Building a Global Public Square

By mrandal5@johnshopkins.edu

The proposition next to the radiant, gold-painted shipping container was simple and inviting. “Portals,” said the sign. “Step inside and engage people around the world, live, as if in the same room.”

Last June, from a sun-drenched quad on the Homewood campus, Portal visitors were transported—with the help of a floor-to-ceiling video screen and immersive audiovisual technology—to a location outside Erbil, Iraq, where four men sat inside another Portal.

It is, as the sign suggested, as if you are in the same room, free to talk about the weather, or the time difference between the two locations, or the challenges of gaining access to higher education in a conflict zone.

Four years after the Portals idea first began as a public art experiment by Amar Bakshi, a 2012 graduate of Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies, the concept has evolved into a global network of more than 30 locations that facilitate conversations across miles and divides.

The Hopkins Portal was temporarily situated on Decker Quad, in front of Garland Hall. It was brought to campus by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins, which aims to foster the kind of civic discourse that is a cornerstone of thriving democracies around the world and sees the Portals as precisely the kind of next-generation technology that makes that sort of dialogue possible.

“When you think about it, we often use technology to distance ourselves, and technology can actually drive us deeper into our tribes,” says Bakshi, co-founder of Shared Studios, which runs the Portals project.

On that day in June, a steady stream of curious visitors ducked into the Portal space. The connections were prearranged: with Gaza City to discuss the design challenges involved in devising new solutions for emergency response care; with Erbil to discuss how educational institutions around the world can provide opportunities for refugee communities; with Milwaukee to talk about the ongoing research of Krieger School sociologist and Bloomberg Distinguished Professor Vesla Weaver, who is using Portals to inspire peer-to-peer dialogues about police-community relations in urban neighborhoods across the country.

Outside, in a comment book, visitors wrote messages in gold ink about their Portal experience.

“Thank you for making the world a smaller, more compassionate place for all of us,” read one.

“I can see the walls of differences breaking down,” read another.

This notion of bringing people from around the world together to engage in conversations, to solve problems, and to transcend differences is central to the mission of the SNF Agora Institute, which launched last year with a $150 million gift from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation.

The signature Portal model is a golden shipping container fitted inside with patented and patent-pending hardware and software—cameras, microphones, and screens to connect users to live conversations, like a more intimate version of Skype. Over time, Shared Studios has also found ways to allow more flexible setups—in classrooms, school buses, and even inflatable stations.

As the Portals technology has advanced, Bakshi says, so has the vision.

“We’re trying to think more broadly about how to take advantage of human diversity to enrich people’s lives,” he says, pointing to the larger goal of “building a new sort of public infrastructure,” a kind of “global public square.”

That idea, of course, is also at the heart of the SNF Agora Institute, which borrows its name—agora—from the Greek word for a public assembly space.