Rodrigo Davies


Thoughts on Neighborly, civic crowdfunding and the future of community development

Where does civic crowdfunding fit on a city's roadmap?

15 Jun 2013

Bogardus Triangle Plaza map - from http://www.nyc.gov/html/dot/downloads/pdf/plaza-bogardus-map.jpg

Several city officials I've spoken to about civic crowdfunding in the past few months raised the following problem: "Isn't resource allocation the primary function of government? You can't remove that and replace it with the will of the crowd. How could we possibly design a policy framework to accommodate this?"

They're right, in part. To suggest that civic crowdfunding should replace and supersede governments' spending priorities and strategies is at best unworkable, and at worst, irresponsible. But that doesn't mean the methodology is incompatible with public projects. And the policy framework already exists in many cases. There are many vehicles for government to accept outside funding -- public-private partnerships -- so what is stopping organized, crowdfunding-enabled communities from taking the private end of those initiatives?

It's already happening in several cities.

Non-profits in New York City can partner with the Department of Transport to transform underused street areas into social public spaces under the Plaza Program. The DoT funds the design and construction of the site - which is co-designed with the community - while the non-profit is responsible for building a long-term funding plan to sustain the site. The site can also generate revenue through small concessions, as long as the proceeds are channeled back into the site's running costs. The civic crowdfunding site IOBY has started a new campaign to support a community Plaza proposal in Kip's Bay (and IOBY has collaborated with DoT on several projects in the past).

In San Francisco, the forthcoming Living Innovation Zones scheme by the Mayor's Office of Civic Innovation will designate public areas that businesses or groups can bid to use on a temporary basis to showcase innovative projects. Potential partners could be non-profits, entrepreneurs, local businesses or community groups. Crowdfunding is being considered part of the toolkit that any of the above could use to finance their proposal, and it's likely that some projects will follow that path.

The PPP model could be expanded further if governments were to designate specific partnerships as community crowdfunding-focused, and give priority to those campaigns over businesses. For towns and cities that have multi-neighborhood schemes, government could incentivize investment in less affluent areas by offering more favorable funding terms: a partnership in Affluent Neighborhood A could attract 1x government match funding, while a partnership in Less Affluent Neighborhood B could attract 2x government match funding. Crowdfunding and government priority setting don't need to be opposing forces - they can work together to create new incentives and opportunities for growth.

There is another track, separate from the public-private partnership model, which is to view civic crowdfunding in the context of participatory budgeting and give citizens the opportunity to bid for discretionary public budgets. That's potentially a promising road, but it's also likely to be a longer one in policy terms.

In the short run, if we view civic crowdfunding as a tool to widen access to capital and enhance the position of communities in the planning process, it makes sense to use the public-private partnership arrangements that already exist.

Cross-posted at civic.mit.edu