Crowd-powered, citizen-led renewal: the new global trend in community regeneration.
In September 2011, the City of Ottawa, the City of Gatineau, and the National Capital Commission launched the Choosing Our Future initiative. They used the online platform at ideavibes.com, developed by the Ottawa-based company of the same name. The goal was to help citizen engagement take a major leap forward, while at the same time help Canada’s Capital Region meet the twenty-first century challenges of integrating sustainability, resiliency, and livability into its communities.
The five most popular ideas local citizens suggested and voted on were: develop infrastructure to support electric cars, design a region-wide light-rail transit (LRT) network, become a leader in green jobs, make the region a cycling tourism destination, and force builders to recycle all building materials.
Crowdsourcing ideas for community renewal isn’t new. And there’s nothing new about a community banding together to provide a service its local government should be providing, but isn’t, or to stop the local government from doing (or supporting) something it is doing, but shouldn’t be. There’s also nothing new about citizens using social media to organize such activities more efficiently.
What is new is citizens using crowd technologies to quickly design, fund, and launch local projects and programs to improve their communities. Social media only connects people. In order to effect real change, cooperation on real work is needed. That’s where crowd technologies enter the scene.
In 2011, a small group of community activists decided to turn a vacant lot in New Orleans into a community farm, but needed $4,000 in order to do so. They posted the Lamanche Community Farm project on kickstarter.com, a popular crowdfunding site, and 30 days later had $4,425 from 84 donors. The farm is now thriving.
When crowdsourcing precedes crowdfunding, the community suggests ideas, evaluates those ideas, and votes on the best path forward. The structure of a good crowdsourcing site precludes dialogues from being dominated by a few loud voices, as happens both in face-to-face meetings and traditional online dialogue tools.
Kickstarter currently has over 100 other community farm projects underway, such as the Raleigh City Farm in North Carolina. The community was hoping to raise $10,000, but when its campaign ended on April 9, 2012, it had raised over $15,000 from 346 backers.
Kickstarter projects range from rap albums, books, and independent movies, to citizen-led regeneration projects, all moving from idea to reality in just weeks. With the site’s help, users recently funded two projects worth over $1 million each. Kickstarter recently announced that funders through its platform will distribute $150 million this year—more money than the National Endowment for the Arts.
With the recent passage of the JOBS Act in the U.S. Congress, America’s small entrepreneurs can now legally use crowdfunding to finance business start-ups, bypassing many onerous regulatory processes designed for larger companies. That means sites such as Kickstarter are just the beginning.
The crowdfunding model could be taken further with three key additional features: a focus specifically on community regeneration (regeneration is an ongoing process of all healthy living systems, so it’s not just for distressed communities), inclusion of both large and small projects that renew our natural, built, and socioeconomic environments, and integration of citizen-based crowdfunding with foundation grants and government funding.
In fact, such leading-edge sites are already emerging, such as SpaceHive.com out of the United Kingdom. (For details about this site and others like it, visit renewcanada.net and search “spacehive.”)
Why it works
Public meetings tend to attract a vocal minority who co-opt the dialogue to promote their own agendas, or just to shoot down the ideas of others. Such ugliness tends to sap the enthusiasm of even the most well-meaning of mayors and city councillors, and most such forums are quickly dropped. Now, with the acceptance and proliferation of crowd-based technologies, harnessing the wisdom of the crowd has never been easier. Well-designed tools enable efficient ranking of comments and ideas by participants, which means good ideas rise to the top and the noise sinks to the bottom.
It’s not just a lack of tools that’s been holding back effective public engagement. Low standards and expectations play a major role. The level of citizen involvement in the future of communities and regions has traditionally been so low (almost non-existent) that institutions quickly reach a level of pride and satisfaction when even the smallest amount of progress is made in citizen engagement.
In his book, How El Paso Ended Up With America’s Best Smart Growth Plan, Kaid Benfield describes how the Plan El Paso draft won an Environmental Protection Agency national award as the year’s best example of outstanding programs, policies, and regulations. Plan El Paso deputized the entire city as citizen planners, writes Benfield, with a series of hands-on public planning workshops comprising over eight weeks of intense community exercises and discussions to generate the plan vision. This process was followed by over a year of regular meetings with a citizen advisory committee to refine the draft plan. An accompanying project website received over 30,000 visitors.
Many cities are so change-resistant or bureaucratic that renewal renegades are forced to take the “ask for forgiveness rather than permission” approach to launching regenerative projects. “My experience has been that an informed public generally makes very good decisions about their community’s future,” writes Benfield. And Plan El Paso acknowledges that, repeatedly recognizing that its best ideas were locally generated. With crowd tools, projects quickly move from ideas—which people tend to argue over—to actual progress, which tends to inspire support.
As Benfield indicates, El Paso did a wonderful job of engaging its citizens in creating a shared vision, and a plan based on that vision. It accomplished this without the benefit of technologies specifically designed for the process of citizen-led renewal, using what tools it had very well. But imagine how much easier that process would have been—and how many more citizens could have been involved—with a regeneration-specific crowdfunding tool.
With the right tools, citizens can more effectively partner with supportive local governments, and bypass non-supportive ones. They can get out in front of change-resistant institutions, pulling them in the right direction by example, rather than pushing from behind. When followers lead, leaders follow.
In this way, a community can stop lurching inefficiently from project to project. It can create an ongoing program that builds confidence in the future, safe from changes of political administration. In this way, citizens transform from consumers of revitalization to makers of revitalization. Revitalization becomes something done by communities, not just to communities.
A telemetry system collects and processes real-time data, and presents it in a way that informs better decisions. Telemetry is used in a broad range of technical disciplines and industries, but applying it to cities is fairly recent. Most major information and communications technologies vendors, consulting firms, and related research institutions have telemetry initiatives. IBM has Smarter Planet/Smarter Cities; Cisco has Connected Urban Development; Siemens has Infrastructure & Cities; MIT has the SENSEable City Labs.
Currently, these real-time urban telemetry systems are geared primarily to the usual suspects (the technocrats of public agencies). But public use is growing rapidly. The catastrophic Russian wildfires of 2010 were crowdmapped, with citizens using their PCs and smart phones to upload information on fires and safe havens, making both fighting and escaping the fires far more efficient.
New businesses are appearing with new iterations of such tools almost monthly. CitySourced in Los Angeles recently created Harford County Connect in Maryland. See-Click-Fix is probably the best-known in the United States, with Ushahidi (founded in Kenya) being a global pioneer.
Crowdsourcing taps the wisdom and creativity of the many, but avoids the stupefying effect of committees. It can be used to create visions, strategies, policies, and even products. In 2007, MESH Cities’ Robert Ouellette challenged the Toronto Transit Commission to redesign its website with the help of Toronto’s blogging community. “Toronto bloggers are more than willing to offer their insights into how the TTC site might be designed Why not give us a call and ask for our input,” Ouellette wrote online at Reading Toronto.
For crowdsourcing to reach its full potential as a community revitalization tool, it must be integrated with crowdmapping and crowdfunding. In this manner, citizens can enter and add value to the process at any point. They can respond to an existing project with ideas or money. They can launch a discussion around a distressed property by snapping a photo and adding some text about what could be done with it. Other citizens vote on their favorite ideas, with the best ones quickly rising to the top for funding and implementation.
The next step is an integrated platform, specifically designed for creating and maintaining citizen-led programs for the regeneration of communities and natural resources. The step beyond that will be to network local citizen-led renewal programs worldwide. The result could be the advent of global recivilization: a more cooperative, connected global mindset, with economies primarily based on renewing our natural, built, and socioeconomic environments.
While Citizens Connect made city maintenance vastly more efficient (and even fun), local officials say that its greatest value has been building public trust in government. The norm is an autocratic, top-down, paternalistic approach, with some stakeholder engagement window dressing. Such modalities are more indicative of contempt than respect. And even the best of projects will be suspect when hatched behind closed doors.
Very few cities have the motivation and quality of leadership it takes to invent their own process and tools from scratch. Most communities that try experience failure, or mediocre results at best. What saved El Paso was confidence in the wisdom of their citizens. If more city leaders had such respect for their citizens, there would be far fewer cities in dire straits.
Traditionally, institutions and politicians alike fail to support innovative renewal projects because they are risk-averse: it’s safer to do nothing. Crowd tools are reversing the risk. By bypassing official institutions, citizens can launch the projects they need, and then invite political and institutional support once they have garnered sufficient public support. Then, it becomes riskier for the institutions not to support the project.
Whether an elected leader supports (or at least doesn’t resist) citizen-led renewal initiatives will very soon become a reliable predictor of longevity in office. In fact, with the advent of tools for citizen-led regeneration, the current concept of public engagement will change forever. “Engagement” implies that whoever is doing the engagement owns the process, and that those being engaged don’t. In a citizen-led revitalization program, it’s the citizens who choose which public agencies or private developers they trust as partners. As owners of the process, they don’t need to engage themselves.
Storm Cunningham is CEO of ReCitizen, L3C, a startup in Washington, D.C. The terms coined in this article, including “redemocracy,” are discussed in Storm’s upcoming third book, ReCivilizing: Rise of the Renewal Renegades.