Sunday, October 19, 2014

If the use of "game mechanics" can improve the democratic process, would it have helped with Atlantic Yards? No.

So, the epic Atlantic Yards hearing in August 2006 serves as the distinct "Don't" lead anecdote in Making Democracy Fun, the recent book by Josh Lerner. He's Executive Director of The Participatory Budgeting Project, "a non-profit organization that empowers communities across North America to decide how to spend public money."

What's the solution? As noted in a book excerpt published in the October 2014 Utne Reader, What the Democratic Process Can Learn From Good Game Design, "Implementing game mechanics, such as collaborative competition, can make the democratic process more effective and even enjoyable."

That may well be true, but it has nothing to do with the hearing on the Atlantic Yards Draft Environmental Impact Statement. As I now know, though didn't convey in my coverage (which was among the sources Lerner drew on), the hearing wasn't meant to produce a meaningful outcome.

It could have been less of a charade, with some of the reforms Lerner suggests below. But it still would not have led to collaborative decisions, the way, say, participatory budgeting does.

Instead, under New York State law, an environmental review produces a disclosure document, aimed to disclose but not necessarily mitigate impacts. It does not involve decisionmaking. The public hearing is the publicly theatrical part of a process that also includes an opportunity to comment in writing--and the comments made in writing have exactly the same (minor amount of) weight.

The disclosure document can disclose some options that represent changes around the edges--say, reducing the amount of parking in the project--but that is relatively rare.

Rather, the environmental review is a document, required under the state's legal framework, aimed to avoid lawsuits. The deal and the project arrive already cooked by the parties that matter. Their big fear--as has emerged in more than once in the Atlantic Yards saga--is a lawsuit.

From the book/article: Atlantic Yards

Lerner writes:
Everyone loves democracy—except for most of the time, when they hate it. Despite its wide appeal, democracy has a remarkable ability to be fantastically boring, bitterly painful, and utterly pointless. This ability is so incredible that, in mere hours, democracy can transform a thousand passionate activists into a room full of lifeless faces and empty chairs.
Case in point: A public hearing on the largest development project in New York City history—Brooklyn’s Atlantic Yards.[actually it's Brooklyn history] On a late August afternoon in 2006, hundreds of opponents and supporters crammed into a university auditorium, with latecomers lined up outside. Officially, the hearing’s goal was to collect input on the project’s Draft Environmental Impact Study [Statement, not study]. In other words, to help determine if the developer could plant a new basketball stadium and 16 soaring apartment towers in the middle of Brooklyn’s brownstone neighborhoods. And if so, how?
The hearing was a nasty battle. Opponents protested that they only had 66 days to review 4,000 pages of technical documents. They warned about endless traffic jams and sketchy guarantees of affordable housing, claiming that the new apartments would just be “rich folks’ housing.” Unions and other supporters praised the new jobs, housing, and basketball team that the project vowed to deliver. Amid the chaos, the hearing organizers called in the police to remove an outspoken critic. Speakers faced constant heckling and threats. “The bulldozers are coming,” boasted an ironworker, “and if you don’t get out of the way, they’re going to bulldoze right over you.”
The Atlantic Yards hearing was about as much fun as, well, your average municipal hearing. After listening to waves of repetitive presentations and canned rhetoric, most of the crowd left early. Those who remained looked dazed. Many walked away frustrated, after signing up to present and not having time to speak. Thousands of other ‘concerned citizens’ had, no doubt, opted to stay home entirely, to avoid a futile shouting match. In the end, the hearing also failed to deliver a clear sense of how to improve the Environmental Impact Study.
The problems that plagued the Atlantic Yards hearing are typical of democratic participation. Governments and organizations are calling on citizens to engage more actively in political processes, beyond voting in elections. In most cases, though, participation is dominated by the ‘usual suspects’ and extreme voices, and widely dismissed as pointless. It rarely resolves conflicts or changes decisions. For most people, these opportunities to participate are simply not very attractive, compared with the countless other ways to pass time.
From the book/article: AY & game design

Lerner offers these suggestions:
Once I looked at public participation through the lens of game design, I began to question what I thought I knew about democracy. I reflected back on my experience as an urban planner and facilitator, designing and leading scores of workshops and meetings for community development programs in North America, Latin America, and Europe. I revisited the lessons learned from years researching participatory democracy in a dozen countries. And I realized, more so than ever before, why some meetings worked better than others. I glimpsed the power of good game design.
In the case of Atlantic Yards, game design concepts explain why the hearing was not fun, and how it was designed to fail. The organizers made conflict more antagonistic, asking presenters to explicitly identify as either for or against the development. They offered no opportunities to tackle problems collaboratively. They did not announce the hearing rules in advance, and the facilitator ignored rules about speaking time limits for many politicians and project supporters. People did not really know what they could accomplish by attending, and they had no way to measure progress toward any particular outcomes. There were almost no engaging visuals or sound effects. Combined, these design choices doomed the hearing.
In part, I don't disagree--there was no room for people to claim a more nuanced stance and it was irresponsible not to explain the hearing rules in advance or adhere to time limits--but those reforms would not have helped. Nor would better design choices have helped.

Consider: more recently, the public hearings have been somewhat better run, but the fundamental issue remains unchanged.

There was, in the initial and later rounds of environmental review, a huge goal at stake--for Forest City Ratner to get to "entitlement," or the permission to build the project as proposed. The goal was not to hear the public offer tweaks.

What's democracy?

If "games are designed to be enjoyable, and democracy is not," as Lerner aptly writes, the Atlantic Yards hearing was designed not to be democracy in the first place. There was no shared goal. There was no plan. There was no common resource that was the subject of tabula rasa decisionmaking.

The Empire State Development Corporation (aka Empire State Development) was set up to avoid "red tape," to push through projects without the messy democracy of a legislative review.

Lerner writes:
To maximize the fun and minimize the dangers, I propose that governments and organizations redesign democratic processes to include 5 kinds of games and 26 game mechanics. When appropriate, they should use animation, team-building, capacity-building, analysis, and decision-making games. But, more important, they should design democracy to be more like a game, by drawing on game mechanics that engage the senses, establish legitimate rules, generate collaborative competition, link participation to measurable outcomes, and create experiences designed for participants.
Those sound fine, but with Atlantic Yards and other ESD projects, there was, and is, no way to "link participation to measurable outcomes."

Even finding a way to incorporate public participation going forward has been a challenge--and the subject of another article.


  1. In this realm, participatory democracy is neither participatory nor democratic.

    In practice, it means neighbors debating whether to fix school bathrooms vs. fixing a park, etc. How to divide crusts of bread.

    This process is a distraction from real participatory democracy: demanding that government raise and allocate sufficient resources to run the city properly, so every citizen can participate in the life of the City with dignity.

    Want real participation? Let the public vote on raising taxes on the financial sector. But that subject is off limits. Why?

  2. Norman,
    I think we're actually more in agreement than it may seem. I wonder if the issue is conflating two different questions:
    1) If the Atlantic Yards process had been designed in a fundamentally different way, using game mechanics, would it have been better?
    2) Is such a fundamentally different design really possible?

    We both seem to be arguing for Yes on question 1. The biggest problem was that participation was not linked to meaningful outcomes - the public meetings did not matter, since decisions were made elsewhere. If the public process had been redesigned from the start as I proposed, including by empowering the public to directly determine the outcome (whether Ratner got permission to build) through a rigorous deliberative approach, would this have been better? I certainly think so.

    It seems like the difference is that we disagree on question 2 - as you say at the end of the post, there ”was, and is, no way” to do this - no way to empower public participation to actually determine the outcomes of the process. Five years ago when I talked about participatory budgeting, people also said that there was no way that this could work in NYC. Now, thousands of people across the city are deciding how to spend over $25 million, and the program is growing each year (

    In a later chapter of my book I discuss a massive urban redevelopment program in Argentina which also managed to directly link participation to measurable outcomes. No, I don’t think that such a radically different design was politically feasible at the start of Atlantic Yards. But if participatory budgeting can go from impossible to widespread in 5 years, I think it’s also possible to fundamentally change development processes. I’d encourage you to read on in the book, to see how.

    Thanks for all your great work uncovering the issues with Atlantic Yards!
    Josh Lerner

    1. Josh, thanks for your thoughtful comment.

      I agree with you on number 1.

      As for number 2, I agree that participatory budgeting is progress. But the next step is the City Council version of land use, ULURP, the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, which itself is better than the environmental review pursued by Empire State Development Corporation.

      People critiquing/fighting Atlantic Yards argued that ULURP would have made a difference. Likely it would have, at least on a surface level, since it would have empowered the local City Council Member and the Council at large. But it would not have made a fundamental difference, because ULURP itself needs significant reform to actually empower communities.

      I'm interested in reading the book--but I couldn't get it from the Brooklyn Public Library (they should order it)-- to learn about the Argentina example.