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. Ioby​.org 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.