Citizen participation has always been a much sought-after measure in urban planning. Arnstein (1969) describes the ‘ladder’ to explain different levels of citizen participation. Ranging from mere information-providing to the ultimate citizen-control processes, various strategies have been employed to include the residents in planning process. After all, why not include them; they are ultimately going to end up living and using the spaces they design. I was briefly involved in a grant that suggested using charettes in small towns to streamline the redevelopment process and was quite enthused by the scope and extent of such an endeavor. However, the limitation of ‘participation fatigue’ or plain apathy has always kept such methods from succeeding. The trouble of getting them down to the city hall and making them ask questions and offer creative suggestions for planning the space they live in is considered insurmountable. So why not reverse the process? Why not go to their homes instead of calling them elsewhere? Will that work?
Of course, ‘going into their homes’ in a figurative sense; I wouldn’t want to be chased down their driveway with bullets from their shotgun whizzing past my posterior – how’s that for payback for involving the citizens. Information technology and the Internet has taken social networking to a new surreal level and people who haven’t seen each other are becoming acquaintances, or good friends, or even getting married. We aren’t going that way but ultimately, what counts in a citizen participatory process is their inputs, however bizarre or irrelevant they might appear to be. IBM is offering us an opportunity to ‘jam’ with the citizens; taking town hall meetings and letters to city hall to a new virtual level.
“A jam is an Internet discussion, held for several days and focused on a major topic, usually with several subtopics. Anyone can log on and contribute, and the discussions are meant to be freewheeling. (Translation: people can say anything they want, from the inane to the inspired.) In most cases, there are some experts watching over the discussions and, where appropriate, offering facts and context.” [source: Otis White’s Notebook @ Governing.com]
The way it differs from an ordinary chat room is that the ‘jam session’ is conducted over a limited period of time; much like a town hall meeting or a forum. People rant, rave, offer suggestions, criticize, or simply sit back and observe over a short period of time that the jam session runs. IBM then steps in with its technology and sifts through the mountain of posted information and categorizes them into key themes and points of discussion for your leisurely perusal. In fact, IBM is doing a test run by organizing a Habitat Jam where experts, practioners, students, and residents join in to offer solutions for sustainability and share experiences of successful ventures in their respective countries. I am one of the 100,000 people who have signed up. Feel free to jump in but hurry, the jam session ends on Dec.5, 2005.