Civic Crowdfunding

As technology becomes increasingly ubiquitous, the internet is fast becoming the new Agora. The social functions of the public square are being transferred into cyberspace, and we are being forced to come up with new ways of doing things in cities. Public discourse is the perfect example; urbanites, once able to voice their opinion in the public square, are finding a new voice online. City governments have a real opportunity, then, to tap into public opinion and get to work on citizens' real concerns.

One of the most interesting web 2.0 developments has undoubtedly been the rise of crowdsourcing, and now by extension, crowdfunding. A particularly interesting and grassroots-y example of crowdfunding comes from the site Sellaband, which allows music lovers -- whom Sellaband refer to as "believers" -- to pool their money with other believers to help artists, who submit their music to the site, fund a trip to the recording studio. This method breaks a band down into 5,000 "parts," which are each sold for $10. Once $50,000 has been raised through the sale of these parts, Sellaband provides the artist with an A&R professional to guide them through the recording process. The full amount must be raised before the recording process can begin, so this turns both artists and believers into music evangelists, spreading word of the fund-raising effort to friends, neighbors, co-workers, etc.

It would be great to see something like this applied to neighborhood, or even city-wide improvement projects to create a kind of civic crowdfunding. The Sellaband method makes a great deal of sense since it pools money from a large number of people who then provide free marketing and PR. By tapping into peoples' passion for where they live, city officials and even developers can enliven the civic discourse by using internet technologies. Just imagine the potential of a site where people didn't just complain about local problems, but offered feasible solutions and invited their neighbors to get involved in getting real results. City Hall could even have an agreement whereby it provided a city official in a related office to help guide a fully-funded neighborhood project through the implementation.

If it sounds pie-in-the-sky, you might be surprised to hear that there are already somewhat similar programs in several cities. Seattle, for instance, has its own Department of Neighborhoods, a city department that deals with neighborhood projects and services. The SDoN even has a matching grant program that helps groups of Seattleites to fund projects that address the problems they have identified within their own neighborhoods. From their website: "Funds are limited so it's a competitive program. Applications are considered during specific funding cycles and the highest rated applications are awarded funds." From the sound of it the ratings come from a government body, but this looks like an early form of civic crowdfunding.

Next we turn to Minneapolis' Neighborhood Revitalization Project (NRP), which is "an investment program based on truly empowering residents by bringing them into the priority-setting process of the city. It is based on the belief that the empowerment of residents and the mobilization of untapped resources, energy and creativity can make our collective desire for a better future a reality. Neighborhood based priority setting, planning, and implementation are NRP's core. Residents and other neighborhood stakeholders create Neighborhood Action Plans (NAPs) that describe the neighborhood they want in the future and the goals, objectives and specific strategies that will help accomplish their vision. NRP completes the empowerment process by providing funding to each neighborhood to help implement their approved NAP."

The Neighborhood Action Plans seem to be another form of primitive civic crowdfunding. While the funding structure is still traditional (read: external), it is neighborhood residents that are creating the plan for their neighborhood (I knew someone had to be doing this already) and setting the priorities of the plan. Will everything that these plans address work out as residents had hoped, or even in their favor? Probably not. But it would be foolish to suggest that developers and/or City Hall always gets it right when trying to "fix" neighborhoods. There is a certain amount of risk involved in a program that asks lay citizens how their neighborhood should be improved -- but there is a wealth of unprofessional expertise, as well. After all, planners may know best how to move traffic efficiently through a theoretical neighborhood, but residents understand the idiosyncrasies and unplanned tics of their neighborhoods better than anyone who doesn't live there.

Springwise, the bloggy arm of Trendwatching.com, had this to say in a recent profile of a software crowdfunding site: "In addition to a marketplace for software development, microPledge reckons its site will come to be viewed as a free market-testing service to gauge the reception for new software products and features. Interesting example of the intention economy at work: when consumers have to put their money where their mouth is, it's a pretty good bet you can believe what they say." If you extend this argument to neighborhood crowdfunding in cities, it holds up quite nicely. The risks of trusting what some might term "non-experts" are mitigated in crowdfunding by the wary wisdom of the consumer. Neighbors are more likely to ignore flashy-but-ineffective revitalization projects, choosing instead to fund the kinds of improvements that will raise an area's quality of life in all of the little ways that legacy-laden city officials can overlook.

Little bits add up. That's what crowdfunding is all about.

(Photo from Flickr user djpiesas.)


Seattle Department of Neighborhoods

Minneapolis Neighborhood Revitalization Project

Crowdfunding software projects (Springwise)


Anonymous said...

someone is indeed already doing this. its been fun reading about beta communities and crowdsourcing in various cities around the country. see it at www.cooltownstudios.com

Brendan said...

CoolTown is a good resource, and it will be interesting to watch what's happening with them now that there are some projects taking off around the country. It's not exactly what I had in mind with this post -- I was thinking more about systems with some kind of city government involvement -- but it's a great example of how crowdfunding is changing the physical environment of cities. Good catch!