Blog Post

Regional Plans: College Student Creates for Pre-Teens to Build Sustainable Communities

Reblogged from the MacArthur Foundation's Spotlight blog at

By Josh Karp December 2, 2009

Players confront environmental challenges and policy obstacles while fostering regional cooperation in Pennsylvania.

For Laura Staniland, 22, the connection between civic action and digital media is a fact of life. At age 16, she learned online that she could get free concert tickets by registering people to vote, which she promptly did. Later, while visiting a message board, she became interested in a local campaign, and soon after showed up at the candidates headquarters, ready to volunteer.

Now a web designer and college student at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh,  Staniland used those events as inspiration for, a site where 9- to 13-year-olds will be able to make public policy decisions in a virtual world that simulates the southwestern Pennsylvania area where they live. CivicsLab won a HASTAC Young Innovator award in 2009.

With an interest in sustainability and a two-year-old web design company, Staniland and her partners, Aaron Cohen and Ben Gelt, came up with Civics Lab as a way to get young people thinking about the environmental future of their communities.

We saw this game as a way of meeting the challenge of regional visioning as our national impetus had begun to shift towards more sustainable city-building, Staniland says.

Slated to launch in about six months, Civics Lab works like this: Players are put in charge of either an urban, suburban or rural area that mirrors locales where the three riversOhio, Allegheny and Monongahela in Pittsburghintersect. The game creates mostly environmental challenges (such as water cleanliness), while enabling players to see the impact of their policy choices. In many cases, because of the interdependence of the region, its necessary to secure the cooperation of other communities to achieve regional planning goals.

Were not saying you have to be involved politically, Staniland says. But what we do want is for kids to see that they can make a difference and see what really does affect their region.

Underlying the project is Stanilands enthusiasm and respect for the way children view the world.  It doesnt surprise her when a kids discussion of global warming includes a reference to a South Park episode with Al Gore.

They are so with it. They always ask, Why are we doing this? Staniland says. Where these kids get their information and ideas isnt where their parents got it.

Staniland represents many characteristics of her own generation when it comes to civic action, recent research is finding. The Millennials (those born between the mid 1970s and the late 1990s) are committed to making a difference in the world, but because of digital media, they are approaching civic action differently than in the past. Turned off by grand change the world ideals, they are more interested in small, personalized efforts where they can see an immediate impact.

Like the music in their iPods, their civic actions are often tailored to their own interests. And Millennials are using online social networks and other digital media in new and innovative ways to both explore and to organize around issues that matter to them. Civics Lab is a perfect example of these new approaches to civic action. 

Set to graduate in May 2010 with a degree in multimedia development, Staniland isnt sure what the future will bring, but for now shes quite happy with her role as the chief creative person in charge of understanding kids at Civics Lab.


No comments