One Year Later: Wildlife Conservation Society

Above, an Audio Postcard about the starting conditions for the project. 

For the last 100 years, the Wildlife Conservation Society has focused on saving wildlife and wild places around the globe through in-person interventions.  Yet they’ve embraced Eric Sanderson’s Manahatta 2409, a web based project that breaks from that organizational tradition.

When I spoke last year with Senior Conservation Ecologist Eric Sanderson and programmer Kim Fisher, they described Manahatta 2409 as a website where city planner, architects, educators, and ordinary people will be able to design and share a vision for a sustainable city. Though they anticipated a number of challenges due to the complexity and scope of the project, they were excited about the project’s potential to impact city planning and policy in New York and beyond.

A year later, as they work through the logistics of designing the site, the WCS team is balancing their core vision with a design that responds to the input and ideas of their intended audience.  They always keep in mind that the tools they’re creating have larger implications and as they design it, they must be open to a vision that extends beyond their own, while at the same time, avoiding mission creep.

This is the first project of its kind taken on by the WCS, and it’s a risk for the institution. A willingness to experiment is crucial to innovation and as Fisher noted, “Institutions need people throwing ideas at them. If it’s the right idea, it sticks and that’s how new institutions get built.”

The Innovation

Through the Manahatta 2409 project, the Wildlife Conservation Society will invite New Yorkers to understand their city as a complex ecosystem where decisions about buildings, streets, plants, services and resources have an impact on the overall environmental health of the city. With support from the Rockefeller Foundation’s NYC Cultural Innovation Fund the WCS is engaging with designers, engineers, scientists, teachers, planners and architects to create an online platform that enables users to create their own vision of a sustainable New York City of the future.

Progress to Date

A year after receiving support from the Rockefeller CIF grant, WCS has engaged their big vision for Manahatta 2409 and accomplished their first-year goals. They held two design focused conversations or “charettes,” one with designers, engineers, scientists and the other with potential site users such as teachers, architects, city officials. From those conversations new questions arose:

  • How realistic should the controls be on the site be?   Should users be able to wipe out whole blocks and put buildings in the Husdon?  Participants in the charettes wondered if current zoning laws or other restrictions should govern the users choices.  However, the WCS team felt that the since the overall objective was to allow users to create their own unique vision, it didn’t make sense to set many boundaries.  Ultimately, they decided to be more open so that the users’ visions could be bolder.
  • How do economics and the lifestyle of NYC’s inhabitants change the equation?  Participants in the charettes raised an important point: the way New Yorkers live has en enormous impact on the city’s ecosystems.  In response, the WCS team decided to add a control to represent different lifestyles using census data and United Nations statistics, such as “Typical New Yorker,” “Typical American,” “Hunter Gatherer,” and “No-impact person”

Key Lessons

From their conversations with stakeholders Sanderson and Fisher learned that they must:

  • Concentrate on their target audience: They determined the core audience for the site will be city planners, policy experts, and architects. They also found there is interest from the education community, especially for high school students who are learning Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) skills.
  • Focus on the core mission of the project: Sanderson and Fisher remarked that in the planning process, “Everyone wanted their own way of interacting with the interface and wanted to customize their own lifestyle and choices. All of those customizations will be valuable in the future, but we’ve got to get the site working first.” In future versions they also plan to add data about the cost and health outcomes to the project.

Overall, planning the project is a balancing act, “There are a wide range of potential audiences, users, scales and agendas. What we’re building could reach a lot of audiences, but we need to think about who we are targeting,” they explained.

Biggest Challenge

Like many visionary projects, limited resources pose a challenge. They met with potential designers who told them that project would require a budget 4 times what they had available or that it was simply not doable.  Ultimately, they decided that it would be most effective to work with a team of contractors and take on the bulk of the work themselves to stich the various parts together.  This approach, as opposed to working with a single large firm, seemed better suited to their aims and their budget.

Next Steps

The next step is for Manahatta 2409 is to work with designers and coders to put together the database and work on the logistics of the site. They plan to launch a beta version of the site in November and a public version of the site in April 2013.

Interview conducted by Karina Mangu-Ward.  Post written by Eleanor Whitney with Karina Mangu-Ward.

Eleanor Whitney is a writer, educator, arts administrator and musician raised in Maine and living in Brooklyn, New York. Currently, she is the Program Officer for External Affairs and Fiscal Sponsorship at the New York Foundation for the Arts. Karina Mangu-Ward is the Director of Innovation at EmcArts.