Innovation Starts with Trying Something New

 

Last week I was thrilled to be part of a Smart City Hackathon hosted by @Comcast and @TechnicallyPHL. Civic tech is at the forefront of my interests in building creative places in cities, and I was curious about LoRa. As part of a long and convoluted Connecticut Innovation initiative, I’ll be leading a GIG WiFi project in Stamford, amongst a few other things. But the real challenge facing most cities start with simple quality of life issues; or the infamous potholes, trash and snow removal, and traffic. So figuring out better ways of addressing quality of life issues through civic tech projects is one way to look at it.

LoRa has one hugely important advantage over most of the civic tech infrastructure projects that I look at. In addition to being low power and long range, it doesn’t require you to dig up the streets in order to install. LoRa is basically a wireless LAN that allows a device to communicate to a backend gateway over long distances, without requiring that the device is connected to the electrical grid, or even in a static location. While my futurist-self easily accepts that one day my refrigerator will order a case of lime-seltzer before I notice I’m about to run out– my civic tech-self sees the immediacy of being able to sensor a remote trash bin located in a public park and trigger an alert when it gets full.

One area where the intersection of zoning, neighborhoods and the creative economy collides, is the issue of noise. Whether you live in an urban city, suburban cul-de-sac or something in between, any community 311 call-center log will be filled with complaints about noise. The usual suspects, commercial activity that relates to either construction, landscaping, or delivery; or creative economy nightlife whether it is concerts, events, or nightclubs; or simply the endless symphony of leafblowers. Noise is a hard to manage problem.

Most enforcement about noise issues starts with someone generating a complaint, which then leads to someone going to investigate the matter. That someone goes to the site, pulls out a sound meter and depending on the laws and regulations either issues a fine, warns the culprit or does nothing. This process is a reactive one, that is costly from a labor standpoint, and most of the time doesn’t result in a happy outcome since the noise often persists and returns.

Like most solutions, there’s no easy one size fits all service or device that can address every type of noise violation incident. But for those that require permitting of some sort, it seems like an IoT solution might be a step in the right direction. Imagine a device that records sound over a specified level and/or time period. That log of occurrences where the noise level exceeds the permitted allowance is sent to the enforcement body, or triggers an investigation, or alerts the site to a potential problem. This real-time observational record changes the ability to document and understand the nature of noise emanating from a site.

This real-time data log was the use case I had thought about when I went down to the hackathon. At the time, I was thinking more about being able to permit the boutique high-tech manufacturers in a commercial business zone because there would be a way to show that noise was not an impediment to the quality of life in that neighborhood. Same type of issue in allowing a dance studio to occupy a mixed-use building, or a brewpub to occupy a heavily pedestrian neighborhood. In all cases, the concern about noise generated by delivery trucks, machinery or people.

I was lucky enough to find other hackers at the event who were interested in using the MachineQ tech developed by Comcast to solve the noise problem in different ways. Gunshot detection, criminal activity, and crime prevention were other ideas that we worked through. In the end, the IoT device we built, NoiseSniffer, demonstrated that you could build a low-cost battery-operated sensor, trigger a log into the could through a clearblade server, and proof of concepted our way to a 2nd place finish in the hackathon.

Naturally, some good things are about to happen as a result of this. Further development on the NoiseSniffer concept prototype is already happening with my team. I’ve introduced the LoRa technology to my Stamford Partnership board and plan on integrating the technology platform and new partners into the Stamford Innovation District. In the Norwalk 2.0 container project, LoRa is now a new tool as part of our interactive art installation. So in the end, trying something new– attending a hackathon about an unfamiliar technology– has led to innovation with immediate impact. And did I mention that this was fun?

When I think about what makes cities vibrant and interesting, it often leads to the observation that a city is really nothing more than a collection of people. When people get together to do collective things, they create that vibrancy. A hackathon on its own doesn’t create that collective activity unless there is a sense of civic purpose. The Comcast Smart City hackathon wildly exceeded my expectations about how to approach civic tech projects in the future. They took an innovative approach in creating a purpose, environment, and technology to allow people to explore a way to solve collective problems. All of the teams produced concepts, ideas, and prototypes that focused on how to make their city better. That alone would have made my field-trip worthwhile, but the inspiration that I brought back home is the more awesome outcome.

a series of serious updates

Running a blog circa 2006-2010 was an exhausting but rewarding endeavor. I miss the daily grind of posting about all things irksome and awesome, although it’s taken me several years to get to that feeling. Of course, the media landscape has changed, and aggregators like Medium, social media like Twitter and Facebook and the image-laden snapchat and Instagram have morphed with the times. Soundbites have more audience than the occasional longish read about stuff.

So I’ve got a couple of startups percolating, ChipEnz and Armchair Expeditions. I’ve got two day gigs, Norwalk 2.o and the Stamford Partneship, with a series of projects and events associated with both, such at DiscoverStamford and DiscoverNorwalk, and the thing that drove me to ruminate on stuff today, the INSIDE/OUT arts thing.

 

Which is to say, I’ve got alot going on. Not to mention my personal art projects and literary endeavors.

I think, it wasn’t that long ago, that I used to advise artists and creatives that the 21st century was all about the personal brand, and that if you didn’t tell people about what you were doing, then there was no point in doing it. I should have heeded my own advice a little more diligently. But hopefully I will be catching up with the documentary trail of what is going on.

Meanwhile:

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Public Art in Bridgeport

I was quite surprised to see that my public art project was still hanging on McLevy Hall in Bridgeport. The install was in March of 2015, so I am fortunate to have had the “Buy Bridgeport” WPA-esque installation up for over a year.  Other art installations have not been so fortunate.

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Placemaking News

The Norwalk 2.0 trip to CT Main Streets workshop resulted in this bit of news:

In Norwalk, the folks from Norwalk 2.0  are the grassroots movers and shakers behind creative public spaces where people gather and connect. Using inexpensive strategies including a mural art trail, storefront dance, “fence art” and colorful adirondack chairs, Maribeth Becker and Jackie Lightfield have transformed places like littered, overgrown public parks to vibrant gathering places.

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Fence Art Project

Explore your city

As part of the FACES of Norwalk project, we wanted to create a walking tour from City Hall to the library to celebrate the rich history of our original downtown, and develop a plan to place public art murals in the area. While we did commission two brilliant artworks as part of that project, we couldn’t gain access to actual buildings. Instead we commissioned Duvian Montoya and Jahmane, who not only created vibrant paitnings of their relfections of growing up in Norwalk, but were thrilled to loan these works to the Norwalk Public Library. Be sure to check them out.

But there was still that niggling detail of encouraging pedestrian activity. So we installed Fence Art, essentially telling the story of Norwalk at each site, using chain link fences as our walls. The exhibit was up from April 2014 through October 2014.

The Fence Art installation at the Norwalk Public Library
The Fence Art installation at the Norwalk Public Library

Here’s how we enticed people to find out all about it:

It’s time to shake off those winter hibernation tendencies and explore downtown Norwalk. Norwalk 2.0 is installed fence art banners at City Hall, Mill Hill, Freese Park, and the library. These exhibits highlight the history of the downtown and encourage walkers to look at sites in the downtown a little differently. Historic photos provide a glimpse of what was there before while standing near what is here now. In many cases the selected photos show historic buildings that are still standing. Of course Freese Park has only existed since shortly after the 1955 flood. But the impact of what was lost can be seen by what is replaced it.

City Hall

Inside City Hall is a collection of over 30 WPA era murals that are on display following restoration that was originally completed in the 1980s. The playful signs invite the public to view the murals. The Norwalk arts commission offers a printed map inside City Hall with the locations of each mural.

Library

The Norwalk Public Library itself a Carnegie era building houses not only the largest collection of historic documents about the city of Norwalk but two WPA murals and two recent additions commissioned by Norwalk 2.0 as part of last year’s FACES of Norwalk.

Freese Park

While the raging waters exhibit at City Hall tells the story of the 1955 flood the installation at Freese Park puts the damage captured at the time at one of the key sites affected. The exhibit also depicts earlier eras where shops lined Main Street and Wall Street.

Mill Hill

Norwalk is fortunate to have maintained its original town green since colonial days. The buildings around the green reflect some of the oldest architecture in the area.

The project was part of the series of ongoing projects undertaken by Norwalk 2.0 to provide cultural connections to the residents, businesses and visitors to Norwalk. Norwalk 2.0 received funding from the DECD Office of the Arts in in addition to numerous individual donations and grants support this project.

Downloadable maps with expanded information are available at the project website: DiscoverNorwalk.com.

More information about Norwalk 2.0 is available at their website norwalk2.org.

Norwalk 2.0 and Stuff About Creating a Creative Economy in Norwalk

Norwalk 2.0 has been engaged in programming a series of arts, exhibits and community projects in the historic Norwalk downtown in order to improve the neighborhood support economic development and bring people to our beautiful historic downtown These neighborhood includes, Wall Street, The Norwalk Public Library, Mill Hill Historic Park, Freese Park, the Town Green, Main Street, Issacs Street, Garden Cinema, Belden Ave, and West Ave..

For several years, artists have revitalized existing storefronts in the Norwalk Center area and infused new vitality in a blighted and difficult area. Today the area hosts several arts organizations and many development projects. It is also the site of the new infill housing in downtown Norwalk since the recession, a 569-unit, six-story development by Belpointe Real Estate, a $250 million investment.

GOALS

  • Provide new and desired uses for downtown that enhance the vibrancy of the district.
  • Serve as gathering areas for people that provide benefits or resources to community members.
  • Serve as inspiration to other communities addressing distressed downtowns.
  • Create new opportunities to engage the evolution of the Norwalk Center and surrounding neighborhoods.

 

“Creating Relocatable Urbanism.”

Norwalk 2.0 has recently collected input, feedback and suggestions from community members through a series of workshops, events and community conversations. Priorities expressed by the community include:

  • enhancing neighborhood identity
  • increasing connectivity between the neighborhoods and focusing on the pedestrian 
experience to and from
  • neighborhood gateways
  • wayfinding and signage
  • pedestrian lighting, distinctive design and architecture
  • affordable and mixed-income housing and affordable and mixed-income gallery and 
live/work space for visual and performing artists
  • bike facilities including bike lanes and bike parking

Our goal is to actively engage and provide opportunity for young people, people in career transition and creative industry professionals to explore new ideas. We have iterated our public arts program to mix historic preservation, downtown revitalization and arts entrepreneurs to engage in building a vibrant downtown.

Norwalk 2.0’s principals have been engaged in and supported by the Norwalk Arts Community through a number of large scale projects. Most recently with the support of the DECD of the arts, Norwalk 2.0 commissioned local artists to crate new paintings reflective of the WPA murals that the City of Norwalk has. Repurposed storefronts to engage artists in exhibits, sculpture and events.

The past several years have brought an increased focus on Norwalk’s arts and culture. The pedestrian experience and connectivity have also played important roles.

The Inside/Out City Wide Open Studio event in the Fall of 2010, not only connected both South Norwalk’s downtown with Central Norwalk’s downtown, but it achieved its goal of incorporating over 44 institutional participants and strengthened bonds between organizations not in the habit of cross marketing.

Immediately following Inside/Out, a group of participants continued to meet and shortly thereafter ultimately generated the Holiday on Main Street event.

In 2009, pARTy in the Park, began the process of focusing area merchants, restaurants, residents and visitors on the connectivity between Mathews Park and SoNo, and encouraging the cross-promotion of cultural activities.

Under Lightfield’s leadership as Chair of the Norwalk Arts Commission, projects undertaken include: a Norwalk Art Walk Map; a printed map and guide to public arts installations in Norwalk. Public Art Projects such as Traffic Graphic, a collaboration with the Norwalk Library visualizing great books as art installations on traffic light signal cabinets; Sounds of SoNo, a streetwide concert, architecture walk and arts walks in South Norwalk, Art in the Windows, a readapted use of unleased storefront windows in South Norwalk used to display the works of over 80 local artists ranging in ages from 8 to 80; Storefront Theater, a project to bring affordable live theater into public spaces featuring the New Haven Theater Company’s Death of a Salesman; the Sketchy Event, a live drawing program that invited the public to sketch in a group setting and visible to public in an empty store situated in the middle of Norwalk’s restaurant row; and Bang!, a dance program targeted towards young jazz, tap and interpretive dance also taking advantage of empty stores.

Networking events like ArtSpots, or public art projects such as the gallery in the Maritime parking garage or buildings slated for redevelopment, our goal has been to raise the visibility of the arts and redevelopment plans in the urban core.

Signature event programming in Norwalk is a vital connection method and economic generator. In addition to long running events such as SoNo Celebration and the Oyster festival, the commission has supported an environmental film fest produced by the Norwalk Seaport Association, and programming produced by member organizations ranging from Stepping Stones Children’s Museum, the Maritime Aquarium, the Norwalk Historical Society, the Rowayton Arts Center and others.

 

Enriching our local talent base of artists includes graphic designers, illustrators, videographers, musicians, photographers and multi-media gurus, and during the December in SoNo event, a poster design contest was held attracting residents and visitors to stroll through and encourage people to get out and walk around to appreciate all that downtown Norwalk has to offer.