The first fifty years of civic design

Civic tech is a young field with old roots. By tracing the histories of accessibility and participatory practices, we can learn how to become more resilient.

“The current civic tech project is really a fifty-year project, intended to change institutions that we hope will last hundreds more.”

This is a quote from Cyd Harrell, now leading the City and County of San Francisco's Digital Services team, formerly of 18F and Code for America, and author of A Civic Technologist's Practice Guide

Considering civic tech through this forward-thinking lens is valuable, but it’s also crucial to recognize that civic tech is a young field with old roots. Our field’s practices, influences, and language come from a variety of established sources that we should reflect on and learn from. To remember those who paved our way is to prepare civic tech for the coming decades; to forget them is to risk making old mistakes again, damaging relationships, and underestimating the possible rate of change. 

By tracing the histories of accessibility and participation—words that come up often in our field—it becomes apparent that civic design yields from over 50 years of advocacy, research, and collaboration.

It’s also crucial to recognize that there’s no “correct” way to follow these histories. Though this article cites Western, specifically American, developments, we must understand that civic design stems from worldwide practices. We should recognize this breadth of influence if we wish to build more resilience and depth in our perception of what we, as civic design practitioners, can accomplish. 

Tracing accessibility’s roots 

While accessibility for government services for all has gained more visibility in civic tech, it’s worth it to dive into the history of accessibility as a movement. One way to trace this starts at the University of California, Berkeley, in the 1960s with a student named Ed Roberts. As a teenager, polio paralyzed Roberts from the neck down, and when he arrived at Berkeley, he found a campus unequipped to accommodate someone like him. 

In response, Roberts found an empty wing of a hospital and convinced the school to treat it as a dorm for disabled students. The dorm became a rallying place for students with severe disabilities, and eventually Roberts formed the Center for Independent Living along with fellow students Hale Zukas and Jan Brown. 

For the members of the Center for Independent Living, independence didn’t merely mean performing tasks without assistance; it meant exercising radical-self determination. They fought for attendants’ support and wheelchair ramps, and later, secured grants to build ramps and access points throughout campus. And standardization wasn’t good enough—the Center for Independent Living was deeply invested in individuals’ unique needs. The Center was integral to Berkeley’s first large rollout of curb cuts, or ramps designed for wheelchair access to buildings.

A black and white photo from the 1970s shows a group of people, including some people in wheelchairs, smiling in an office.

The Center for Independent Living was formed in 1972 in Berkeley, California,

The advocacy, direct prototyping, design, and implementation at Berkeley ultimately led to a national conversation around accessibility and The Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which barred discrimination on the basis of handicaps. Subsequent national-level organizing, like 1990’s Capital Crawl, contributed to the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) that same year. 

Though the ADA resulted in many standards and regulations around physical accessibility, soon it became apparent that similar requirements should be implemented in digital spaces in government. In 1998, the Rehabilitation Act was amended to include Section 508, which outlined compliance requirements for digital systems. The World Wide Web Consortium developed the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) in the early aughts, which outlines how to make accessible websites, mobile apps, and PDFs. And more recently, 18F collaborated with The Plain Language Action and Information Network (PLAIN), a community of federal employees, to update PLAIN seeks to promote the use of easy to read, jargon-free language in government communications, which can reduce the risk of people misunderstanding government materials. 

These efforts over the past fifty-odd years have paved the way for conversations around accessibility in the civic tech space. For example, the Department of Justice recently joined forces with Nava and 18F to redesign, aiming to empower diverse groups of Americans by making ADA rights and regulations easy to find, understand, and share.

A brief history of public participation

Public participation is integral to civic design, from recruiting participants for user research to incorporating user feedback into new programs. And although terms like “human-centered design” entered government technology circles relatively recently, the idea of soliciting public feedback is an old one. 

We again look to the 1960s, when Lyndon B. Johnson aimed to revitalize urban spaces and explore new modes of municipal governing with the Model Cities program. As part of the program, Johnson tasked civil servant Sherry Arnstein to design a citizen engagement model, which eventually led her to publishing her seminal article “A Ladder of Citizen Participation.”  In it, Arnstein argued that there are eight rungs of citizen participation, from non-participatory forms where no feedback is possible and the state coerces the public, all the way to legitimate forms of participation, where the public partners with the government. 

Sherry Arnstein's Ladder of Citizen Participation

An example of mid-level participation occurred around the same time, separate from the Model Cities Program, when sociologist William Whyte approached the New York City Planning Commission with a proposal to understand why people used some public plazas while others remained empty. As a result, the Commission observed how people interacted with the spaces to inform recommendations around the design of public plazas. Whyte’s final recommendations resulted in a successful redesign of Bryant Park in the early ’90s. 

Up the ladder and a few years later, a group of artists, architects, and policy analysts in New York City founded the Center for Urban Pedagogy, or CUP. CUP advocated for direct community engagement and offered workshops to help residents understand their city and their rights. Roughly ten years ago, CUP began running small fellowships that paired designers with nonprofit or community organizations. Many of these designers have gone on to build entire practices at the nexus of social innovation and public sector work. 

The 2000s saw a rise in community governance in other countries as well. The Danish public sector innovation lab, MindLab, was a trailblazer in this area. Though no longer operating due to a confluence of factors, MindLab ran for over fifteen years as one of the first service design consultancies in the public sector. Likewise, the Helsinki Design Lab was founded under the Finnish government to advance strategic design. The Helsinki Design Lab open-sourced much of their work and cataloged what they referred to as the “studio model”—a practice of bringing together various stakeholders. 

Many of these efforts informed the creation of the Government Digital Service in the United Kingdom, which builds platforms and services to promote a personalized government experience for all. 

Why it matters for civic tech practitioners

Princeton history professor Michael S. Mahoney famously wrote of tech that “We have lots of answers but very few questions, lots of stories but no history.” Though Mahoney was arguing that it’s too soon to draw conclusions about the history of computing, as civic tech practitioners, we fall into this mindset at our own peril. 

When we discuss accessibility, we use language that has roots in a fierce and radical self-determination. When we talk about participation or user research, we draw from ideas that critique power relationships and optimize agency and control. When we celebrate wins, we must remember the difficult work that came before us to make those wins possible. 

Rather than hoard this institutional knowledge, we should share our influences, cite our sources, and reflect on who and what shaped our public sector work. Instead of drawing distinctions between fields and subfields, we should recognize how our history unites us. We must research our history the same way we try to understand a stakeholder landscape or service blueprint; we must share our findings; and we should think about the language, phrases, or lenses that pertain to our specific practices. This type of reflection is more important than ever, as we’re at a moment in history where trust in institutions is low and the systemic challenges we face are urgent. 

Thinking of tech as “young” is important—it helps put into context how much work we have ahead of us and centers on a future where incremental progress converts into large, systemic change. But it’s also important to see civic tech within an ongoing movement with deep history. Doing so can stop us from making old mistakes again, damaging relationships with the community, applying inappropriate tactics to a project, and underestimating how quickly things can change. 

Approaching our work through a lens informed by history and a deeply rooted sense of context will help us become a more resilient field. It will equip us to engage in the work over the coming decades. I look forward to seeing where we grow together.  

This article is based on a session presented at Civic Design 2022 by Rosenfeld.

Written by

Sha Hwang

COO and Cofounder

Sha Hwang is the COO and cofounder of Nava. Sha has worked with clients such as the New York Times, the Harvard Library Lab, MTV, Flickr, and Adobe and cofounded the company Movity, which was acquired by Trulia.

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