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Dec 02, 2022

Experimenting with citymaking: Sitting down with the team behind the BSA RFI

November 15 Info Session Workshop 10

The extensive and thorough process of creating the BSA’s recently released Request for Innovations (RFI) was accomplished through collaboration between staff members and the BSA community. This work built on the BSA’s previous strategic work initiatives.

We spoke with some of the members of the BSA’s innovation practice team for a deep dive into how this process looked.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Team members:

Nigel Jacob, Managing Director for Innovation
Ben Peterson, Civic Design Director
Jennifer Effron, Policy Director
Taylor Johnson, Design Education Fellow
Madeleine Hykes, Assessment & Reporting Manager
Wandy Pascoal, Housing Innovation Design Fellow

The tagline of this RFI is “How might we do architecture differently?” Why do you think finding innovative pathways to new ways of practicing is important?

Wandy Pascoal: Folks within the profession have already begun to do things differently, and are thinking about how to push beyond the bounds of capital-A “Architecture.” This is a direct response to that. This has also come up with all the other stakeholders we’ve spoken with—residents, community organizations, et cetera. We’ve tried to think about how we can hold space for everybody and facilitate ways for people to connect with one another.

Ben Peterson: We all feel a similar optimism about architecture and what it can be. We’re acknowledging the ways in which architecture has perpetuated an acceleration of climate change, and, unintentionally or intentionally, the structuring of social and racial inequity, so we have a question to ask ourselves— how can we not do that stuff anymore? If we can make space for more voices and start to celebrate lived experience as expertise, we might be on to something.

Taylor Johnson: We acknowledge architecture as a rigorous process, that is governed by rules and regulations that allow for buildings to be safely designed, but architecture as a discipline and way of thinking is so much more expansive than that. People who are working have that in mind and are seeking out related opportunities, and we’re trying to build onto momentum of change in ways that will move the needle moving forward.

Nigel Jacob: Before I came to the BSA, I co-lead the Innovation team at City Hall, the Mayor’s office of New Urban Mechanics. That work was all about trying to bring a spirit of creativity and risk-taking inside the institution of local government. I see this work very similarly. We need to build cities differently, and in order to do this we need to create new ways for architects to try out new ways of doing things. That’s what we’re creating—a place to support risk-taking.

Boston has a long history of civic activism, and this RFI is building on that tradition. How were you inspired by this history?

BP: It's less that we’re intentionally building on that legacy; rather, we are in great deference to it, and acknowledge, with great respect, that we're helping to push things forward in the same way many people have been working to do for so long. The spirit of communities, neighborhoods, and residents organizing in response to decisions made about the built environment that would do harm has been a really awesome part of Boston's history. I think we really need to be working with admiration for the folks who did all this work and continue to do it.

Jennifer Effron: We have a community of innovators—we have so many world-renowned higher education institutes, and other businesses, institutes, and partners who seek to be in this area because there's a spirit of innovation and a lot of really great resources. Hopefully this also builds on the community that exists here and asks how we can innovate for the general good of people and of the planet.

NJ: Boston is a city of extremes. While on the one hand, we have one of the greatest innovation hubs in the world, on the other we have a city with some of the greatest inequality in the country. We have to find new ways to leverage these incredible assets towards the resolution of these wicked problems.

What have the responses to the RFI been like so far?

JE: With all this work, you put it out there, thinking, “This makes sense to us—I hope it makes sense to other people!” It’s been pleasantly surprising that people do feel like they can connect with this and want to develop an idea.

Madeleine Hykes: We’re being open about how this is very new to us, so we’re also asking for someone who’s willing to be a part of the prototyping process. There’s something in having that conversation with people who are applying and willing to apply, and being very transparent about how we’re learning as we go, that’s also going to impact the way someone structures their initiative or how they approach it.

BP: Everyone we’ve spoken to is approaching the ask from a position of not knowing, rather than saying “okay, this is how we can do architecture differently.” There’s something so cool and exciting about creating space for innovation that allows for not knowing. I think that, hopefully, will inform our work as we keep that spirit going—iterating, and reflecting, and always asking questions.

What are some of the ways you worked to make the RFI widely accessible?

JE: Our focus is on the community with which we have the deepest relationships, and that’s an intentional place for us to start, but we want to include anyone who has interacted with the processes of architecture and design in their lived experience. In our efforts to make this whole process broadly accessible, we still have work to continue to do, throughout the submission process, and where we’re hosting meetings, and how we’re reaching out to communities. We’re prototyping this and trying to do what we are capable of at the moment, and it’s a continued work in progress.

TJ: There’s a short timeline to all of this. I think we all know from projects we’ve worked on that relationships take time, and trust is built over a long period of time. We’re trying to be mindful as we test out the process, so we can bring in new people as it moves on.

What do you love about Boston?

MH: The proximity, in a lot of areas, to something green, like bike paths and walkable paths like the Greenway.

BP: I think Boston has a fascinating undercurrent of radical experimenting with citymaking, that has translated into experimentation with building civic institutions—the first public library, the first public school, the first public hospital.

JE: I like Boston's nerdiness. People get super deep into and interested in urban planning or civic issues. You can really find people taking deep dives into things. For example, right now I'm fascinated by climate-smart bus shelters. We could go down a rabbit hole about that, and you could find a whole bunch of people who want to do that too.

NJ: Boston is an incredible place! There’s so much cultural richness here. This is the place where you want to go to solve the big issues that cities face around the world.