Sensors are not smart. Digital kiosks do not save the world. Efficiency is not democracy.
We think a truly smart city is one that creates equal opportunities for people to connect with each other and with the world. It allows its residents to decide what their definition of “smart” should be, and what creates real civic value. It provides ample pathways for its people not just to optimize it, but to live in it. It’s not a laboratory. It’s home.
Beta Blocks is a new civic experimentation process to build more meaningful relationships between communities that have a challenge and the companies, researchers, designers, and artists who might be able to offer a hand.
What we're doing
The Beta Blocks Action Research project is responding to the following challenges:
- The lack of public dialogue around the civic values and privacy concerns of smart city tools.
- The lack of clear and dynamic processes and policies for civic experimentation.
- The inability to easily “plug-and-play” new tools and designs in the public realm.
We want to “open source” City streets. But Beta Blocks is not some expansive deployment of sensors or gadgets. It's an invitation for all to help us dream up what’s next around the street corner, and how we hold ourselves accountable.
The City and its partners plan to do the following over the next couple of years:
DESIGNING AN ENGAGEMENT PROCESS
We need to create a strategy for engaging the public in how we conduct experiments in Boston’s streets. We want to level the playing field so all have the knowledge to advocate for, or push back, on a project.
'SMART CITY' PUBLIC DISCUSSIONS
We want to ground discussions about process and policy in real-world scenarios. We aim to work with communities around Boston to deploy innovative street-level improvements.
BETA BLOCKS 'PLATFORM'
We want to explore the creation of a “clearing house,” “matching platform,” or “exchange” for civic experiments. We know that community groups have a lot of questions, challenges, and ideas. And we know that researchers, startups, and designers have lots of solutions they want to test. How can we bring the two together?
The Beta Blocks project should result in new, dynamic policies around how the City sources and permits civic experiments.
What we've done
We have already made some progress in sparking conversations around these issues:
- We've begun an informal collaborative called the Local Sense Lab. The Lab explored the potential values and data concerns around mixed sensor nodes.
- We released a Smart City Request for Information (RFI). This called on the tech community to tell us the directions their products were heading. This garnered over 100 responses, which we have made publicly available.
- Our team created a citywide Autonomous Vehicle testing policy and test bed.
- Our Smart Streets initiative is focused on using sensor data to prevent crashes.
- We've also attempted frank conversations with Boston residents not yet part of the tech community. These include:
- Meet the Kiosks, a conversation at the Codman Square Health Center on digital kiosks.
- Robot Block Party, an event aimed at engaging families around AI, AVs, and robotics. Held on City Hall Plaza, the event garnered more than 4,500 participants.
The playbook and RFP
To start with, we've drafted a Boston Smart City Playbook. This is a slightly irreverent (but honest) look at the problems that have plagued so many smart city discussions and projects in the past. We'd love your thoughts and feedback.
Interested in challenging how Boston thinks about the "smart city"? Want to help us build an equitable community around civic experimentation? Join us in a sidewalk ballet and check out our official Beta Blocks RFP:
Our partnersOur partners
The Engagement Lab
An applied research and design lab at Emerson College. The lab investigates and creates media and technology to reduce disparities in civic participation.
A multidisciplinary design, development, and planning company. They focus on improving the quality of contemporary urban space for the cultures that define it.
Asian Community Development Corp.
The ACDC works to protect its communities from rapid, luxury development. They work to preserve histories and cultures, and rethink public spaces.