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The Electronic Charrette

A Paper by William George Paul

Mankato State Univeristy

will the computer replace face-to-face interaction?
did the automobile replace the bicyle?

I. Origins

The idea for the ec began over two years ago at a steering committee meeting of the Minnesota Design Team (MDT), a group of volunteers that assist small Minnesota towns in their efforts to create community and new designs for their future. Similarly, the ec was designed to be a low-tech and inclusive process that invited all citizens, students, and professionals with the minimun equipment and connections to participate.

In addition, The University of Sydney's Key Centre for Design Computing contributed important electronic design principals through their research in the virtual design studio.

[ A ] The MDT Process

In brief, the principles of MDT follow three fundamental principles. First is the belief that purposeful grassroots planning is the most effective tool for community development. Without grassroots involvement, numerous problems emerge: no control over large development interests, burn-out for those individuals who always take the lead, and citizen apathy. Grassroots planning involves the whole community, and the Design Team emphasizes the need for comprehensive participation by everyone.

The second principle of the Design Team's work is volunteerism. Since the beginning of the organization, the MDT has functioned as a group of volunteers. Professionals from architecture, landscape architecture, planning, education, historic preservation, tourism, community development and a wide range of other fields donate their time and talents to planning a particular community's future.

Similarly, representatives of the community must volunteer their time and skills in organizing the MDT visit and in implementing the strategies developed during the visit. For many communities, a visit from the Design Team is an uncommon opportunity to work cooperatively with neighbors and colleagues.

Finally, the Design Team is committed to the value of quality design in community development. Part of the Team's goal is to demonstrate the benefit of thoughtful design through the drawings and plans that are presented at the conclusion of each visit. By thinking and talking about design issues, communities begin to realize that they have considerable control over what does or does not happen in their town. The "big box" retail developments that may be economically crucial do not inevitably have to be ugly.

The following points define the MDT process:

The Design Team process begins when a community requests an application for a visit. A review committee then conducts a screening visit with the community to determine whether or not a Design Team visit would be appropriate. Once accepted, community representatives begin organizing the logistics of the long weekend visit. Community representatives agree to find host families with whom team members will stay during the visit, develop publicity to include the entire community in the process, and plan the details involved in arranging meals, bus tours and town meetings.

Each Design Team is unique. Team leaders invite professionals to participate on a team based on the specific needs of the community. For example, one town might need a specialist in pollution control while another may need an architectural historian to evaluate l9th century structures. The visit begins on Thursday evening when team members arrive. Generally, the community plans a small reception to introduce team members to their host families. Early Friday morning, the Team gathers with community representatives to learn about the history, economics and culture of the area. These formal presentations are followed by a tour of the community by bus or on foot. This allows team members to develop a physical context for the information they have heard in the morning. On Friday evening, usually after a potluck supper, the MDT conducts a town meeting. Everyone is asked to participate by discussing the issues that most concern them about their town.

Saturday is a day of intense work for team members. All of the information and intuitions gleaned on Friday are filtered through lively discussion among team members. As the day evolves, small groups begin to work together on specific issues, designing responses that are then articulated in large graphic plans and renderings. By Saturday night, the Team is both excited and exhausted. At the second town meeting, team members present their drawings and invite questions from the community. The presentation always includes at least two sections: design ideas and strategies for implementation. The community then has the opportunity to view the drawings first hand and discuss specific recommendations with the team. On Sunday, the team members and their host families breakfast together and say their good-byes. Without exception, the Sunday morning atmosphere is hopeful and enthusiastic as the community embarks on a new road into the future. A small group of Design Team members returns to the community six months later. Team members offer suggestions for overcoming obstacles and research new resources as needed.

[B] Key Centre for Design Computing, University of Sydney

The second key source of research support for the electronic charrette is from the The Key Centre's exploration of the virtual design studio (VDS)--see "The Potential and Current Limitations in a Virtual Design Studio". This work helped to form the ec process but is targeted at a more technical audience. VDS is important to the ec process because it builds the technological bridges and terminology necessary to construct a mediated (i.e.- internet driven) collaborative process.

The Potential and Current Limitations in a Virtual Design Studio

A Virtual Design Studio is distributed across space and time and information is represented electronically. This paper presents the experience of virtual design studios for teaching students about computer-mediated collaborative design. The technology available for the studios includes CAD, image processing, World Wide Web, video conferencing, email, shared file and file transfer, and shared whiteboards. The potential for this technology in a design environment is to reduce the need to physically meet when collaboration is needed. The limitations in the current technology lie in the lack of structure in sharing information and CAD files across the Web.

The Virtual Design Studio concept

The concept of a Virtual Design Studio (VDS) refers to a networked design studio. A conventional design studio is a place in which designers work on drawing boards and/or CAD. The VDS takes this notion and distributes it across space and time. In a VDS:

-- the design group is composed of people in various locations
-- the design process and designers' communications are computer-mediated and computer-supported
-- the information "inside" the studio is handled in electronic form
-- the final design documentation is also in electronic form

Thus the networked VDS allows designers who are geographically dispersed to generate, communicate and implement design ideas through their desktop computer. The physical location of designers becomes irrelevant to the design process because the workspace of the studio is distributed across the net. Designers are able to enter the studio for interactive and non-interactive sessions connecting to the World Wide Web, multimedia mailers and/or connecting to a video conferencing session. The information in the design studio is stored in a variety of file and presentation formats, primarily available through the use of Internet access tools. The use of intranet or proprietary network protocols would change the specific tools used, but the nature of the Virtual Design Studio is the same regardless of the particular technology used.

Real design projects require joint efforts of individuals and synchronisation of the information streams between them. Virtual design studios supply data and implement the results of the research in the field of Computer-Mediated Collaborative Design (CMCD). The term "collaborative design" is used in the most general sense to denote design activity when more then one person works on a single design problem. This can be restated as collaboration occurs when two or more people have a common goal or intent. Collaboration is possible when the collaborators share activities and information to achieve the common goal. The researchers at the Key Centre propose that effective collaboration occurs when the collaborators share:

1. design tasks
2. communication
3. representation and
4. documentation.

[C] Forming the EC principles and process:

Based on the MDT and Key Center for Design Computing templates, the following EC Principles and Processes will be tested:

1.Grass roots planning via the Internet will facilitate shared communication and design between key stakeholders.

2. The ec connects people on a local and / or global levels creating various role(s) and definition(s) of the internet charrette volunteer.

3. Individuals and design groups will submit solutions in an electronic format.

4. Along with web conferencing technology, there are other electronic means to collaborate / design on the internet.

II. The ec event process
and the sequential web sites

[ A ] The Pre-Event Site: advertising, judges, and design

The ec pre-event site was installed on the Mankato State University Unix server in late October 1996 and advertised the coming event and the draft ec process until late December 1996. Potential ec judges were "approached, invited and sent" to this site in an invitation process that was delivered exclusively via electronic mail and various listservs. The ec Director never met the judges in person. The pre-event web site was created first as a marketing tool, and second as an evolving depository for the many resources that would later be included on the completed event site version. The ec Director sent-out approximentally 250-300 ec Memos in the pre-event phase and attracted over 60 return e-mails.

The method that was used to advertise the ec is now called "farming." The ec Director searched for University Departments in architecture or urban design and sent each faculty member or organization head a short "ec Memo" as a teaser, being sure to include the ec web site iternet address for quick return access. The other dominant strategy was to have groups link the ec site to their homepage and at least ten organizations did this.

Constructing the web sites: DPAD / html / graphics

Many ec graphic creations were made with MacDraft, a very early and "low-tech" architectural software application. Additional icons were created with Adobe Photoshop. Digital images were created and / or converted using a Kodak Digial Camera and an Apple Scanner. ec software and hardware components were often early versions and are therefore likely available at university labs or public libraries.

A table summarizng tools for the ec technology process follows:

Kodak DC40 Digital Camera - Color Digital Photographs of CAC - Converted
ANSCO Panoramic Camera - Black and White CAC Photographs - Scanned / Converted
Apple Color OneScanner 600/27- Maps and B/W Photo Digitization
Graphic Converter - Image File Conversion
Adobe Photoshop 4.0 - Image File Conversion
Macintosh Power PC 6100/60- Multi-Media Platform
Mac Draft - EC Icons Generation
SimpleText - HTML (the Long Way!)
Netscape 3.0 - Web Browser
GV Teleport Platinum - 28.8 Modem
Fetch - Internet File Access
Server - DEC 5000/260 4.4 ULTRIX

[ B ] the ec event site: competition rules and data for 2/22/97

The ec event web site was launched on December 25, 1996. The components included the following:

[A] ec Process // Submission Formats // Downloading FirstClass Client 3.5 Software. This link discussed the overall vision for the ec, the competition rules, submission formats, and instructions for connecting on 2/22/97 with FirstClass.
[B] Live Internet Schedule for February 22, 1997. Start times for the virtual library tour, town meeting, and lunch chat with the ec Director.
[C] Event Theory Base. Links to the Minnesota Design Team, local and regional web sites were listed.
[D] Carnegie Art Center: Then and Now. History of the building.
[E] Historic Landmark and ADA Guidelines
[F] Existing Floor Plans of the Carnegie Library
[G] CAC Building Section
[H] Two Street Plans for the CAC
[I] The Six EC Projects for the Carnegie Art Center & Library Competition
[J]: Technological Processes for the EC (To Date) See above.
[K] The Forum Discussion Script from 10/15/97 - 12/20/97. Archived messages from the electronic bulletin board.
[L] EC Discussion Forum (BBS)
[M] Mail to EC Director
[N] EC Poster for Downloading
[O] EC Sponsors
[P] EC Advisory Committee
[Q] EC Panel of Judges

Regarding the time and resources that were required to construct and advertise the electronic charrette, people hours could be broken down as follows:

1. Design / Site Updates: 70 hrs.
2. Advertising: 70 hrs.
3. Surfing / farming: 35 hrs.
4. Live Day Set up / Take down: 20 hrs.
5. Evaluation: 30 hrs.

Many people, from sponsors and students, to the faculty advisors, were consulted during the course of the 6 month project. The ec design system is illustrated below. In addition to the electronic charrette, approximentally ten people represented an "in-house" or traditional charrette team (the URSI Home Team). The graphic represents how the live day connections were linked in the URSI classroom at Mankato State:

The live day event began at 8:30 AM and finished at 4:30PM. Approximately ten people participated on the URSI Home Team. Because of the multitude access and platform issues involved in connecting to the chats, three mechanisms were to established to communicate with the home team on 2.22.97. They were:

I. E-mail - One dedicated machine is our e-mail site for quick responses, with participant access for the entire day.

II. EC Forum ( Bulletin Board ) - One dedicated machine will serve as the Bulletin Board processor, with participant access for the entire day.

III. Live Event & Discussion Sessions - Via FirstClass Client Software

The day began with introductions, some last minute technical issues with FirstClass, and coffee! The gallery director from the CAC dictated the building tour to multiple volunteers until 11:30 AM. Over the lunch over, we went off-line. Then from 1:00 PM until 2:30, we all participated in the internet Town Meeting, which included technical feedback and support for the Six EC Projects.

Throughout the day, the URSI Home Team In-House Charrette took place which focused primarily on the ADA elevator design issue.

The submission period to send in electronically formatted designs lasted one week, and ended with no such submissions on March 1, 1997.

[ C ] evaluation site-- critique and education

The final, or third, phase of the ec web site contains the following links:

[ A ] EC II Web Site: 4/4/97 - 5/15/97
[ B ] EC Competiton Web Site: 12/96 - 3/97
[ C ] MSU REPORTER Article on the EC, 2.25.97. Page 1.
[ D ] Mankato Free Press Article, Local, Page 1. 3.18.97.
[ E ] Minnesota Design Team Web Site
[ F ] EC Data and Evaluation Site
[ G ] Submissions for the CAC Projects
[ H ] List of Organizations that Linked the EC
[ I ] William Paul's EC Research Bookmarks
[ J ] Requests for EC Research Data To-Date
[ K ] Acknowledgments

The EC Data and Evaluation Site is constructed with the following features:

[ i ] Just the Data! ec Quick Fact Sheet; Final Installment (in 3 Parts) of the Forum Discussion Script; 2.22.97 Virtual Tour of the CAC; Technical Issues with First Class Client; 2.22.97 Virtual Town Meeting; 2.22.97 - Live Day Issues via BBS.

[ ii ] Passing the Grade...on the Internet?
Test One: The Minnesota Design Team Community Building Model. Analysis.
Test Two: The Transactional Planning Theory? Analysis.
[ iii ] On Designing for the Web. Design Critique.
[ iv ] EC Manuscript
[ v ] Mail Us Your Comments and Criticism Please! Return Mail Feature.

III. ec critique: points for discussion

This is where the "Internet mets the county highway!" How well does the traditional community building and design of MDT translate as a web site / chat box driven (i.e.- virtual) process?

As discussed in section one, four ec Principles and Processes were tested in this event:

1. Did the EC promote local or grass roots planning via the Internet?

2. How much volunteerism resulted from the charrette-- via local and or global locations?

3. How much collaboration via interactive / web conference technologies occured from the ec process?

4. What electronic products were submitted?

1. Did the EC promote local or grass roots planning via the Internet? and 2. How much volunteerism resulted from the charrette-- via local and or global locations?

The face-to-face spirit of MDT was mediated through a video monitor, e-mail and the world wide web. Because no Registrants submitted solutions to the CAC competition (see Tracking Participants, below) or took part in the live day chats, it is clear that we should have used every advertising vehicle available to us-- like fax and regular mail -- which would have simplied and extended the communication process. There were no local participants except for a few people who were invited to be on the URSI Home Team.

The very idea of community is very much in question here! The EC stretched the CAC community world-wide, inviting students and community developers to register and submit solutions. People with no on-site contact with the CAC, or with the northern hemisphere for that matter, were potentially surfing the Mankato site. The point is that ownership (one result of successful volunteerism and design collaboration) is a tricky matter on the internet, and future electronic charrettes must do a better job of gaining the support of the people and organizations that must live with the results day in and day out! This same revision process needs to focus on leadership building, as well. Can e-mail do the job?

The Pre-Visit data gathering of the MDT is a classic and successful vehicle for building community in the towns that receive a visit. The ec web site, with its compliment of photos, text and links, can never replace the town meetings and tours that engineer a MDT event, but the ec data base represented a solid effort to graphically describe the CAC and its history, site, and issues. Architectural information (i.e.- floor plans, site maps, etc.) could be an FTP source file-- or possibly saved as an Acrobat file, for faster download times and cross-platform access, respectively.

3. How much collaboration via interactive / web conference technologies occured from the ec process?

Chat confusion: even with the Internet overhead projection of the First Class virtual tour and the town meeting (see ec design system graphic above), the multiple "text voices" of the participants was to say the least, confusing to watch, and difficult to read and respond at the keyboard. One solution could be to break off into subchat groups. Another might be to have more than one chat station set up so that more than more person can chat at any given time.

Another issue that we discovered was that participants didn't know how to access the photographs that we were refering to during the virtual tour of the CAC. Graphic links back to the data base need to be clearly displayed (perhaps in a split screen program) so participants can view images as they chat.

The traditional charrette team, or URSI Home team, should be used again, in conjunction with the electronic channnels. Such hands-on support and real time backup gave the Internet process critical expertise and, as it turned out, the two design solutions!

Design products (i.e.- the large graphic plans and renderings refered to in the MDT process section above) from the MDT weekend charrette hang in full view of all who take part in the process-- and remain with the town for implementation planning. The two submissions produced by the ec are archived by URSI for citizens and surfers.

4. What electronic products were submitted?

Electronic submissions? None of the 10 Registrants submitted designs and/or text for the six ec projects. And only one of these people tried to chat on the live day. We did not hound these folks for their reasons but there are a few that come to mind: One is that the First Class Client connection was too complex. Another reason for the no-shows was that the event itself was too "thick and complex" to elicit submissions. A third possible reason is that people with some connection to the CAC's issues were waiting for specific proposals to which they could react and respond.

Lessons Learned:

(a) Creating / viewing images: It is clear that each participant's monitor and operating system creates a unique electronic image and that the quality of photographs on the Internet is uncontrolable. In response to early feedback, we took off the ec wallpaper background design and replaced with a standard white one for easier reading of graphics and text.

(b)Tracking participants: In January, we decided to add a mail registration feature to the homepage to better guage how many participants were interested in the event. A site counter was also added at that time to track the number of "hits" (or visitors) to the site. As it turned out, this datum as such isn't very meaningful. However, a for-profit enterprise would likely see any "hit counts" or preregistration numbers as useful to their bottom line.

(c) Access to the machines, a service provider and the EC: Who gets Internet access? Do you have a Pentium? A Power Mac? Does your neighbor? Getting more folks on the net will facilitate this kind of new age process, but for now technology is an elitist, techie realm and no public library can hope to keep up. We must work toward a solution together. Public libraries will catch up with the technology, and children will teach their parents. One possible low-tech solution to access problems is to share your PC with your neighbor! Or buy a machine and service contract for your local neighborhood center.

(d) Event windows: Or, how long in the pre-event/event/post-event phases? I recall lamenting that I hoped I wasn't over-advertsing the ec prior to the release of the complete web site just before Christmas. Can one over-promote? Yup. But it is not clear how much time should be donated to each phase. A one-day event window is now a six week event window for the electronic charrette II event. The evaluation site should be archived and made available in both hard copy and on the web for the next community event or researcher.

(e) Publicity as a measure of community: Four newspaper articles-- one MSU and three local Free Press articles -- showed that while the press can be interested in the project, a "trickle-down" education effect is largley unmeasurable. It could be that the ec II, scheduled from April 4, through May 15, 1997, could benefit from press exposure by increased participation.

reusing / reinventing our buildings and ourselves!

IV. Implications for the Future:

In conclusion, three topics are presented to frame how the electronic charrette might play a role in the emerging information-rich, Internet community:

Clients: The need for stakeholders / neighborhoods

As the Carnegie ec event demonstrated, a lack of real players reduced the involvment and impact of the ec process on the Art Center situation. One key direction for this process is to work with real neighborhoods, government and private groups and academics in a multi-tier participant pool to bridge the gap between those in need of planning and design services and those with the desire to dial-in and add their voice. Real solutions require real stake holders. The ec process, coupled with a traditional community building program and a charrette component, could now have more impact.

Technology: access / chat / video conferencing

Access to machines and service providers is a constant issue. We see more assistance from public libraries coming on-line soon. Chat technology, rightly viewed by many as exclusionary, expensive, too complex and platform-dependent, will upgrade and be easier to use, especially as academics and private players build and maintain their own servers. Microsoft has upgraded its netmeeting software since they launched their chat / conference/ white board techology last year. Video conferencing, a tool of Kinko's and corporates alike, is an obvious next addition to the ec process. It is hoped that this first ec will stimulate advances in technology and coax designers and practicitioners to find ways to make technology more humane and cost effective.

Academic Research: The URSI Planning & Design Resource Center Project

URSI is taking the ec process into a new web context with the Planning & Design Resource Center Project (PDRC). One of the needs that we identified during the EC is to engineer a more inclusive way to "seat" and "execute" the charrette as we partner for added resources, technology and learning opportunities through the Internet. The PDRC mission is to develop new communication prototypes, interdisciplinary partnerships and Internet policies for planners, architects and designers.


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