Reconnecting the City

Phase 1: Research & Synthesis

Last quarter, our cohort partnered with the City of Austin to improve civic engagement for the city’s residents. We interviewed fifty-two residents to better understand the state of civic engagement in Austin over those eight-weeks, and now we are leveraging that research to create solutions that will improve lives for residents in Austin. This blog post will review my research and ideation toward creating solutions for better civic engagement in Austin.

First off, what is civic engagement? Civic engagement is the promotion of the quality of life in a society through both political and non-political means. It’s not just about voting – civic engagement also encompasses activities like volunteering, helping one’s neighbors, and protesting for change.

Our cohort focused on three areas in the greater field of civic engagement – gentrification, youths disengaged from politics, and low-income individuals’ access to government. I worked with Kaley Coffield and Maria Zub to research the effects of gentrification on residents in East Austin. Our cohort’s research resulted in many insights across these domains, and we presented our work in December to a group of over sixty community stakeholders and guests. Watch the presentation here.

Phase 2: Ideation & Prototyping

Now begins the second phase of this project – developing solutions to the challenges we found and prototyping them before moving forward with launching these services in the future.

The first step toward creating a solution this quarter was to generate ideas.

We used an ideation technique called ‘insight combination’. This method involves matching an insight from our research with a ‘design pattern’. A design pattern is a description of how a successful designed product or service works.

An example of insight combination follows: One of our insights from design research was that “Elderly are disconnected from their support systems when forced to move away.” How do we generate a solution to this problem? We can generate ideas by considering how a successful design pattern would solve that challenge. For example, Amazon works by “offering anything you could want in one place.” How would this design pattern work for the elderly’s challenge in this scenario?

Perhaps we should create a service that provides discounted products to elderly who needed to move away because they couldn’t afford Austin’s property taxes any longer. Any number of ideas can be generated from this insight combination. Once we are finished with this combination, we can find a new design pattern and start ideating anew.

Through insight combination utilizing fourteen different insights and over thirty design patterns, I developed 200 ideas to improve civic engagement in Austin. Then things got much more challenging. How do you pick out the good ideas from the bad ones?

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Design Patterns, Insights, and some of the 200 ideas generated through Insight Combination.

We needed to down-select to just three ideas and then create a vignette or storyboard to illustrate them. There were dozens of ideas that I thought would be helpful, however, many were technologically, financially, or bureaucratically unfeasible. Others seemed like great ideas, but the challenge of developing a framework to motivate people to change their behaviors became much more clear when sussing out the details of how a solution could work.

In the end, my initial brainstorm resulted in three ideas that I will develop more in-depth and prototype in the coming week.

#1 – Local Polling via USPS Scanning

This idea came out of the insight that “Most low-income residents don’t have time to go to town hall, they only have time for work and routine life.” This begged the question: “How can civic life come to them?” What if the postal worker left tags on the door or mailbox about issues for them to weigh in on. The resident can review facts about the issue on the door-tag or go online for more information, and then they can check a box to indicate their opinion. When the postal worker returns, they scan the tag and it’s set. In this way, residents can make their voices heard without having to go to city hall.

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#2 – Traveling Dinners to Bring Neighbors Together

One of the insights that felt most compelling to me was that “Resentment and guilt about racism and gentrification keep would-be allies apart.” We developed this insight after speaking with low-income, higher income, white, and black residents who were neighbors yet often didn’t know each other or speak much to each other. We found that there was both resentment about race and guilt about gentrification, and on both sides residents said that “no one wants to talk about those things.” There are stark differences between neighbors’ race and socioeconomic class In neighborhoods like those in East Austin, and these differences in race, culture, and socioeconomic status keep people apart, leading to increased stereotypes and misunderstanding. I want to create a solution that begins to bring these individuals together so they can see each other more deeply and begin to make stronger ties in their neighborhoods.

During insight combination, a design pattern for “Food Trucks” brought up the idea that perhaps a dinner could be a format to bring people of differing socio-economic backgrounds together for much needed conversation. Breaking bread is an age-old way to create a forum for connection, and I think it can prove helpful here as well.

I wrestled with many ideas and found it challenging to conceive of a way to motivate individuals to come together to talk about such weighty topics over a casual dinner. Perhaps neighbors do have the motivation, however, to simply share dinner and get to know each other. This thought gave rise to the idea of a Good Neighbors food truck. Good Neighbors supports civic connection by hosting dinners around Austin, gathering neighbors together who wouldn’t normally dine together. By sharing this dinner, neighbors get to know each other better and nurture the bonds that are necessary to create a friendly, supportive neighborhood community, no matter their differences.

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#3 – Austin Block Party

Austin Block Party is a second idea inspired by the desire to bring together neighbors of different socioeconomic backgrounds. This idea, however, takes a different tack by supporting a large gathering rather than a more intimate one.

With Austin Block Party, a neighborhood “champion”, like our hero Erin in the storyboard below, applies for the opportunity to host a block party. The Austin Block Party, in this case, would be supported by municipal funds and other granted or donated funds. If the champion shows that her neighborhood is supportive of the party and succeeds with the application, the Austin Block Party truck comes to the neighborhood to help host the event. Block parties are often challenging to pull together because of permitting, costs, and logistical needs, and this program would lower that barrier in order to create more positive neighborly pride and connection. Through sharing a meal, and through the games and activities supported by the Austin Block Party service, residents get to know each other and spend time with each other in a positive environment, creating greater quality of life and likelihood of relationship building in the future.

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These ideas are the first draft of what I know will be an evolving project over the next four months. In the coming weeks, I will prototype them and surely revise them many times over. What I’m most interested in is bringing together people of different socioeconomic backgrounds to have experiences and conversations that help heal the wounds of racism and stereotyping.

Given the research we did on gentrification in East Austin, I believe that these challenges create a lack of empathy and understanding that seriously undermines the motivation to be civically engaged and care for so many other people different from oneself. I look forward to revising my ideas to ensure that they are crafted to better create connection and empathy between people whose paths normally wouldn’t cross. If you, the reader, want to create this change, too, please join me and contact me so we can partner in this effort.