When my old friend and collaborator Leo Burd returned to MIT as a research scientist for Center for Future Civic Media‘s (C4FCM), we started to gather some like-minded folks to discuss how media and mapping tools and youth civic engagement can intersect in the world of the Media Lab. Both of us have often been called a bridges or translators between technology developers and under served community members. We see a value in equalizing the power that comes from self construction, blurring the roles of creator and user.
At first, we just wanted to be part of multidirectional conversations and find creative ways to document the ideas exchanged. Across what seemed like a very disparate set of projects, we found a common value in finding or making new technologies that are appropriate for youth to use directly to reflect on and affect change in their everyday worlds. Our individual place-based approaches didn’t hinder us from talking about replicability across complexities of culture, politics, and context, in places like Rio, Lima, Gaza, and Roxbury. These conversations and ideas became a new kind of renewable fuel for further development of new or more appropriate technology tools for youth in under served situations.
At heart, we wanted to create processes of development where innovation happens iteratively with community educators, activists and youth as collaborators not end users. Many of us come from the Media Lab’s Lifelong Kindergarten (LLK) school of constructivism, project and personal interest-based hands-on learning. In a world of imagination and play, invention is without limits and most importantly FUN. New half-baked technologies, like new toys, lets us be kids again. Through a collaborative process of software development, tinkering can equalize the role of inventor and user and hearken us back to a space where imagination and creativity can win you the power of attention and solidarity.
You could make an argument that play is just play, but many child development researchers would argue that play is an essential part of children developing into social and productive human beings. Linking play, and the innovation it can produce, with tangible utility and action in a certain place is an exciting opportunity. So when we reviewed Kate Balug’s class project proposing a new city department focused on youth mapping their own safe play spots in their own neighborhoods, the Department of Play moniker and a vision was born.
Playing games in a public space are more fun with different kinds of players, and if they keep happening over time. Early on, we prioritized outreach and relationship building as an essential building block of our community engagement approach at the Department of Play. This approach is essentially the next generation of LLK and Computer Clubhouse Green Table. At each Clubhouse and later at the Media Lab at monthly meetings of coordinators and MIT students, the Green Table was both a literal and symbolic “village green,” a space for open assembly and participation. This spring, the core members of the Dept. of Play facilitated conversations and new relationships, sparked in weekly researcher meetings across fields and departments and in monthly meet-ups where we invited local Boston community organizers and educators into the mix. Then we started to reach out to other theoretical thinkers or experts in the fields of children’s rights, international development, and community based change.
Time and time again, we told our own personal stories of creating tools for change in a place, with the idea that mutually beneficial relationships can yield the best cycles for feedback and development. We centered conversations about functionality and use around everyday issues, not because we wanted to just observe or validate our own ideas and tools. We want to build a community of creators who will take to play with innovations that worked in one place and vision if they could apply in other contexts.
A perfect example is a new curriculum we’re developing, aimed at bringing Jeff Warren’s grassroots participatory and activist mapping techniques to the favelas of Rio de Janeiro via the MIT IDEAS Competition, winning My City, My Future project and behind the walls of Gaza and the West Bank via Voices Beyond Walls new Re-Imagining Project. In all these places, we’ll be taking lessons and technologies developed in action-based research and asking new groups of youth and adult mentors to add their own new ideas to developing tools for storytelling and visualization. These three collaborators will work with youth on the ground to help us develop a neighborhood mapping tool on top of Jeff’s Cartagen framework, then we’ll bring this software to the youth here in Boston to try to adapt it to the context of their community centers and affordable housing developments.
Beyond finding resources to support projects and software development, the most challenging aspect of this approach is the time and effort it takes to build relationships and trust. I once heard someone say that MIT is good at sex, but not love. Groups like C4FCM are formed to take MIT innovations beyond the idea phase to sustainable, civic-minded implementation. At the Department of Play, we take it one step further and try to put that action in the hands of the youth with a spirit of purpose, curiosity and the joy of learning that adults too quickly grow out of unfortunately.
So, Leo and I and the rest of the DoP team will keep purposely playing on the two teams of MIT and the youth community. Come join us! http://departmentofplay.org