Flip: Interactively Valuing Place Online

This is the second weekly installment of Flip, Modeshift’s exploration of the best examples of online tools to build connections between people and places. I’ve got several for you to see. Spend some time with these. They’re all terrific.

The Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture at the University of Washington in Seattle produced this interactive production to explore several ancient settlements in Puget Sound. The production mixes text, audio, video, and motion graphics.

The Museum of Modern Art in New York did this wonderful interactive production for Tall Buildings that is really easy to explore and does a nice job of non-fiction storytelling. 

Fuji Film produced Forests Forever, an exploration of the biology and life cycle of forests that is set up to mimic a video game, although it includes such high quality pictures, audio, text, and motion graphics it could and should be used as a high school or university teaching tool.

The idea here is that online communications produces an entirely new means for joining people to their places. That is the connection, tying our spirit to our places, which produces, like the fresh spring buds of a Benzie County cherry tree, the fruit of new ideas that make our lives and communities better.

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Talk, Talk, Talk: In Regions It Works

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SALT LAKE CITY – Matt Leighninger published an interesting piece this week on Tompaine.com about how local governments are finding new ways to get things done, particularly across jurisdictional boundaries. “Local leaders are recruiting large, diverse numbers of people and involving them in small, deliberative groups, big action forums and ongoing structures like neighborhood councils,” Leighninger wrote.

Leighninger’s “deliberative groups” are the same thing as “convening groups,” my term for describing the new alliances of untraditional allies that are forming serendipitously across the country. These convening organizations, which differ in their form and function from traditional civic groups — chambers of commerce, rotary groups, Lions Clubs, and the like — arise out of the need for communities to find a way to negotiate the conflicts that too often occur at the intersection of politics, commerce, and advocacy.  Their role is to help resolve big public interest issues — like traffic congestion or rapid transit or affordable housing — that cross jurisdictional boundaries and the lines between the public and private sectors.

In their form and function, convening groups are entirely an artifact of the 21st century. They are needed because government by itself, at every level, is incapable of efficiently achieving big ideas. And the new communications technology — blogs, email, Web sites, chat boards — provide convening groups wtth the ready means to communicate with themselves and to engage in dialogue in real time with folks in their communities. 

I first recognized convening groups in Michigan. The West Michigan Strategic Alliance in the Grand Rapids region, which represents businesses, local governments, farmers, neighborhood groups, environmentalists, and others, formed to prevent the region between Michigan’s second largest city and Lake Michigan from becoming the Midwest’s version of Los Angeles.

In Traverse City, the Land Use and Transportation Study Coordinating Group is 34 representatives of local governments and civic organizations formed out of a hotly disputed proposal to build a highway and bridge across the Boardman River. The group is now managing a $1.36 million federally-financed scenario planning project to develop the reasoned alternative to the highway.

Here in the Salt Lake City region, Envision Utah formed in the 1990’s to help growing suburbs bring order and environmental sensitivity to third-world growth rates. An ally has been Salt Lake City’s two-term Democratic Mayor Rocky Anderson (see pix), who’s administration has been defined by Anderson’s insistence that the city take the lead nationally in curbing the production of global climate change gases. The city’s single-minded pursuit of that goal, coupled with Envision Utah’s trend setting program of land conservation and growth management has made the largest region in the most conservative state an unexpected model of how to build a clean, green, land-conserving, and prosperous new economy. It’s really something to see.

Media, Place Blogging: A Leader in Detroit

Not long before she died earlier this month Molly Ivins, the great Texas political columnist, noted that the conventional American news media had an odd business strategy: Giving customers less and less of an ever duller and out of touch product. Newspaper readership has been declining since its peak in 1992. Now, instead of individual papers going out of business, entire chains are biting it. Almost a year ago Knight Ridder, which had squeezed the intellectual energy out of Pulitzer Prize winners in Miami, Philadelphia, and San Jose, sold all of its holdings to McClatchy. 

The other side of this story, though, is the rise of independent news rooms on the Internet. They are taking many forms. Yet one of the most intriguing at the moment is the place-based blogs that are telling very different narratives about their communities, and attracting growing audiences. The place bloggers tend to be more immediate, interested in much more detail, less inclined to point cynical fingers, and much readier to probe and keep probing. Here’s a good example from Watertown, Mass.

I’m interested because one of those narratives is the Mode Shift that is the focus of this blog, the emergence of a new green, clean, energy efficient metropolitan development strategy. The new economic model is yielding authentic benefits for residents, businesses, and regions. Salt Lake City, for instance, built a LEED-certified energy-efficient Intermodal transit station (see pix) to serve as the hub of its 145-mile regional light rail and commuter rail system that is reshaping development patterns in one of the fastest growing metropolitan regions in the United States.  

saltlakeintermodal.jpgA great example of how these old media/new media trend lines cross is now occurring in Detroit. If you happen to read the Detroit Free Press or the Detroit News, southeast Michigan’s two dailies, it’s like following an on-going regional funeral, and not only because of unrelenting bad news from the auto industry. The papers don’t appear terribly interested in digging out the new narratives of entrepreneurial activity in any sphere. I’ve worked for years in Detroit and know 50 great stories about terrifically dedicated people in business, government, law, academia, institutions, philanthropy and the non-profit sector whose work is making a huge difference. 

You’ll find some of those people, though, in Model D, a blog launched in July 2005 that looks at political issues, social and economic trends, real estate news, and the people involved in finely hewn and intelligent journalism.  Yesterday’s edition had a very solid profile of Bruce Katz, the director of the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program, and one of the important researchers and strategists in American metropolitan affairs. Bruce’s group produced the Charting Maine’s Future report mentioned earlier this month in Mode Shift. 

Bruce has been involved for several years in conducting research and shaping the various strategies Detroit could embrace to improve its well-being. The Model D piece is the best treatment of him and his work I’ve read in any Detroit media. Model D’s journalism falls into the realm of “appreciative inquiry,” which is a new school of reporting that is much less cynical than the frame of the conventional media. Model D’s report highlights the promising business trends that are shaping what Detroit is now and will be in 25 years.   

The transformation of metropolitan regions in the United States into places worthy of attention and investment, places that attract the brightest minds and best companies, hasn’t received nearly the focused conventional media treatment it deserves. I’m in Salt Lake City this week, one of the greenest, most energy efficient, politically progressive cities in the United States . It has received scant attention for its good work.

One important reason this is so is that the American Mode Shift is essentially a story of change based on collaboration and optimism. It’s not a story of conflict, not about bad news.  And because it isn’t, it violates one of the basic tenets of conventional American journalism.

Jeremiah Owyang, the director of corporate media strategy at Podtech.net and one of the astute observers of social media, attended the WeMedia conference in Miami earlier this month and reported in his blog on the dynamic tension between the conventional media and the new Internet media. That growing and fractious distance is due to the speed of technological change and practices that has influenced where readers and viewers are found now. It’s also due to how the old media look at and cover the world. See Jeremiah’s postings from February 10, 2007.

Flip: GE’s Interactive Project to Explore Quality of Place

Flip is Mode Shift’s new feature exploring the breakthrough examples of how interactive and social media connect with commerce, land use, resource conservation, and place. Take a look at General Electric’s Geoterra Ecoimagination site, which deploys interactive motion graphics and audio to explore virtual geography. True, this is an exceptional device for marketing the company’s products. But it’s also a very strong move to prove G.E.’s  sustainable bona fides, a trend noted in last spring’s Vanity Fair green issue.

Developing high-end graphics, and inviting participation and feedback, is a keen way to explore the space  where green business and smart growth values merge. Improving the economy and quality of life. Interactive media and smart growth. Cool stuff.

Place and Social Media – A Convergence

Those of you who read Wendell Berry, the great Kentucky poet, novelist, and essayist, know that when stripped to its essence, Berry’s singular contribution to the national idea is this: America works best when its people are connected to their places. Successful communities and a durable nation, Berry argues, depend on people who love and safeguard the land. The other side of this Jeffersonian thought, one that Berry writes about with eloquence and depth, is that rootlessness has undermined America’s social and economic edifice.

What’s intriguing as I travel the country is the resurgence of allegiance that Americans express for their place. I’m not pollyannish about this. Crime, family discord, joblessness, political division, and the sense of unease that exkeith.jpgists in the country provide plenty of evidence that we are not yet close to solving our many ills. Still, there is an unmistakable surge of fealty that many Americans exhibit for where they live. 

Expressions of community loyalty are easy to find, and never more so than last week during the run up to the Super Bowl. Steve Rubel’s fine Micro Persuasion, which covers social media trends, drew my attention to this picture of Chicago from Flickr.  Here is an example of how a blog and social media Web site focus on a civic message expressed beautifully across one of the world’s distinctive skylines. Chicago, by the way, has come way back from the delapidated condition that existed in the 1970s and 1980s. The city embraced a three-point economic development strategy that stresses environmental sensitivity, energy efficiency, natural resource conservation, and park investment, and you’ll be reading much more about that here. 

More evidence of the convergence of social media and place is the development of “place blogging,” a great example of which is A VC, based in New York. Place bloggers are taking up the space left vacant by the often vapid and blood-focused urban and regional broadcast newsrooms, who try to describe their places in 3-minute takes. Depth and knowledge, as local TV news watchers know, are not virtues in local television news. Print newsies also ought to be aware, too. Place bloggers are challenging conventional dailies and weeklies in covering trends, economic developments, housing, and cultural events. Like other forms of media produced by consumers, place bloggers are defining the new intellectual geography of reader and viewer interest, and in some cases are breaking news and starting to make a living at it.

The point is that an old American value is developing new momentum, a trend reflected in the generation of fresh voices in social media.