A playful new layer of civic engagement: Why Knight teamed with Niantic to bring Pokémon GO to community events

technology / Article

May 4, 2017 by Sam Gill

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Photo by Paintimpact on Flickr.

Knight Foundation has made significant investments in vibrant public spaces and places that can bring people in communities together. So it was hard not to take notice last summer when image and after image popped up on our Twitter feeds showing crowds of people—around the world—swarming public places at all hours. As we quickly learned, they were playing Pokémon GO, a location-based, augmented-reality game made by the Silicon Valley firm Niantic, Inc.

The premise of the game is simple—find and catch as many Pokémon (cute, cartoonish creatures) as you can. But the technology underneath may presage an important new phase of our digital future.

The game is location-based in that its features correspond to real places. If your phone tells you there’s a Pokémon lurking at the corner of 1st and Main Streets, then that’s where you must physically travel to catch him. And it’s “augmented reality” in that, when you approach 1st and Main, your phone will show a live, real-time image of the street corner and then layer in a graphically-generated Pokémon.

Our founders, Jack and Jim Knight, embraced technology in their newspaper business. They recognized that openness to new technology was critical to building and a sustaining a thriving and resilient business. It’s clear in our turbulent, rapidly changing present that technology will remake our world and our communities—whether we’re ready or not.

We try to embrace that same openness at the Knight Foundation of today, and it led us to partner with Niantic to jointly explore the ways in which technology like Pokémon GO might enliven and engage public life in our communities.

This is no small matter. Concern over what many believe is our modern addiction to screens, large and small, is pervasive. And any parent watching his or her child focused on a phone, tablet or computer screen may rightfully wonder if technology too easily pulls us away from the physical world.

But last summer, Pokémon GO showed us that the opposite could be true as well. That innovative technology could yank us out of our homes, and that staring at our mobile phone screen might be a new way to see and interact with the physical world and with each other.

We don’t know, but we believe that in embracing change, we might get a glimpse of how to build cities and communities of the future that are even more active and engaging than today.

Our plan in this partnership is to learn. This year, Knight Foundation and Niantic will work together to explore how Pokémon GO can bring more people, more energy and more excitement to great public places in some of the 26 communities where Knight Foundation invests. We’ll start next week in Charlotte at the OpenStreets704 event, which will shut down about three miles of road to traffic. Niantic will arrange in-game elements to help draw people to interesting places and sights, and will throw in some fun gear and other incentives.

Neither of us knows exactly where this partnership will lead us, but we hope that, together, we’ll learn something about the power—and limits—of technology to support more engaged communities.

Sam Gill is vice president for learning and impact at Knight Foundation. Email him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @thesamgill

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