Harvard Magazine on the Community Innovation Lab

Imagine a large blank bulletin board hanging in the middle of Upham’s Corner in Dorchester covered with stickers that read “Upham’s Corner is…the best Cape Verdean food” or “Upham’s Corner is…the place I grew up”—designed to spark discussions about community identity. Or a themed website for the Strand Theater there that would host a resource portal with a local feel—to attract neighborhood businesses. Or interactive, multi-touch panels running along both sides of the entryway of the affordable-housing project Orchard Gardens—to serve as a community spotlight and increase residents’ engagement.
Harvard Magazine reports on the Community Innovation Lab, a cross-school teaching and civic innovation effort of Harvard’s Kennedy School and the GSD. Students from both schools teamed up with three community groups in Boston and the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics to make these “big ideas” a reality in the Dudley and Upham’s Corner neighborhoods.
Guided by Michael Hooper (assistant professor of urban planning) and Susan Crawford( visiting Stanton professor of the First Amendment), GSD and HKS students worked together in nine different interdisciplinary teams to enhance projects already undertaken by their partner community groups. They also developed their own unique ideas to address urban and civic challenges. At the end of the semester, the teams presented their projects to their community partners, community residents, and mayoral representatives at Hibernian Hall in Dudley Square. The mayor’s office, Crawford said, will implement the best of the student designs.
The novel and exciting structure of the class, Hooper says, brings students with various interests together and gives them direct experience in solving real community issues. In groups of four to six, students tackled questions such as how can an affordable-housing project serve as a model for 21st century public space and involve residents in the design process? How can the housing project’s board form a strong link between residents and City Hall? What can be done to draw people from other parts of Boston to shop, eat, and see a show in Upham’s Corner? How can technology enhance the visual identity of this area?
Students began by learning about the Dudley area before homing in on specific community needs with their partners—the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, the Orchard Garden Residents Association, and the Upham’s Corner Main Street Initiative—and brainstorming solutions, narrowing their focus to one “big idea” they deemed most workable. The second half of the course was the lab portion—a user-centered design class that brings all the students together in Harvard’s I-Lab to work on their projects.“A lot of projects at the end of a term go on your C drive, they’ve been a great experience, but that’s the end,” Hooper said during the first class meeting. “The hope here is that these projects can see the light of day, be implemented, and live beyond your computer.”
Read more about “A Community Innovation Lab” in Harvard Magazine.