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Futurescape City Tour: Exploring Portland’s Technological Past, Present and Future

We live in a world mediated by technology. Technological systems form the background of our modern lives, enabling us to flip on the light switch, turn on the faucet, and flush the toilet without thinking about where the resources are coming from or where they’re going. 

Just a quick glance at the headlines reveals how decisions about technology are central to local, national and global politics. Consider debates over genetically modified organisms (GMOs), privacy and surveillance, national rail networks, and, to take a local example, fluoride. These debates and many others reflect the degree to which our values are intertwined with technological decisions. 

Yet, we rarely, if ever, get a chance to think about how technologies, both old and new, affect our lives, our communities, and our cities—and how we might shape technologies in new and different ways so that they better represent the things we care about. We need novel ways to engage the public, policy makers, scientists, and engineers to consider how science and technology shape us and how, in turn, we might shape new technologies. We need to create the capacity throughout society to anticipate—not predict—how new technologies might affect our lives and manage, while it is still possible to do so, how they are developed and deployed. 

In short, we need socially responsible technological change.

The Portland Futurescape City Tour (FCT) is a public engagement project designed to address these complex issues. The Portland FCT project is part of a larger, national research effort coordinated by the Center for Nanotechnology and Society at Arizona State University. Five cities across the U.S. and one in Canada ran tours this fall as a part of this comparative study that explores new participatory methods of citizen engagement in science and technology decisions. This project is not designed to predict future technologies, but instead to create the capacity to think about the ethical and social implications of a variety of technologies and how we can shape them to achieve the future we desire.  

The FCT tour in Portland was organized by a group of researchers at Portland State University’s Toulan School of Urban Studies and Planning, led by Professor Thad Miller. This October, the research team brought together 18 citizens from across Portland to discuss their concerns and interests in technology and the impact of the different uses of technology on sustainability and everyday life in the city. Through a series of unique engagement activities, participants expressed their thoughts verbally and visually and deliberated with one another about the future of Portland.

Three sessions were designed around eliciting, exploring, and deliberating the technological past, present, and future of Portland. Rather than the researchers dictating the focus of the discussion, participants were encouraged to voice their own concerns and interests: Where did they see the technological past persisting in Portland? What technologies epitomized Portland’s present? And where was the future emerging? Participant discussions guided the focus of the sessions through experimental participatory methods to encourage the deliberation of ideas. 

During the first session, participants were asked to consider the ways that values shape how technologies are developed and adopted, how technologies affect social relationships, and how technologies are a part of larger systems. They discussed a variety of questions as a group: What excites or concerns you about the future of Portland? What role will technology play in addressing the most important sustainability challenges facing Portland? Through structured small group discussion sessions and role-playing exercises, participants developed a variety of focal areas that carried through the following two sessions by answering these questions. 

The second session of the project consisted of an all-day walking tour of the city. Designed around the themes elicited from the first session, the tour encouraged participants to walk the city and observe familiar places with new eyes. Each participant took photos along the tour. They captured images of the past persisting, the signs of the times, and the future emerging. From PSU campus, through Old Town and into Northwest Portland, over the Broadway Bridge and through the Lloyd District and inner Southeast Portland, with a final stop on the Willamette River, participants met with a variety of organizations and individuals that highlighted the intersection of sustainability and technology in Portland. (To view the tour route and guide booklet, click here.)

In a final, deliberative session, participants revisited the photos they took and, as a group, explored the meaning behind the images. Participants collectively created a timeline that visually displayed the desirability of future interactions with technology. A variety of themes were revisited during this session: transportation, disaster preparedness, and systems maintenance, among others. Equitable access to technology was a theme that spanned all discussion topics. These themes highlighted the values embedded in Portland’s technology decisions, and allowed the participants to express how well these values align with their own. 

Miller’s team is still compiling the data from the three sessions, but participants in Portland expressed appreciation for the process. One participant remarked, “This has opened up a whole new world for me.” The experience inspired her to do background research into a number of different technologies, which she hopes to follow as they emerge. 

To engage with the larger Portland community, an interactive gallery experience will be held January 17th, 2014 at the Recess art space in collaboration with Portland artists. Come see a vision of the past, present, and future of technology in Portland and join in the conversation! Please email fct@pdx.edu if you would like more information about this gallery event.

The Portland Futurescape Team thanks our wonderful participants for generously spending their time with us. We would also like to thank the local organizations and individuals who shared their expertise and donated much-needed time and supplies to the FCT project: PSU Institute for Sustainable Solutions, PSU Facilities & Management, SoMA EcoDistrict, Shannon & Wilson Inc., Ground Work Portland, Rose CDC, Home Forward, City of Portland, Escuela Viva, Mayer/Reed, Trimet, DePave, EcoTrust, Laughing Planet and Hot Lips Pizza. This research was funded by Institute for Sustainable Solutions and the National Science Foundation through the Center for Nantechnology and Society.