How is technology helping communities, planners and designers revitalize neighborhoods?

Keynote introduction to Technology Helping People, Jackson Ward Electronic Community
by Al Boss, Community Development Society:

"When radio came, community music was replaced in the lives of ordinary citizens, and professional musicians came to dominate. Why listen to "bad amateur music" when you had another option? The public commons became irrelevant to community planners. The automobile brought us the suburbs, and designers responded to our wishes with hermetically sealed houses whose garages faced the street and whose outdoor recreation areas were walled-off isolated back yards. Now people can go round-trip from the house into an air-conditioned car in an automatic-door garage, drive to the underground parking garage at work and take the elevator to their office, work all day and return home, five days in a row, without feeling sunlight or the breeze on their skin and only breathing air that's been processed and recylced through a ventilation system. Will the Internet make things better or worse?

In a word, yes.

The telephone, automobile, radio, air conditioner, and television have already transformed the kinds of communities in which we live, and the ways in which information is passed along, by all the citizens--including those who plan and design the communities. The Internet will do the same. As community developers, we need to help shape that transformation.

There's a difference between information and consciousness. We need to strive to use the Internet to change consciousness, not just to expose people to information. We live in an age shaped by the mass (few-to-many) media. People can't talk back. Very few people are able to determine the content. Planners' sources for ideas and interaction has been limited to other planners in their geographic region, the occasional printed publication and maybe an annual conference. Take a minute to look at the communities we serve, though, and you'll see an interesting thing--there's been a resurgence of the cafe society. Bookstores have cafes. The Internet has chat rooms. People are lonely; they want to communicate.

The World-Wide Web is still a one-to-many medium, not many-to-many communication. But I think e-mail--an old (by Internet standards), simple, not-very-glamorous technology--is still the most powerful tool the Internet has to offer. It's separated from the constraints of "time". It's interactive. It works especially well for communities of interest, which have had a much more successful time colonizing the Internet than have communities of place.

Anyone who's worked with a community-based nonprofit with very few paid staff knows that volunteer work is probably the most effective method of sharing experience in the United States today. Like-minded people with a common goal and the opportunity to share stories is a potent combination. I have been lucky enough to watch planners and designers share information in an interactive e-mail discussion group, and have in many cases gotten to see the results as they posted reports, photos, etc. on the World-Wide Web. I have seen people compare zoning problems in Vermont and California, receive suggestions from Arizona and Illinois and Australia and Japan, summarize them and share an action plan for others in similar circumstances. I have seen world experts—strangers to one another--brainstorm a same-day answer for a new planner in a county whose population is smaller than that of the skyscraper in which I work.

I was asked to tell how technology is helping planners and designers. Technology has always helped. A pencil is technology. So is a good reference book, a rolodex, a telephone, or a calculator, and all of them help. The Internet is another version of these things--another tool for recording information so others might see it, for looking up what you don't know, for finding and contacting others, and for figuring something out. The efficacy of any tool is dependent on the hands it's in, though. Technology helps those who have identified a goal, and through instinct or training or collaborative learning with other like-minded people, have learned how to use an appropriate tool to help them reach toward that goal. Technology, done right, saves time and energy and allows the planner to fold additional information and resources into the work at hand. Done wrong, it's just an annoying noise.

That's how technology can help. How it is helping, and how it will help, is entirely up to you."