What we learned from “Flipping the Bird”

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This past Saturday, DnA and KCRW convened something called a “design jam,” a group brainstorming session. It was at IndieCade, the independent gaming convention, held this year in Santa Monica.

The purpose of the event was to rethink our conversation on e-scooters and other new forms of disruptive mobility. We called it “Flipping the Bird!”

In the course of two hours a group of people, starting at age 11 and including a mix of the curious and the professional -- Santa Monica councilpeople, the city’s mobility director, and a public affairs officer from Bird -- aired visions for the future that may not have solved all our disruptive transit conundrums. But we did get to find common aspirations, using a form of public engagement that is arguably more fun and maybe as productive as those formal council meetings or the crossfire on Nextdoor.

The session was led by Jeff Watson, an assistant professor of cinematic arts from USC, with Jose Sanchez, his colleague at USC’s School of Architecture. After breaking us into groups, they handed out decks of cards called “The Thing from the Future.”

The game is designed to trigger ideas, and over the course of several lightning rounds, prompts enabled some pretty creative discussions about how we might one day get around the city.

The game designers also added an "empathy" piece -- think about the future, they said, from the vantage point of a pedestrian, a city official, an entrepreneur, or a rider of e-scooters.

Some of the ideas were hopeful and inspired. Some were bleak. Some were very practical. But the point of the exercise was to think imaginatively about the future as a way of teasing out shared priorities for the present. And in this room were people representing stakeholders on different sides of the e-scooter issue.

“The way we’ve tackled the problems has been more reactionary,” said Marianne O’Donnell, a business strategist and a self-declared design buff. “And I think at some point you just have to reinvent the whole thing, start afresh.”

Also participating were members of Santa Monica’s City Council, including Kevin McKeown, who said the cards “act as a boxcutter [and] force us to think out of the box.”

Fellow councilman Terry O’Day said that “as a city we are always looking for ways to get a better conversation happening in the community that gets to our values and identifies ideas and then tests those ideas. This is leagues beyond our ability to do that in, say, a city council meeting -- not typically a fun environment.”

The city’s head of Mobility Francie Stefan added that she thought the game “was really sort of freeing of ideas that are otherwise hard to kind of come to because transportation certainly is a topic in which you get bogged down in the mundane and the technical.”

And a public affairs rep from Bird, Jason Islas, pointed out that “cities are designed largely for cars... And the reality is is that we're fighting over crumbs -- that 5 percent of 95 percent of the street space... and I think anything that comes along that gets people out of their cars and rethinking the way we design streets for people in human scale transportation -- like e-scooters or e-bikes or manual-powered bikes or whatever else comes along -- is a great conversation to be having, even if it's sometimes a heated one.”