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How Interactive Design Can Help New Yorkers Envision Their City's Future

A Local Projects-designed exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York is fun and engaging, but it could also help inspire civic change.

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Amid rapid development and shifting demographics, it's easy to imagine why many New Yorkers feel powerless over the direction of their city. Citizens do have the ability to affect meaningful change from the ground up, but it takes organization, and at least a basic understanding of the city as an ecosystem. How will one change to the built environment affect everything else—the economy, resiliency, and the city's most vulnerable citizens?

Communicating the information necessary for that understanding falls to designers. As the founder of the New York-based Local Projects—the experience design studio behind projects like the StoryCorps booths and the interactive elements of the National September 11 Memorial Museum—Jake Barton feels that visual storytelling can not only educate New Yorkers, it can galvanize them to become advocates for the future of their city. For its latest project, Local Projects acted on that theory with a series of interactive displays for the Museum of the City of New York's first permanent exhibition, New York at Its Core.

Through a series of interactive digital pieces, Barton and his team have managed to represent an astounding amount of census data. And through clever design that mixes fantastical visions of the city with real city metrics, the exhibition gives visitors the tools for becoming active participants in the city's unceasing development.

Per the MCNY's mission, New York at Its Core offers an ambitious comprehensive history of New York City, spanning over 400 years and three gallery spaces. The bulk of Local Projects' design work can be found in the third gallery in an exhibition called Future City Lab. Whereas the other two galleries showcase the way famous New Yorkers—from Henry Hudson and Robert Moses to Jane Jacob and Jay-Z—confronted the city's challenges, the lab brings it all together by asking visitors to tackle the city's core present-day problems themselves.

Upon entering the gallery, visitors are first confronted with an enormous interactive "map table" that curves up from the floor to the wall, with a paneled screen that relays data in various ways. Statistics on flooding over the last couple of years may appear on one panel, for example, while flood maps, images of flooding and flood mitigation efforts show up, then dissolve, on others.

Moving through the exhibition, rows of tables show maps and statistics paired with videos and other forms of interactive visuals. On one table, for instance, you might see charts showing the statistics of the city's immigrant population, a short documentary of about a Queens library serving as an immigrant university, and a screen that you can swipe through to read other New York immigrants' stories.

After seeing the city as it is today, visitors end with an interactive piece that lets them put their newfound knowledge to work. In a Sims City-esque software program, users can create their own neighborhoods by dragging and dropping trees, parks, buildings, and other elements of public spaces. There are some fun and fantastical elements to the game—animals you normally wouldn't see in cities; fancy amenities—but to do well in the game, users need to consider how their developments affect real city metrics like biodiversity, budget, flood mitigation, and recreation. Once the user is finished designing the neighborhood, it goes up on another wall of paneled screens, while Microsoft Kinects place the people standing in front of it into the scene.

"Those metrics are enough to set the circumstances for a real and productive consideration of the future," says Barton. To him, asking members of the public for what they would like to see in the future is all well and good, but it won't make a difference if it's not grounded in real challenges and real potential solutions. This is where interactive and interface design make a difference. Users can build neighborhoods that are fun and ridiculous inside the software, but the metrics encourage them to think more critically about what is at stake and what is actually doable.

"Imagine all of these school kids that might not fully understand [the data] but will be grappling with the questions of 'What apartments can we build?,' 'How diverse do neighborhoods need to be?,' and 'What will serve neighborhoods best?'" Barton says. "It's easy to say 'gentrification is bad,' or 'I don’t want high-rise.' But [acting retroactively] is a communications failure." It's up to all New Yorkers to take responsibility in solving these problems at the outset.

On a purely practical level, making elements of a permanent museum exhibition generative gives MCNY the flexibility to update the content as needed over the years without the overhead typically needed to switch out elements of an exhibition. Many of the interactive maps and statistics on display use census data, and can be updated to reflect the city as the city changes. In that way, the Future City Lab exhibition will "keep up with the future," says Sarah Henry, the museum's chief curator, adding, "any exhibition of the future can’t be outdated or we really have failed."

In addition to communicating data, the interactive pieces will also be collecting it. After a year or so, looking at the neighborhoods that people designed could, in theory, provide information about what most New Yorkers want to see out of their city. And while neither MCNY nor Local Projects knows what they will do with the data, it's easy to imagine using it for another museum exhibition that shows citizen-led design ideas.

For now, during a time when the national government is more polarized than ever, just getting people to think about their city as a place they have control over is a commendable goal. "The story we're trying to tell, on the largest level, is the story of populist change," says Barton. "When people can organize themselves and channel it in a common direction, things get passed and things get built."

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