The City of Boston is working to transform the way communities approach problem solving, block by block. Like many smart cities, Boston recognizes the incredible potential of technological interventions. Missing from the exploration, development and implementation of these technologies, however, is a truly democratic engagement process. Moreover, we see a pervasive problem in many smart city interventions: too much time inventing and marketing solutions and too little time spent understanding the real problems people in cities face. We need to reevaluate how we are framing problems, what questions we are asking, who we are engaging, and when in the process we begin to pursue potential solutions.
Enter the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics. We are currently exploring a community empowerment platform to help residents harness the power of new technologies in their neighborhoods. The platform, called Beta Blocks, is a civic experimentation process that builds meaningful relationships between communities that have identified a challenge and the companies, researchers, designers, and artists who might be able to offer a hand. It allows its residents to decide what their definition of “smart” should be, and what constitutes real civic value. Beta Blocks provides ample pathways for its people not just to optimize their neighborhoods, but to live in them. So whether it ’ s a scientist testing a new environmental sensor, a designer creating new street furniture , or a resident throwing a block party, our hope is that Beta Blocks will facilitate streets that are open to experimentation with new ways of enhancing civic life.