Helping A City Envision Its Future

There are some interesting developments happening in Winter Park, Florida.
  Established in the late 1800s as a winter haven for the wealthy of
northern states, it is now a city of about 29,000 people in the Orlando

Although it has a nice quality of life, relative
affluence, other good aspects, etc., like every city, it faces its
challenges.  What makes it interesting is how the city is responding.


many years, a significant part of the city felt that their library
needed to be replaced and brought into the new century.  This effort
came closer to reality with the creation of a library facility task force more than a year ago and, more recently, with three workshops in which hundreds of community residents participated.  

to say, this is not how the majority of new library building projects
go about planning.  It is an example of the open and collaborative
spirit of ACi Architects, the
architecture/urban design firm that the city retained, which is leading
this effort.  (This is clearly not the exercise in egotism that too many
architects practice.)

In my role as a member of the Advisory Group to the Aspen Institute’s Dialogue on Public Libraries,
I was invited to talk at one of these workshops about how the changes
in the world and libraries provided the basis for Aspen’s report and how
that report could inform their own plans for a future library.

a good library is very much a part of the fabric of its community, it
is especially interesting that the library planning effort has been
conducted in parallel with a larger “community visioning” project to provide direction for all of the city for the next 50 years.

no city will ever achieve 100% agreement on anything, it’s been
fascinating to watch these efforts develop with generally civil
discussion – and visible in real time online to those who couldn’t be

This picture is from one of the breakout groups during a workshop.


the case of the library workshops, part of the challenge is that the
best site for a new building is in a city park named for Martin Luther
King, Jr. and that there is also a need for what has been a civic center
(community meeting building).  So the design needed is not just for a
library building.

While this complicates things, it also
presents an opportunity to create something new which combines a new
library building and the recreational area around it – an opportunity to
create a kind of knowledge park or knowledge experience.  The library
can offer its services not only inside the building, but on it and
beyond in gazebos around the park – and a new civic forum space.

combination library/park/civic space is not common, but not rare
either.  Many large libraries sit in parks, most notably the New York
Public Library in Bryant Park.  But these two public amenities – the
library and the park – are not all that often integrated together.

Recently, WIRED Magazine in its design issue article, “8 Cities That Show You What the Future Will Look Like”,
featured Medellín’s Biblioteca Espana library/park that is “Combining
Libraries and Parks into Safe Spaces for All”, while serving and helping
to upgrade the impoverished neighborhood that surrounds it.


New World Symphony in Miami Beach provides another model of how a park
can be integrated with cultural events inside a building.  With a large
video wall on the outside, it is a natural place for people to sit or
even picnic while listening to great music and seeing great musicians.


Sometimes the park is jam-packed with listeners.


a library in a park offers similar possibilities.  Even the always
necessary garage for a library can be turned into a set of display walls
for the projection of knowledge outside of the building – and thus
upgrading, perhaps, hiding its parking function.  For instance, pictures
and text from the city’s African-American history museum could be made
more widely available this way.

Although no two cities are
exactly the same, Winter Park is a good example of an historic, but
relatively small, city that is now striving to re-define itself as part
of a larger metropolitan area in a 21st century digital economy.  For
that reason, I’ll be reporting back on how the residents proceed to set
an example for many other places in the USA and the rest of the world.

© 2015 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved


New Soft Cities

Carl Skelton is my colleague and co-founder of the Gotham Innovation Greenhouse and former director of the Experimental Media Center at NYU/Polytechnic Institute.

He has written a book about the Betaville open source project that enables residents of a city to collaborate and participate in urban design and planning.  But it’s more than just about the history and role of the Betaville project.

The book provides context for urban design in an Internet-enabled era.  As the publisher’s (Springer) summary states:

“the reader can gain a deeper understanding of the potential socio-technical forms of the New Soft Cities: blended virtual-physical worlds, whose public works must ultimately serve and succeed as massively collaborative works of art and infrastructure.”

Hence the title of Carl’s book: “Soft City Culture and Technology”, which will be officially published at the end of this month.

© 2013 Norman Jacknis


Rockefeller Foundation Medal For Betaville

Last Thursday night, the Rockefeller Foundation had its (Storm Sandy-delayed) ceremony for the winners of the 2012 Jane Jacobs medals.  My co-founder of the Gotham Innovation Greenhouse won the award for Technology and Innovation – the first time such an award has been made.

In this video (, Carl presents some of the ideas that led to this award, including Betaville and its use by a global community in the Open Line Studio project of the Gotham Innovation Greenhouse.

© 2013 Norman Jacknis


More Blending Of Physical And Virtual Spaces

One of the great creative opportunities, especially for cities, is the ability in today’s world to blend physical and virtual spaces.  This opens up possibilities for learning, collaboration, entertainment – and making new kinds of destinations that will attract people to a particular physical space.  

While the trend is not something that started this year – look at Times Square over the last few years – it is picking up steam as more of the physical places in the world are connected to the Internet.

So I’ve been tracking some of the more interesting examples as they’ve come along.  Perhaps the biggest announcement was Google’s new “glasses” that let you see an augmented reality.  There are other similar products from smaller companies, likely Oakley and Lummus.

And, to overcome the obviously geeky look of glasses, there has been developed a prototype of contact lenses that provide the same functions.  (I suspect, though, that government approvals will delay the contact lens version for a while.)

There are other examples, though, that might not have caught your notice:

Please let me know of any examples you come across, so I can share them with others.

© 2012 Norman Jacknis


Gotham Innovation Greenhouse Progress Report

G.I.G. is a group of creative folks from various fields who are trying to establish a 21st century version of the 17th century Royal Society – but with a deeper understanding of how innovation occurs and with the use of today’s collaborative technology.  

A number of people have expressed interest in the progress of G.I.G.  So I’ll be writing periodic updates here, especially after each meeting.

For the next few meetings, at least, people will be presenting various ideas/projects.  Mostly these focus on what is called social innovation.  Partly this is a reflection of the issues that the collaborators are interested in.  Partly this is a reflection of the fact that we have not yet worked out the intellectual property and other economic issues that are part of commercial product innovation.

It was clear from the presentations that there are three types: presentation of an idea for enlightenment or fun (kind of a TED talk); a presentation which asks for feedback, but is pretty much limited to discussion at the meeting; and a presentation which is really an invitation for one or more G.I.G. collaborators to participate in the project being presented.

The second and third categories are much like presentations made by entrepreneurs to panels of venture capitalists or angel investors.  Except in the case of G.I.G., the proposal presenters are seeking the creative ideas and energies of the other G.I.G. collaborators.

So last night, May 22, we had our second meeting, at which the following proposals were presented and discussed:  

  • Leveraging FlexSpace to Power GIG, and vice-versa. This was presented from the beta FlexSpace room in San Jose to the group in New York.  FlexSpace is an evolving set of technologies to enable distributed people to work together.  The solution is designed to facilitate the creative process by enabling virtual post-its, white boarding, co-creation of content and a fascinating blending of physical and virtual space. 
  • A real-time mobile logistics platform: to support on-the-fly coordination of large groups, while mitigating impact on other traffic. While initially focused on a bicycle event, this is potentially generalizable to all kinds of scenarios.
  • Open Line Studio: a collaborative distributed research studio about potential futures of waterfronts in Toronto, New York City, Bremen, Istanbul, and Busan. The project will serve as a proof-of-concept for intensive virtual sharing of physical plans as a way to improve local future-making.

There was also quite a bit of discussion about the process of innovation, how creative people can organize, etc. – all part of giving birth to G.I.G.

Our next meeting is Tuesday, June 19, where we will discuss additional projects/ideas.  

Please let me know ( if you are interested in attending or participating in G.I.G.

We’ll also be working on enhancing the website and including the PowerPoints from this meeting.

© 2012 Norman Jacknis


BetaVille: Citizen Collaboration For Urban Design and Planning

I have been working with the Carl Skelton, Director of the Experimental Media Center of New York University / Polytechnic Institute, in conjunction with the Municipal Art Society of NY, on their Betaville project for collaborative urban design.  Betaville is also part of an international partnership led by the Technical University of Bremen, Germany. 

In a nutshell:

“Betaville is an open web-based environment for real cities, in which ideas for new works of public art, architecture, urban design, and development can be shared, discussed, tweaked, and brought to maturity in context, and with the kind of broad participation people take for granted in open source software development … If a user-generated TV network is possible (YouTube), why not a user-generated city? How could this not be fundamental to the concept and practice of citizenship?”

Take a look at the video presentation from the recent MAS New York City Summit, entitled “From Science Fiction to Future-Making in Real Communities"  –

Although we are used to urban planning being dominated by the professionals, this clearly does not guarantee the best results all the time.  A case in point was the planning and design for what is now called Central Park in New York City.  After an initially disappointing professional design for the new park, the New York City park board ran an open contest in 1860 for a design.  From among thirty proposals, they decided that Vaux and Olmstead’s proposal was by far the best – even though Olmstead was not yet considered to be an experienced professional.

In this century, BetaVille can be the platform for a range of contests to envision critical parts of a city.  It would enable more people to participate and provide a wider range of ideas for the urban amenities of the future that will be as successful as Central Park turned out to be.

© 2011 Norman Jacknis

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Blending Physical And Virtual Spaces

As part of my work with the US Conference of Mayors on a future-oriented economic growth strategy for American cities, I point out that, in the past, quality of life was traded off for economic growth.  (This same approach seems to have been part of the more recent industrialization of China.)

But in the future, quality of life becomes a part of the economic strategy since it is a way of attracting people, many of whom who can choose to live anywhere.

However, quality won’t just be about the existing physical aspects of a city.  More than that, cities will blend physical and virtual spaces to create new destinations.  So it was with interest that I read this article about how “Augmented Reality Will Make Boring Cities Beautiful” –

The key lesson: 

“Once augmented reality is widespread, the difference between a great and a mediocre city won’t just be its built environment. To some extent, it will also be the degree to which that environment is a suitable tapestry for the creatives who will paint it with their augmented reality brush. Digital artists who learn to re-appropriate the city with the most innovative augmented reality add-ons won’t just bring themselves fame and fortune — they’ll also be attracting others to the places they love.”

© 2011 Norman Jacknis


Get The Most Out Of Your Construction Money

[Note: This was originally posted on a blog for government leaders, February 23, 2009]

Construction is a major expenditure for state and local governments. This is going to be the case even more as many billions of dollars will go into infrastructure from the Federal Recovery and Reinvestment Act. 

It’s also important to realize that construction costs are a major factor in projects that are not officially called construction projects. For example, over the last few years, many governments have invested in public safety radio projects or broadband projects. While these are about communications and technology, often the construction costs associated with these projects are larger than the cost of acquiring the technology.

So the key question is whether you are getting the most from every dollar spent on construction. The answer is that, if you just let the construction proceed as it always has been done, you are increasingly wasting money.

The construction industry’s productivity picture is below that of US industry, in general. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, productivity in the construction industry has declined since 1968. Stanford University Professor Paul Teicholz reports that”construction work per hourly work hour has gradually declined – over the past 40 years at an average compound rate of -0.59%/year.”  But there is hope on the horizon. 

A few forward thinking architects, engineers, builders and computer experts have banded together to create a new four dimensional approach to construction projects, which goes by the name ”Building Information Modeling” or BIM. Despite the name, BIM can be used in any construction project – highways and sewers, for example – not just buildings.

BIM is still a developing technology and approach, so the most dramatic benefits are still in the future. Already, though, those who have used BIM have seen substantial reductions in costs and shrinkage of project schedules. 

Some have reported reductions of as much as a third over the traditional construction approach. A significant cause of these reductions is that BIM results in a reduction in claims for errors, which traditionally have meant costly rework and ad hoc redesign on the job site. Since BIM coordinates the work of all the trades on a job, it virtually eliminates the problems that ensue when, for example, electrical wiring and water pipes are put in the same place.BIM also enables the prefabrication of customized components. 

This gives you the savings of pre-fab manufactured buildings, without the need to conform to the manufacturer’s stock designs. For example, a 50 foot component wall could be built off site from the specifications and just be put into place. 

The US General Services Administration (GSA) has started to require firms who construct federal buildings to use BIM. Hopefully, State and Local governments will also start to require BIM of their construction bidders.

For further information about BIM, the best starting point is a 12 minute video that GSA prepared about their”Journey Into Building Information Modeling” at– This video is part of a general GSA website devoted to BIM at It includes all kinds of publications that you might want to pass along to your public works or other construction staff.

The buildingSMART alliance is the organizational leader of BIM. Its ”focus is to guarantee lowest overall cost, optimum sustainability, energy conservation and environmental stewardship to protect the earth’s ecosystem.”

Wikipedia, of course, has an entry on BIM at An introductory article, ”Intelligent Design Through BIM” can be found at

© 2011 Norman Jacknis Permalink