Exploring Civic Engagement Today Through Gaming and Technology

December 14, 2017
by Diana Raiselis

Exploring Civic Engagement Today Through Gaming and Technology

A real city landscape reimagined in Minecraft, as part of Block by Block, a game for more inclusive urban planning.

What do Pokemon Go, self-driving vehicles, and Minecraft have in common?

As a Coro Fellow in Public Affairs, I spent part of this fall working for the City of Santa Monica’s Office of Communications. Primarily, I studied how city government offices talk to the public and each other – and how they can do that better in today’s digital landscape.

The concept of “civic engagement” seems to mean something different to everyone. Tufts University’s Peter Levine demonstrates this with ten different definitions from The World Bank, Occupy LA, universities and more.

USC Annenberg's Michael Delli Carpini puts it: “Civic Engagement: The combination of Civic Awareness and Civic Participation.” It’s about understanding how the city works, and having a say in it, too.

“Traditional” civic engagement looks like you’d expect. It's voting, attending City Council meetings, contacting representatives and government offices, going to meetings on school and local matters, writing letters to the editor.

But as Rick Cole points out in his blog, cities look the way they do today because of experimentation and innovation. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from my time in Santa Monica, it’s that this city is proud of its history of innovation —and that history is still being written.

Cities and universities nationwide are talking about what civic engagement looks like in the digital age. Santa Monica has been exploring the same question. Now through City of Santa Monica channels, you can stream a Council meeting on YouTube, reach the Department of Public Works on Facebook message, and get emergency notifications on Twitter.

But civic engagement in the digital age goes beyond that. “Civic tech” includes technologies that promote public engagement and communications, allowing government to do their work better, and generally contributing to public wellbeing. Cities around the US are using digital tools to include more voices in the civic conversation, create a practice of active citizenship, and make civic participation — dare I say? — fun.

In my research for the City of Santa Monica, here are some of the cutting-edge ideas I found along the way:

City of Boston, Office of New Urban Mechanics

With Emerson College’s Engagement Lab, Boston’s innovation office has developed tools ranging from the practical to the fancifully futuristic. Highlights include: a 311 app that enables a wider range of residents to report service requests; games to learn others’ perspectives on the city; and recently, a “Robot Block Party” for locals to get up-close with Boston’s autonomous-vehicle program.

A Boston local checks out a self-driving car at the “Robot Block Party” of the city’s Hub Week event.

Pokemon GO for Civic Engagement

Municipalities from Baltimore to San Francisco have tapped into Pokemon GO as a way to engage with residents around voter registration, transit usage, library attendance, and more. Pokemon GO is part of a larger trend of “gamifying” civic engagement,  creating opportunities for community connection, discovery and play. NYC Chief Technology Officer Miguel A. Gamino writes about the power of Pokemon GO in civic tech.

A Mariachichu at Mariachi Plaza, as part of Metro’s PokemonGOMetro initiative in 2016.

Minecraft for Urban Design

This trend isn’t limited to the US, either. The makers of Minecraft, a world-creation computer game, have teamed up with UN-Habitat to develop Block by Block, a program that uses Minecraft to give more people a voice in the urban planning process. In cities as varied as Mexico City, Mumbai, Nairobi, and beyond, Block by Block asks youth, women, and others often excluded from planning processes to visualize the city they want to see. Their Minecraft visions become part of the planning process, and then part of the actual city environment. Microsoft Story Labs also features more on Block by Block’s uses and impact.

So, let’s try it. How would you like to see Santa Monica incorporate civic tech, games, and play?

Tweet @santamonicacity with your thoughts to take part in the conversation.

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