When civic technologies are deployed in neighborhoods, they are often seen as one-off experiments, with little tie to larger planning and outreach strategies. Cities or organizations see a problem, and imagine a tool that might be deployed to solve it. What isn't always taken into consideration is that new technology often requires some degree of time to be assimilated by both the end-users and the organizations that seek to engage their publics more fully.
Enter the Habit@ project, conceived as a means of testing whether deploying a cluster of tools through a sustained community engagement might prove more effective than a one-off experiment. The Lab worked closely for 10 months with a community development corporation (CDC) in a Boston neighborhood to test the impact of a series of digital and offline tools for participatory planning on the community. Simultaneously, the lab conducted an organizational ethnography of the CDC to help them better understand their capacity in the area of communications and technology.
The specific technologies deployed within the Habit@ study had their largest impact not on end users, but on the organization that deployed the technology. The study found that technologies used by non-profits often end up not reaching their intended impact. Instead they exacerbate the already limited capacity of the organization and force a different style of communication. We identified a distinction between functional and representational uses of tech: functional is what the tech is designed to do, and representational is how people talk about the tech. We found that the representational value had a much more lasting impact on the community and the organization than did the functional value.