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Urban Symposium No. 1

The first Urban Symposium event, as a part of StoreFrontLab Season 2, kicked off with a full room of people, each with a party hat on and margarita in hand.

 

My creative cohort, Lyndon Manuel, and I wanted to get people to talk about San Francisco’s current identity (which they may not otherwise talk about), and, in general, to get people to talk to others (who they may not otherwise talk to). While the city’s growing pains are common knowledge, the individual opinions about these changes are perhaps less known.

 

To probe at these details on a personal level, the event’s structure presented participants with three questions, one-by-one with time between each for discussion, such as: How do you describe San Francisco today in one word? Each person displayed their answers to the questions directly on their hat, which served as easy conversation starters.

 

The event ran on the “you’ve got questions? So do we!” mindset, presenting a format for conversations to inspire more questions than answers. By way of questions, Lyndon and I wanted people to look to outside perspectives for a better understanding, while also gaining self-awareness around their role in the collective city identity. By encouraging participants to reflect on their own relationship with the city, the event fit within the entire series agenda.

 

At an ambitious level, this new series of symposiums seeks to push the idea that the city is not an organism so separate from us. It evolves with us, and because of this, we have the opportunity to shape it. The first Urban Symposium event asked people to envision their future San Francisco. In an attempt to connect together all three events into a series, the last event will prompt an actionable gesture towards that ideal.

 

The idea

The genesis of the Urban Symposium was an idea for a MeetUp group. It was born out of a desire for an alternative to the existing one-way platforms for discussing the current city concerns of increasing affordable housing, maintaining artist communities, permitting private services to hack into public ones, and so on. Lyndon and I had both observed some brilliant panel discussions and lectures, but still felt like the necessary space for dialogue was missing. Essentially, we wanted the after-party to the panel discussion.

 

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To kick off the series, the first event was meant to get people engaged with and questioning what they are most knowledgeable about – their own opinions. We wanted the policy side to interact with the personal side of swapping stories and voicing opinions. In order to tap in to the personal, the event sought to complement, not add to, the already substantial and highly charged online conversation. We wanted to lift the debates and discussion out of the computer and offer up a more immediate experience.

 

A face-to-face conversation opens up opportunity for a kind of dialogue that cannot be achieved by submitting a blog comment into the void or observing a protest from afar. Anger may quickly shift to bewilderment when a “techie” transplant admits to your face that they themselves, in addition to their colleagues, do not want San Francisco to become a homogenous techie town.

 

The results

Serious discussion coupled with a playful setting provided a space for those who wanted to experience a party as well as those who wanted a political debate. In the name of experimentation, the end results were proclaimed successful because of the wide ranging feedback. Most people left with smiles and warmth, while a few left with furrowed brows after intense arguments. The differing levels of optimism or foreboding about the well-being of San Francisco, inevitably provoking debate, were also exemplified in the words people used to describe the city’s future, from “more inclusive” to “f***ed!”.

 

The word “gentrification” was frequently invoked with slight disgust by people, many of whom I would consider gentrifiers. But instead of dismissively laughing at the irony, perhaps future conversations can channel these attitudes into some sort of community action. The word “diverse” was also one of the most repeated themes for the future. Can observations, even as simple as these, help inspire a new level of engagement with the city from different groups?

 

Although our initial goal was to get people together and talking, the series hopes to push the conversation beyond the events – out into different corners of the city. The hope is to keep the conversation going even after the series is complete, furthering the experiment, for example, by doing a similar series for another audience demographic – in another community space or even in another city.

 

The second Urban Symposium event will take place November 13th at StoreFrontLab. Visit urbansymposium.squarespace.com for more details.

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