Can you kickstart a city?


Is crowdfunding website Kickstarter a good way to redesign cities? Alexandra Lange thinks not. In a provocative post at Design Observer, she says:

“A suitable funding platform for a watch is not a suitable funding platform for a city. The expectations, the timeline, the relevant community are all wildly different.”

Lange’s critique deserves close attention, especially at City Atlas where an image of + Pool (shown above, launched through Kickstarter) is on the homepage. + Pool could be the poster child for crowdfunded urbanism.

She goes on to note the common qualities of urban projects that have succeeded on Kickstarter:

“First, they are in famous cities. Second, they access hot-button urban topics: rooftop farms, reclaimed railroads, (self-reflexively) urban conversation itself. And third, they are gizmos.” Gizmos being superficial to the real needs of a city.

Kickstarter is one prominent example of new thinking about human organization in general, as the public mood turns away from top-down systems and towards an interest in bottom-up projects. Polls and opinion research show disillusionment with government and a wish for self sufficiency in one’s own neighborhood.

An argument for bringing decisions down to the grassroots has been recently made by several experts, including Carne Ross, former British diplomat — who sees national governments steadily losing influence in a globalized, networked world, and Elinor Ostrom, winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics.

In a recent interview, Ostrom looks at the very big picture:

“To solve these problems [climate change, sustainability] at any scale requires individuals to trust that others are also going to contribute to their solution. Building trust is not something that can be done overnight. Thus, the crucial thing is that successful efforts at a local scale be advertised and well known…”

Ostrom’s thoughts mesh with that of a thoroughly researched British government report on how to guide people towards a sustainable economy, “I Will If You Will” (a report which helped shape the ideas behind City Atlas). The takeaway is that people change when they see other people changing.

One twist is that in New York, the greenest, most valuable assets, mass transit and the water system, are built on a scale that only a government can effectively deliver — in the same way that the interstate highway system and the internet were creations of the federal government. Government itself can be a crowdsourced investment tool, but its successes tend to become invisible, and are as taken for granted as water coming from the faucet. More visible are criticisms of government; the distorting influence of money and lobbyists, and the belief that even when intentions are good, government is at too much of a distance to know the right thing to do on the local level.

Yet in New York City, government has also often been more forward-thinking than public opinion (or the media, for that matter) on issues of sustainability, as both bike lane disputes and a failed attempt to establish congestion pricing show. It is not impossible for government to consider the future.

A different case for experimental crowdsourced projects (aside from pitching gadgets) is to use them to inspire imagination in a way that government cannot. Making cities desirable, and shifting one’s desires within a city towards qualitative growth rather than quantitative growth, may be the most powerful effects available towards moving to a stable, livable planet.

Projects on Kickstarter and traditional urban planning aren’t mutually exclusive: cities can benefit from both crowdfunding enthusiasts and determined, educated voters. Cities can use both visionary social entrepreneurs and smart, forward-thinking elected officials. Experiments like + Pool help focus public attention on real opportunities for improving city life and the environment, and encourage people to see the city as a malleable structure full of potential, as opposed to a faceless, bureaucratic grid of property.

And imagination counts. Talent drives aspirations; if young people can leave school and pursue ideas for a future economy that works, rather than be entangled in the legacy economy, then emerging creative talent may have an important role to play in changing ideals for people their own age and younger. Cities could be key in this change of ideals, and tools like Kickstarter may help accelerate the chemistry — if that’s where people start to spend their time as producers and consumers of new ideas. It’s important to remember that sustainability currently ranks at the bottom among priorities to young people, so there is a lot of ground to catch up in terms of enthusiasm.

Alexandra Lange makes favorable mention of a more carefully designed platform called Brickstarter (with a fascinating post on reconstruction of a city in Chile) — and it’s a good comparison to consider. But what might be missing in that analysis is the difference between New York, where many people come to work 60 to 80 hours a week in highly paid, high stress jobs, and other places. Maybe it takes a wild idea like + Pool to even get busy New Yorkers to pay attention, with the limited amount of time they have to think about things apart from career.

The growing set of interviews in City Atlas cover a range of positions; + Pool is a beautiful and ingenious idea. is a growing crowdfunding platform for urban renewal, and provides a down-to-earth service perhaps closer to Lange’s ideals. In his interview, Projjal Dutta of the MTA describes how mass transit makes possible the density of NYC, which allows people with huge aspirations to live large with a small footprint. The subway system, built over generations, shows what a decades-long commitment by government and citizens can accomplish.

To create a carbon capture system like that described by Klaus Lackner will require a price on carbon that can also lead to another generational investment in technology and infrastructure. Both governments and citizens will need to be players in that process. And it seems likely that the kind of imagination and optimism seen on Kickstarter, or on equivalent platforms, will be essential to developing the public will for that kind of transformative change.