Eric Gordon on Valuing the Inefficiencies of Civic Life
A discussion of play, meaning, smart cities and civic life with Eric Gordon, professor and director of the Engagement Lab at Emerson College.
Eric Gordon is a professor and the founding director of the Engagement Lab at Emerson College, an applied research lab for reimagining civic engagement in a digital culture. Gordon studies civic media and public engagement in the U.S. and the developing world. He also designs games that facilitate civic participation, as in an upcoming collaboration with the City of Boston to encourage young people to choose new places to set up PokeStops in the popular Pokemon Go game. He most recently edited the book Civic Media: Technology, Design, Practice for MIT Press.
On a panel at GovLab’s Collective Intelligence Conference which took place June 15-16 at NYU, Gordon introduced the concept of meaningful inefficiencies as a central part of play, urban spaces, and democracy. This echoed an older article in The Atlantic in which Alexis Madrigal offered a short history of urban space in San Francisco where benign neglect, in contrast to the drive for efficiency, played a key role in preserving parts of the city that are prized today.
Angel Quicksey, our Shorenstein Fellow at Civicist this summer, reached out to Gordon to explore this idea of meaningful inefficiency, how it contributes to civic life, and where civic media differs from civic tech. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Quicksey: Much of your work centers around games and play, so what role does creativity and play have in civic life?
Eric Gordon: I want to separate out creativity and play to answer that question. So I’ll start with play.
The way that I got into this line of inquiry was around the idea of designing room for play within a civic context. What I learned pretty quickly was that the game was not what I was most concerned about. It was actually the user experience that a game enabled, which was this idea of play. Play gives people the opportunity to generate meaning in a way that is controlled by the players themselves. The meaning emerges through that act of play and the end result isn’t predetermined.
Part of civics is simply participating in civic systems. But that is only a small part of it. What matters most is that when one participates, the level of efficacy they are able to feel is in direct response to the amount of freedom they have to play and make meaning on their own terms.
To the other side of that question, creativity is slightly different from play. There are some similarities, but creativity doesn’t need play in order to exist. Play provides opportunities for creativity, but creativity is more about the unexpected—connecting dots where no dots were connected before. It’s about a freedom of movement, but it tends to suggest certain kinds of outcomes. Whereas play is really focused on the experience or process that people engage in.
You touched on how play contributes to civic life, but you specifically said it helps people create meaning; what is “meaning” in this context?
I’ll go to a larger project that I’m working on right now, about meaningful inefficiencies. It emerged from a paradigm of game design. This was inspired by a philosopher named Bernard Suits who writes about games. He says that games are by their very nature inefficient systems because unnecessary obstacles are put in the way of the player, who agrees to enter into this inefficient system so that she can play the game. We play games not because they are inefficient systems, but because the inefficiency in games—that means that the fastest path between point A and point B is not a direct line—provides some ability to make meaning from that process.
That’s what I’ve come to call meaningful inefficiencies, a paradigm around systems design, around human systems design. That’s the whole point. That’s the core of designing good human systems.
That’s different than designing a system with mere inefficiencies. A system with mere inefficiencies is something that’s frustrating. There is no clear opportunity for a meaningful encounter with a system or another person, it’s just about frustration with not being able to proceed.
Deliberation is a great example of a meaningful inefficiency within a democratic process. The quickest way for a group to make a democratic decision would be to vote. But the process of deliberation where there is dialogue that builds over time where multiple stakeholders are involved, and the positionality of those stakeholders matters. That very process is a process that people engage in not because it is efficient, but because it is inefficient. There is opportunity for people to discover things along the way. It is actually designed for that purpose.
The challenge is that those meaningful inefficiencies, those places for meaning-making and deliberation, are being systematically routed out of some of the designs of efficient urban systems, civic systems, or democratic systems that we operate in. It’s really important, more important now than before, to think about the strategic design of meaningful inefficiencies into these processes.
Deliberation is a great example of how what could seem like an inefficiency is really central to the democratic process. Are there other examples of meaningful inefficiencies?
One of the things I’m particularly concerned about right now is urban sensors and the discourse around smart cities, which has significant impact on democratic use of space. I’m interested in engaging people in the way their data is being collected, the way their data can benefit them, and the risks that are involved.
It’s important for people to experience what it means to interact with a data rich space. Something I’m particularly interested in is exploring possibilities for those sorts of experiences to manifest themselves through the display of user data—the use of urban screens as a means of communicating the kinds of data that are being recorded and/or used. In the case of smart cities in particular, there is a need to stop, dissect, and reflect. To be able to tease out what is actually happening with a technology that is seemingly invisible. The meaningful inefficiency in this case is about making visible the things that can be invisible in our public lives.
Any kind of process of citizen participation, of citizen input, is in some ways a meaningful inefficiency. For instance, when I talk to people within municipal government about public participation I get asked how this makes for a more efficient process. My answer is always that it doesn’t. With urban development, if it’s driven by the value of efficiency, then a participatory process is never going to realize the goal of that value. But if we change the values that are driving this work, and we instead take equity and relationships and community, then all of a sudden, the place for participation, those moments of inefficiency inserted into systems, that actually strengthens the system.
Those opportunities for meaning making actually build equity and understanding. Those are the things that contribute to a just society. It’s really a values question. When I think about meaningful inefficiencies, it’s about shifting the value structure and the priorities that civic processes can have. Those are the things that are required in order to make this democratic experiment work.
Could you speak to the difference between civic media and civic tech? What role does civic media play, or should it play, in society?
Civic Hall is an organization committed to civic tech and that’s a mission that I deeply believe in. But in civic tech discourse, the emphasis was often placed on the object, it was often placed on the technology. I was interested in moving that emphasis away from the technology and toward the thing that was driving the technology.
Right now I’m talking to people that are practitioners in the space both people working in legacy organizations like government or the mainstream press, as well as people working on the outside in startups or small nonprofits and community-based organizations. People who are using media as a means of achieving some sort of civic end. What’s been really clear to me after talking to about fifty people in this space, is that the thing that holds people together—this wide variety of practices and uses of media and technology toward civic ends—is certain kinds of value assumptions of the work itself.
Within a context of waning trust and waning legitimacy of many institutions, including government and the press, these emergent practices are focused on alternative value propositions. The clearest example is a shift from a focus on transaction to a focus on relation.
I’ve talked to so many people who have said that the work they’re doing is about building relationships. We want to move away from this transactional quality of government and focus on trust-building and relationship building. That could be total BS based on where it’s coming from. What’s interesting is that value proposition is a lot of what’s driving this media and technology work. And it’s to varying levels of authenticity.
A classic civic tech example is 311. 311 is a fascinating innovation in service delivery, and a great example of what’s possible. Many 311 programs or apps are driven by efficiency and are not alternative value propositions. So, it’s about asking what values are driving not only the invention of the technology, but its use. How it changes the nature of the organization and what the intentionality behind it is.
The definition of civic media is media and technology that is driven by a certain set of alternate values. Primarily, values of relation, of trust, of community.
It doesn’t specify the nature of the tool, the kinds of technology used, or even the novelty of the technology. All it does is say something about the spirit behind the approach and the way people are using media and technology to accommodate that spirit.
The idea of civic media as a value proposition allows me to think about this work across civic domains, across the government, the press.