This article is edited from the CoLab Boston blog, the initiative I'm launching to connect creative professionals to community projects in the Boston area. Check it out!  Last week I attended the final presentation of Harvard's inaugural Community Innovation Lab class, where students were pitching projects to 3 local organizations, The Dudley Street  Neighborhood InitiativeUpham’s Corner Main Street Development and the Orchard Gardens Residence Association in Dorchester.

A few major themes stood out as the framework for any solution that might be implemented in these neighborhoods:

Make Data Accessible, Participatory and Relevant

One of the first “A-Ha” moments I had was when a group pitched the idea to project local survey results onto the side of the Orchard Gardens Residential buildings. To increase voter participation, they proposed to ask inhabitants a yes or no question in person every time they handed in their rent checks. The question of the month, and a dynamic graph of the responses, would be projected outdoors for all to see. The implications of this could be huge!

A lot of the solutions were built around the importance of participation and transparency in local decision-making. One example was the SMS-based voting system in which passerby would read questions spray-painted on the sidewalk and text in their votes. The results would then be advertised throughout local store fronts and gathering places.

Another great example is the “I am Upham’s Corner” idea, where community members could write their ideas for community development on stickers around the neighborhood, ultimately gathering data that could inform the community’s own identity. Which brings us to…

Give the Community Ownership of Its Identity

The “I am Upham’s Corner” sticker project was created to give Upham’s Corner a real ‘brand.’ They identified a ‘brand’ as “a set of promises that aims to deliver on an experience.” Now, defining branding isn’t easy, but this team did a great job of uncovering the real issue: an identity needs to come from the people.

The “Planning on the Street” project did a great job of building on the idea that you need to “bring the meeting to the people, not the people to the meeting.” They identified a huge opportunity to start a conversation around the Fairmont Indigo Planning Initiative in a way that gives locals a voice in the debate and a stake in the future of their Fairfmont Corridor.

One group’s proposed redesign of DSNI Youth Centers did a great job of promoting the concept of collaborative identity-building by designing spaces that were ultimately defined by the people who used them. They knew why this was so important:

Design for Interaction

A few of the groups pitched great projects about telling the community’s story, but they were all defined by one point: we need to create ways for the community to tell its story together. The playground redesign project revolved around creating places for people to meet, hang out, and engage with each other in positive ways. The Dudley Village Campus group proposed ways that people could record their stories together in physical meeting places. The Dorchester North Burying Ground initiative suggested community events and meeting places to support the historical site. The first group pitched a redesign of the Orchard Garden’s Residence Association lobby called “Walk of Stars”, creating a space where residents could meet, learn and record stories together.

One of the keys to effective urban planning is creating ways for people to “bump into each other.” Cities can be very alienating places, and designing safe spaces for community members to interact should be a driving factor in any solution.

If you want to learn more about our initiative, we hope to get involved with these projects as they move towards completion and CoLab Boston needs your help! Shoot me an email at!

Graduated with a B.A. in Communication Design from Emerson College. Studied Product Design in Startup Insitute Boston's inaugural class. Marketing Manager at The Tap Lab, a mobile gaming startup focused on location & augmented reality. Founder of Colab Boston, an AIGA Design for Good partner. Raised overseas, uncomfortable with familiarity, lover of live music, skiing, Bourbon Ales, black coffee and weird food. Current favorite topics: The Internet of Things, serious games, data visualization and epic burgers.