Good planners know the best development ideas often come directly from the community. Yet in reality, getting input from a metropolitan area’s diverse interest groups – from seniors to small business owners – can be time-consuming, chaotic and difficult for private developers and city officials alike. Building consensus, finding partners and funding have stalled many a development project.
But today, metro areas are increasingly turning to technology for help. New York City has just launched Change by Us, a new website designed to be “a social network for civic activity,” where New Yorkers can submit and share ideas on how to make their city a better place to live and, if all goes as planned, put their ideas into action.
“Our task was to reinvent public participation for the 21st century,” Jake Barton the website’s designer said at the launch. “Citizens can now go from just complaining to actually becoming partners for community change.”
The site’s first challenge to New York City residents is to submit ideas about how to improve New York’s environmental sustainability. New Yorkers had already submitted almost 1,000 project ideas when I logged on earlier this week on everything from urban composting to adding parks to connecting communities with new bike thoroughfares. Users are invited to submit ideas, join or create projects, work with others on an idea or project, or share resources. They are also inviting community groups to apply for a Change by Us NYC grant, and will award 20 to 40 grants, ranging from $500 to $1,000 each.
The site’s post-it note interface is user friendly and ideas are also searchable by map view so users can find proposals submitted by others in their own neighborhood. There seems to be a diverse section of NYC neighborhoods represented already.
The site is run by New York City’s Office of the Mayor and was created by the media design firm Local Projects in collaboration with CEOs for Cities, with funding from the Rockefeller Foundation, the Knight Foundation and the Case Foundation.
The project is based on Give a Minute, a similar interface with pilot sites running in Memphis and Chicago. Chicago used the tool last year to ask “Hey Chicago, what would encourage you to walk, bike or take CTA [Chicago Transit Authority] more often?” Citizens were invited to text their ideas to city leaders or post them to the Give a Minute website.
The site used “response leaders” to motivate residents and assure them that someone was actually listening. The head of the CTA, the head of a bicycling advocacy group and the head a private company that builds bicycling accessories promised to respond personally to their favorite ideas.
In an age of low voter turnout, organizers see the project as a new way to improve public engagement in our democracy, and to help the city identify shared priorities of its citizens. The work, they say, is as much about movement building as it is about finding the next great idea.
“Give a Minute aspires to be the kind of system that can support both of those types of answers – those that require government action and those that can lead to self-organized action – simultaneously,” Barton said in an interview at Urban Omnibus back in December. “Because, right now, all the existing crowdsourcing platforms take a big picture approach and a lot of cities don’t have the funds or political will to work like that.”
A lot of current technologies that are working now on city-scale questions are all based on a pyramid structure, where it is presumed that there is one golden idea that should rise to the top. Give a Minute works differently: it’s not about sourcing ideas that haven’t been floated before, it’s a matter of building enough momentum and political will to actually implement change.
Yet although the experiment generated more than 2,000 new ideas, the project received some criticism because there wasn’t a real mechanism in place for linking these ideas with actual action groups or agendas. “Change by Us” tries to ameliorate that by focusing on goals and action steps, encouraging people to work together and by matching like projects. Whether they can succeed remains to be seen, but local leaders are paying attention.