The central premise of the Participatory Chinatown project is the staging of what we call augmented deliberation. We introduce augmented deliberation as a possible design solution that addresses uniquely difficult contexts where deliberation is complicated by one or many external factors, including language barriers, power differentials, visualization and challenges with communicating professional discourses. It is specifically relevant in the context of urban planning, because the prospect of communicating complex urban concepts associated with rather abstract spatial dynamics is a significant challenge - one that requires creative solutions. Augmented deliberation is the process whereby a group of people deliberate in a face-to-face setting while they are simultaneously immersed in virtual environments. It consists of three design values: 1) it is a multimedia group communication process which balances the specific affordances of digital technologies with the established qualities of face-to-face group deliberation; 2) it emphasizes the power of experience; and 3) it promotes sustainability and reproducibility through digital tracking.
The Participatory Chinatown project, which is the second iteration of Hub2, is coming close to realizing the goal of augmented deliberation. We are in the process of designing a 3D game that will run in a web browser. The goal of this game is to get participants playing a role whereby they accomplish everyday tasks in their neighborhood. The game board is the existing space of Bostons Chinatown. Players are tasked with things like finding a job, finding an apartment, or finding a place to socialize. In doing this, we aim to create the shared experience of the space in question that can serve as the springboard for productive deliberation. Once the players have had the opportunity to explore and complete their quest, they are then asked a simple question: what does the neighborhood need now? They are then given the opportunity to make decisions both individually and collectively as a means of providing input into the process and, perhaps more importantly, to give them the sense that they are engaged in an ongoing conversation about the neighborhood. They will have the opportunity to go back into the game to play different quests and to read and write comments about the neighborhood.
Augmented deliberation is the process. The game is the form that we happen to be investigating. We believe that providing the game scaffolding is going be very useful for getting citizens to deliberate over the complex matters of physical urban transformation. Specifcally, the qualities of immersion and role play. We are spending a good deal of time trying to make the game fun and engaging; this is the incentive for participation. But we remain aware of the potential pitfalls in this kind of project. If the serious work of community planning is fun, will it be misinterpreted by the community as frivilous? We will see.