You Are the Metaverse

Published Sep 12, 2015

This week, I teleported to Second Life Island for a tour with Joyce Bettencourt, who leads TechSoup’s Nonprofit Commons under the alias Rhiannon Chatnoir. A million active users per month still leaves a world of space to get lost in. For about an hour, Bettencourt’s alias helped me acclimate to my new body, ahead of my first presentation in VR next month.

The night’s young for Second Life. Ebbe Altberg, CEO of Linden Lab says “the world is waking up again.” He’s talking about Project Sansar, the next level of virtual reality that’s set to transform the workplace.

Nonprofit Commons Second Life
image: nonprofitcommons.org

What Sansar means for Second Life (Linden Lab’s other creation) is anyone’s guess, but for TechSoup, where VR is the new norm, a reboot is big. Despite Second Life’s questionable growth, it’s widely thought that a resurgence could change the playing field in ways the World Wide Web did for the internet. The Nonprofit Commons has “rented” space on Second Life Island for the last eight years, hosting meetings in VR with as many as 50 people at once. Scaling and adapting for the TechSoup Forums could build engagement and grow revenue in ways we haven’t imagined.

The next VR could benefit collaboration across sectors, borders, and cultures. Thanks to long nights with media theorists like Annette Markham and Sherry Turkle, I’m no stranger to the misgivings of MUDs and MOOs. But there’s something different about Second Life. This metaverse is a new frontier. With innovations like Oculus ready to change the way we work and play, geography and gender barriers could be less of a distraction, freeing up time for more creative pursuits.

“What humans do is create spaces,” Altberg says. “We create spaces and we come together in those spaces, and then we communicate and socialize within those spaces.” I wonder who we’ll be, what we’ll create and how we’ll explore this new frontier of future worlds.

Jacobs and Goliath

The latest documentary from Vanity Fair special correspondent Matt Tyrnauer chronicles one of urban planning’s most contentious disputes, a battle between the sexes: Two great American figures who became opposing forces in the struggle for New York City.

Citizen Jane: Battle for the City (video) follows mid-century urban renewal in the US, led by Robert Moses, a public official whose infrastructure projects earned him the name, “master builder.” Jane Jacobs, an irreverent and charismatic journalist and community activist, opposed him. Where Moses catered to cars, Jacobs catered to people.

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Image: Pages from ‘Robert Moses: The Master Builder of New York City,’ Hyperallergic

Moses, misguided by modernist utopian notions of how cities should work, led a radical transformation of city grids that prioritized automobiles, blinded by ill-conceived plans of urban life in the sky. Poor neighborhoods were razed first. The disastrous wave of public housing that followed became the bane of urban renewal. Author James Baldwin called it “negro removal,” the mode of urban purification which sought to address “poverty on the street” by eliminating the street itself (tweet).

In contrast, Jacobs argued that well-used streets were safe because they held the constant gaze of those who gathered on stoops or looked down from windows. Interaction was an equalizer. “There must be eyes upon the street,” she writes. “Eyes belonging to those we might call the natural proprietors of the street.”

But the vibrant sidewalk culture Jacobs fought to preserve was precisely what Moses hoped to eliminate by keeping people from clustering in spaces the way they always had. His obsession with massive expressways and designs that separated commerce from everyday life discounted the social elements that made the city great. His plan for Washington Square Park would have extended Fifth Avenue southward, destroying one of the city’s most vibrant public spaces. Likewise, his Lower Manhattan Expressway would have eviscerated the city, ripping through SoHo and other quintessential New York neighborhoods, much like the Cross Bronx Expressway did to neighborhoods in the north. Jacobs eventually defeated Moses, going on to inspire similar victories in cities across the nation.

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Image: Pages from ‘Robert Moses: The Master Builder of New York City,’ Hyperallergic

Stylistically, the doc reads like an elegant piece of long-form journalism—not surprising, given Tyrnauer’s background. The story is well-paced, broaching several important issues of the time, including the emergence of feminism and other counterculture movements, the crippling effects of racism and class warfare, and the influence of postwar Europe on America’s urban renewal. A diverse panel of experts contextualizes mid-century urban development, filtered through the adversaries’ eyes. Jane Antonia Cornish’s immersive score nicely brands the film, invoking a sort of homesickness for some unmarked future destination.

But where the film excels in aesthetics, it lacks in narrative scope. The “David and Goliath” battle between Jacobs and Moses marks a sea change in urban planning. Yet, in the end, the adversaries amount to little more than caricatures. By presenting them as opposites from beginning to end—and not as fallible, dynamic agents subject to forces beyond their control—the doc obscures a valuable lesson: Regardless of intention, absolute power corrupts.

Moses experienced a profound character shift, a pre-postwar transformation from idealism to demagoguery. He grew out of the progressive movement that worked to improve the city, beginning his career in opposition to the horrific conditions in which many people lived. But then came power. As one expert says, “Absolute power corrupts absolutely, and Robert Moses was absolutely powerful.” The fall of Moses, considered a hero at the start of his career, might instill empathy. Instead, we’re handed a prescriptive view of the villain he became, missing entirely the tragic decline of a man who, at his height, embodied the ideal of American innovation.

Tyrnauer’s snapshot of mid-century New York is a cautionary tale for planners who might follow Moses in remaking cities in their own image, offering a timely lesson on how people and cities work: having a plan for a city isn’t enough, especially when it fails the people who live there. The question now is, what kind of cities do we want our cities to be?

Published by EDGE as “Citizen Jane: Battle for the City” Sep 15, 2017

People Are Cities, Cities Are the Future

Published by UNDP Oct 23, 2013

Making cities more sustainable is central to global development, and it’s easy to see why. The report of the Secretary-General’s High Level Panel on the post-2015 development agenda describes cities as “engines for business and innovation,” adding that “with good management they can provide jobs, hope and growth, while building sustainability.”

Following current trends, by 2025, 65 percent of the world’s economic growth could be generated by just 600 cities. Urbanists like Alan Ehrenhalt have studied the impact of development on cities, portraying them as dynamic and diverse systems that help shape the trajectory of economic and social evolution.

People are coming together, and fast. The current influx of people to urban areas, projected to have two thirds of the earth’s population living in cities by 2050, underscores the need for improved infrastructure and social relations. The global urban slum population will increase by 6 million each year unless improvements are made. The rapid growth of cities demands an integrated approach to sustainable development that considers equality, human rights and resilience. Success hinges on partnerships between Member States, multilateral organizations and civil society—in essence putting people at the forefront of global change.

While the Universal Declaration of Human Rights stresses the ideal of social justice, UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)1 require practical plans of action that consider urban spaces collectively, as well as individual systems that evolve according to local culture and custom. Maruxa Cardama, executive project coordinator of Communitas, a coalition working to holistically advance urban and rural development, is keen on seeing an urban Sustainable Development Goal (SDG): “How can we visualize an edifice of sustainable development goals where urbanization is [included]?”

Cardama refers to the set of action-oriented goals meant to build on the MDGs and converge with the post-2015 global agenda. Urban SDGs would focus on challenges unique to cities and empower actors around problem solving, including rural-urban innovations that would interlink food, water and energy sectors in a “nexus.”

People are cities and cities are the future. Community is the driving force behind urbanization. Knowing who needs what and how we can work together is essential to finding a sustainable path forward.


The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) came into effect in January 2016, and will guide UNDP policy and funding until 2030. The SDGs consider economic, social and environmental dimensions of development, as well as good governance and multi-stakeholder partnerships.

Buenos Aires by Fernando Livschitz

Using creativity, culture, the arts and creative industries in city development is more an art than a science. Strong principles include going with the grain of local culture rather than against it, focusing on the distinctiveness of place, and involving citizens in an act of co-creation in making and shaping their evolving city. (Charles Landry)

The Two Faces of Data

Published by Markets For Good (now Digital Impact) Sep 29, 2014

As a classification system, Big Data is predictive, not intuitive. A system based on stats alone can’t possibly invest in the people it can’t see.

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As public-private relations evolve and data sharing initiatives proliferate, philanthropy should remain vigilant about the perils of sharing too much too fast, remembering our sacred bond with civil society. As the coming wave of urban growth transforms the way we live and interact, sound ethics in big data will be an even bigger priority, underscoring the value of philanthropy as a bridge between civil society and private innovation.

When the fictional character Harvey Dent, district attorney of Batman’s Gotham City says, “you either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain,” he refers to absolute power and the corruption of virtue. Later the fictional character falls prey to the schism between his inherent goodness and the more unsavory side of his humanity—a once idealistic public servant now obsessed with absolutes. Today we see a similar dynamic in data and the big data movement.

Big Data represents a paradigm shift in how we structure and move information and ourselves; as it becomes more pervasive in society it will increasingly define our collective and individual identities. Data will allow us to be more productive and cooperative, to make our cities more connected and resilient; our future depends on the data we produce today. But as Darin McKeever at Gates Foundation says, “data is not evidence.”

Data may soon be an asset the likes of which the social sector has never seen. But data is wild, some say wicked. Giving more data won’t make us wiser and sacrificing more for data’s sake won’t make us safer. Just take apps. Developers who overlook the social forces that inspire them may not consider the implications for society once their creations adapt and mature. Apps meant to for safety and convenience in cities may actually encourage social bias. Author Janus Kopfstein says this could result in “an increasing number of systems that impose values of their own rather than embrace the ethical standards that society at large tends to recognize.”

This assumes an ethical disconnect, which makes the social sector an asset to the Big Data enterprise. As a bridge between civil society, policy, and private innovation, the social sector not only brings a deep understanding of community, but also a heightened ethical awareness—one necessary to avoid what Lucy Bernholz calls “policy train wrecks between new technological possibilities and established forms of governance, privacy, and security.” (See “Preparing For The World We’re Trying To Bring About” for more from Lucy on this.)

The future of civil society depends on the architecture we build for data. By 2050 two thirds of the global population will live in cities. This mass migration will put an unprecedented amount of stress on already fragile urban infrastructures, especially in developing countries where the brunt of this migration will occur. Data will play a central role in making our cities more resilient over time as we transition into this new urban era. Private and public sectors will become increasingly intertwined as innovations in health care, public transportation, mixed-income housing and other initiatives expand and improve.

Private entities are already making their data available to the public through the UN GlobalPulse data philanthropy initiative. Robert Kirkpatrick echoes the popular notion that only private expertise can guide the public sector’s handling of Big Data, but admits the technology behind the analysis is so new that it presents a challenge even for private innovation. What does this mean for the social sector, as it shapes its own data initiatives?

What the social sector might offer here is ethical guidance. As a classification system, Big Data is predictive, not intuitive. A system based on statistics alone can’t possibly invest in the desires of the individuals it chooses not to see. Such a system would seem oblivious, if not hostile, to those already on the margins of society. This is a problem in a time of economic uncertainty and encroaching climate change, when ethical corners will likely be cut in order to compensate for lost time and resources.

Going forward, philanthropy should consider a more comprehensive code of data ethics. We must honor our sacred pact with civil society as we enter this new golden age of philanthropy data, ensuring that our initiatives remain socially inclusive as well as sustainable.

Boycott Journals, Easier Said

TBT Feb 2012 Repost:

Timothy Gowers, a mathematician at Cambridge University, wrote a blog post outlining the reasons for his longstanding boycott of research journals published by Elsevier. This firm, based in the Netherlands, owns more than 2,000 journals, including Cell and the Lancet.

Dr. Gowers, who won the Fields medal, mathematics’s equivalent of a Nobel prize, in 1998, is not happy with it, and he hoped his post might embolden others to do something similar.

It did. More than 2,700 researchers have so far signed an online pledge set up by Tyler Neylon, a fellow-mathematician inspired by Dr Gowers’s post, promising not to submit their work to Elsevier’s journals, or to referee or edit papers appearing in them.

From Tunis to Tahrir and Beyond

Google’s Chief Internet Evangelist, Vint Cerf, warns if we don’t build better systems for data, “people will lose trust in the internet, in which case its utility will begin to dissipate” (video).

Cerf is also a father of the internet (standards and technologies he co-created in the 70s still form the basis of the net today). He believes the internet itself is not a right, but rather an enabler of rights. Google’s Project Loon will connect the world’s most remote areas with broadband balloons traveling at the edge of space. If successful, it could help to circumvent bans imposed by authoritarian regimes, as seen during the Arab Spring.

“I harbor this hope as a technologist, that there will be tools available to let people make their conversations private on an end-to-end basis,” Cerf says. “To open up what would otherwise be a very closed environment.”

The Sun Is Always Shining by Claudia Biçen

Scientific research suggests that everything about human awareness (sight, sound, even time itself) is all a construction of the mind. So what are the pitfalls of treating these constructs as objective truths?

According to Mahāmudrā Buddhist teaching, explored by clinical psychologist Daniel Brown in this video by Claudia Biçen, the more enamored we are of our selves, the more fixed we are in our own “realities,” limiting the possibilities of our awareness. (Aeon)

TED thread on Sustainable Cities

Before George McCarthy left the Ford Foundation to run the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, he led a TED Conversation on sustainable cities. Buried, it’s easy to miss.

He looks at how rapid urbanization can spur social change, inviting readers to reflect on the meaning of inclusive cities, “so that together we can bring attention to transformative urban innovations.”

The practice of scaling up is debated, in particular how small-scale solutions can work (or not) for big problems. Good ideas, though I wonder how an immersive format could have helped the exchange.

Functional Silos Are Over—Now What?

Am I overly specialized? Is there such thing as having too much expertise? Well, no. But as it turns out, opening up job descriptions to focus on the journey could improve collaboration across the board.

This has implications for how we engage inside and outside the organization. For instance, if Jordan Teicher is right, how we organize marketing teams is about to change. He says this would include restructuring across the funnel, following the client journey, and mapping roles to industries and audience segments.

Whatever your expertise, diversifying your team can move you toward a more collaborative and service-oriented approach to engagement. Giving employees autonomy and streamlining workflows increases productivity and collaborative potential. Employee engagement improves over time, clients and donors notice, and your brand gets a boost in the process.

Here’s how it works. First, the employee model evolves from “having skills” to “solving problems.” Each team member becomes an expert in one stage of the funnel, allowing them to enhance every part of it, rather than focusing on one job.

Diversifying closes skill gaps and encourages upward mobility, adding value to the organization and talent market long term.

Second, employees take creative ownership of their work. By focusing on experiences, employees not only adapt in a practical setting, but they also track new challenges (and solutions) as they arise.

It’s worth considering how people crave deeper meaning in what they do. Author Daniel Pink calls it “Motivation 3.0,” where autonomy, mastery and purpose define one’s journey and self-worth. By engaging deeply with clients, employees themselves help to build a culture of accountability at the organization.

Third, collaboration drives the process. Diversifying responsibilities within “frames of experience” along a linear timeline creates a storyboard dynamic, where team members visually position their work (best practices, strategies and takeaways) along the funnel. This type of transparency grooms them for collaboration.

Where to begin? Organizations can beta test with internal engagement models for HR staff. Onboarding, evaluation cycles and outsourcing can all benefit from this approach. Marketing, engagement and development teams can pilot cross-departmental programs, then scale up for external partners.

Teams can also integrate small changes and work up to larger ones. When I co-developed a business case analysis for integrating the TechSoup forums with a new platform, the spirit of collaboration was infused into everything on our “must have” list.

As the most trusted tech resource for nonprofits, the TechSoup forum attracts a wide range of professionals, from experts to amateurs—all looking for a place to learn and share about tech. In this environment, working toward shared objectives with strangers is common.

As forum community manager, I led a team of experts and worked with TechSoup’s engagement team to position the forum as a resource for the global nonprofit community, as well as a content partner for brands like Microsoft, Adobe, Cisco and Box.

The platform we imagined would take a service-oriented approach to relationships. I suggested that moderators each own a part of the member experience, from registration to onboarding to contributing—something we could later adapt for partners.

Considering our timeline, we started small. First, to better equip client services, we encouraged personnel to integrate the forum into their daily workflows. This required working outside of their job descriptions, in this case using the forum to answer questions, share product updates and follow up with prospective clients.

Restructuring in this way helped to streamline and personalize relationships, which led to the forums becoming a revenue parter—a big win for everyone.

Not all teams can do what we did. Restructuring often requires more people and money for salaries and training, not to mention time and energy to justify new procedures “because it’s always been done this way.” If you’re resource-poor or risk-averse, a case study or consultation can help.

Bottom line: If you’re looking to work smarter inside or outside of your team, consider opening up your job descriptions. You’ll be ready to collaborate when opportunity knocks.