and find it elsewhere, outside their local neighborhood”.

The inherent need to engage with a local community, and the opportunity in many places, just doesn’t exist, designed out by an overabundance of personalized solutions.

So how do we “Make Place”?
Placemaking isn’t just about the designing the bricks and mortar, it is a collaborative and responsive design process that creates welcoming and robust places. The core principles* focus on:

  • People – understanding the people who use the space, and encouraging people to engage in collaborative decision making to feel empowered to shape and maintain their environment.
  • Context – analyzing and understanding the context of the place, what makes it distinctive, it’s history, and how it’s use changes over time.
  • Program and Product – curating or “programming” the place with activity. (This includes the types of tenants or businesses, the type of artwork, markets, street performers, etc.) and the products or infrastructure that is provided to support it  (eg. Seating, lighting, play equipment, bathroom facilities, signage, etc.)
  • Access and Connectivity – Refers to how the place is connected into movement, communications and ecological systems.

An understanding and enhancement of these critical factors is most likely to produce great thriving destinations that people love.

Digital Placemaking for Online Community Building
On the web, like in cities, we need to create great thriving digital places. Like town squares, websites are destinations for activity. People visit them to satisfy needs, and form communities around that meaningful transaction of engagement. Using the principles for placemaking in the city, we can reinterpret the transactional functionality of the web to build digital places that engender more engaged and thriving online communities.

We’re all experts!
One of my favorite things about placemaking is that everyone can be an expert – because we can all be experts in what makes us satisfied. We may not all use the same language to describe things, but with some guidance, we can all describe the ways a place meets our needs. Think about it next time you are somewhere that makes you feel really happy and ask yourself why? Look around, and consider:

  • Who are the people you sharing this place with? Are there parts of it where some groups go and others don’t? Who enforces that?
  • What are the needs you are having met by being in this space? What makes it special and distinctive for you?
  • How do other people use this place? How do you think the space is used at other times of day or night when you’re not here?
  • How did you get here? If you drove and there was no parking, would you go somewhere else instead? How do you think other people arrived? Did you feel welcome?
  • Watch how other people more around the space, start to notice where they sit, what are the prominent colors, what it sounds like. Chances are, all of these things were designed by someone to make you feel exactly what you’re experiencing.

Then, next time you are on a great website, use the same filter to start to think about it as an online place and consider:

  • Who are the people you sharing this place with? How do they know how to behave? Who enforces that?
  • What are the needs you are having met by being in this digital place? What makes it special and distinctive for you?
  • If you interact with other people, what sort of infrastructure exists to support you? How does that shape behavior?
  • How did you get here? What links did you click through? If you used your smart phone and there was no mobile ap, would you go somewhere else instead? How do you think other people arrived? Did you feel welcome?

As we continue to spend more time plugged into online communities, think about how we can learn from the great places in our cities and start to translate those principles into the digital places we inhabit and the online communities in which we participate.

* This simplified list of core placemaking principles is an incomplete aggregation, inspired with thanks by the work of People for Public Spaces, Village Well, The Hornery Institute and Comedia.

This week, in my responsibilities as Dean of Awesome, I had the great pleasure and privilege to call the winner and runner up for the first grants from the Awesome Foundation DC. There is almost nothing better than breaking the great news that you will be helping to make someones dreams come true… especially such deserving projects like our two December winners – the Fab Lab DC and the Kitchen Classroom Project.

Details live on the Awesome Blog.

Applications for the January grant are now open. Apply here.


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