I had the pleasure of chatting with Rodrigo Davies, a Research Assistant at MIT Center for Civic Media, about Civic Crowd Funding This is an exciting new area that will become more important over the next few years.
Q. Could you tell me, at a high-level, what civic crowd funding is?
Civic crowd funding can mean several different things. The ‘civic’ element in civic crowd funding can refer to the development of projects that have civic value but take place in private spaces, or to the development of publicly-owned spaces and property. Some common project proposals include the regeneration of a local street, the reopening of a derelict plot of land as a park, or the installation of a public WiFi network for a town. In all of these cases, the project can be initiated and supported by any stakeholder in the process – whether an individual, a community group, a business or a government agency or department. Some models may be more focused on helping institutions to originate and manage projects with cooperation from the community, but the idea that any stakeholder can build a project from the ground up is an important part of the crowd funding ethos. Unlike crowd funding an arts project or product development by an entrepreneur, however, larger civic crowd funding projects require a robust legal framework – especially where public money is being invested – to ensure that the project is implemented in a transparent and accountable way.
Q. How do you envision civic crowd funding benefiting citizens today? 10 years from now?
At this early stage, civic crowd funding is empowering citizens to take a more active role in the planning and development of their communities. It is developing, in some cases from scratch, a literacy in the planning process for communities that rarely engaged in that process in the past. Developing public spaces is a very difficult task that requires a lot of expert input, from urban planners and architects to policymakers and community leaders. There is still a big gap between the aspirations and project plans of committed individuals and realizing a building or development on the ground. There is also, understandably, some skepticism from those who’ve been involved in urban planning for decades. It’s important for all stakeholders to build up trust and cooperation in order for civic crowd funding projects to be successful.
In ten years time, governments will have become more responsive to citizen-led initiatives and citizens will have learnt to work with professionals and have developed a greater civic literacy. That means civic crowd funding can be embedded in civil society and naturalized as a process – so that participatory planning and development is a reality, and communities feel ownership of the future of their neighborhoods There are many other directions in which civic crowd funding could go, but localities will find the model that is most appropriate to them. There’s no single all-encompassing model of civic crowd funding, it’s a transferable strategy and a platform for action. It’s possible, for example, that a government could levy a parcel fee that would be used towards crowd funded projects. Citizens paying the fee would earn crowd-funding credits, and be able to decide which projects to invest them in. That’s far from becoming a reality, but it’s one example of how the participatory, democratized ethic fostered by crowd funding could be applied.
Q. Are there any great examples of civic crowdfunding in action today?
In the UK, the first project that used the Spacehive platform was a $1.2M community centre in Glyncoch, an ex-mining town in South Wales. It was a project the community had dreamed of for eight years, but had been unable to realize due to a lack of funding. As the local mayor said, “People’s perception was: ‘you say we’re going to get things but we never do – nothing ever comes to Glyncoch’.” The community had already won a government grant to fund most of the work, but those grants were due to expire and the project was short $50,000. The crowd funding campaign started by the local community drew the attention of British celebrities including Stephen Fry and national sports stars, and raised funding from retail companies Tesco and Asda, foundations and local residents. It was a combination of technologically-enabled communication – the media attention drawn by Fry and others helped the campaign to connect with Welsh descendants as far away as Argentina – and grass-roots community action, such as fundraising events in the town hall and doorstepping neighbors. That combination of technology, community engagement and cross-sector participation is the essence of a great civic crowd funding campaign.
Photo credit Nicole Freedman/MIT Media LabTags: Open Government, crowdfunding