John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

We helped the Knight Foundation imagine the future of public assets, starting with some simple questions.

What if technology helped us get more out of parks?
What if maintenance was celebrated?
What if empathy was in the job description of civil servants?
What if schools were active 24/7?
What if civics were cool?
What if your city said, “thank you?”

Before the Reimagining the Civic Commons initiative launched in five cities, the investment approach was tested in Philadelphia. At the very beginning of the effort we were asked to create a strategic vision showing what could be possible if the ethos of the civic commons “won” and became the animating spirit for public spaces and public goods across the city.

Our work is presented as a short film, set in the near future, depicting everyday experiences:

The value of the civic commons is in the ways that individual assets work together as a system, but this is a story that’s hard to tell because systems are hard to see—and even harder to grapple with.

Imagine trying to study the thermodynamics of an aircraft wing without having smoke to blow into the wind chamber. The wing is surrounded by complex interactions, but they’re all invisible until you have the right instrument to study them.

Smoke and dye illuminate natural systems, aiding physicists and engineers who study them, but what performs the same function for human systems? Ethnography is one tool to illustrate how human systems work today. Likewise, creating design futures, such as this film, gives us a tool to prototype how human systems might work tomorrow.

The film offers a way to reckon with both the mechanisms and effects of systemic change. By taking license to visualize programs, policies, technologies, and organizations with real detail and texture we hope to reorient expectations about what institutions are capable of, and what we as citizens may rightfully expect from them.

What if technology helped us get more out of parks?

Surplus portable parking ticket printers could be repurposed to provide a customized welcome and information packet to park visitors.

Repurposing parking ticket machines

What if maintenance was celebrated?

Generic municipal vehicles could be given an iconic treatment, making them as recognizable as fire trucks and police cars. The text on the side of these vehicles might be constructed using simple sentences comprised of words important to early literacy, perfect for the kids who spot them.

Maintenance vans

What if empathy was in the job description of civil servants?

A downtown Post Offices branch that sits largely empty could be repurposed as a one-stop-shop for citizens that need help navigating complex city processes. This would also give civil servants an opportunity to connect with constituents more regularly.

Municipal Mall

What if schools were active 24/7?

Schools can serve students during the day and community members during nights and weekends. As physical places schools are bundles of many different facilities: libraries, kitchens, workshops, auditoriums, and more. Here we imagined local food trucks using the school kitchen as a commissary.

Midnight at the school cafeteria

What if civics were cool?

Would you wear a t-shirt celebrating street lights? Probably, right?

Civic ShopStreet Trees

What if your city said, “thank you?”

It’s a small thing, but makes a big difference and with so much of day to day life now mediated by digital systems, it is easier than ever to be specific.

A vocal bus stop

We’ve documented the ‘behind the scenes’ thinking that resulted in this film. Our essay Graphic Utility discusses the origins of the flexible graphic system you see in the film. For a longer take on the ideas behind this film, see our essay, America Loves an Underdog.

America loves an underdog