When San Francisco officials needed new ways to inspire healthy eating in a struggling neighborhood, they didn't throw money at an outside consultant. They threw a pot luck party for ideas on their own social-networking site ImproveSF  and asked residents for solutions.
The site launched last spring as a virtual town hall meeting with a twist: Instead of limiting residents to only voicing opinions on garbage collection, road repair, property taxes, or other typical city business, the site asks participants to help solve broader "challenge questions'' through discussion and crowd-source solutions. The best ideas are ultimately refined and voted upon by a panel of city officials, community leaders, and relevant industry experts to get put into action.
Consider the complex challenge of boosting nutrition in the city’s target zone, the Central Market/Tenderloin district. Several existing programs offered free hot meals, fresh produce, and workshops on cooking with cheap appliances like microwaves and crock pots. But people clearly weren’t taking full advantage. The area’s average life expectancy is 20 years lower than surrounding neighborhoods with epic rates of hospitalizations from uncontrolled diabetes and congestive heart failure. Toss in the fact that cheap fast-food outlets dot the district and things looked bleak. But then city officials found the right question: How do you increase access to fresh, affordable food when storage and prep space is limited?
The query was posted on the site in June with a few caveats (ideas needed to be fairly low cost and quickly implementable), and it drew more than 100 different proposals to be vetted and refined. One winner, which was announced earlier this month, is Apples & Wages , a concept that combines transitional job training with a central kitchen and fleet of mobile fresh-fruit carts to ferry healthy meals throughout the district. It was submitted by a team from University of California, Berkeley, who earned the prize of a two-month membership to the HUB, a local social-enterprise incubator and coworking space that should help them groom the idea and attract funding.
Yet the real winner is the city itself. It pays $20,000 a year to maintain the platform, which was developed by an Omaha, Nebraska-based company called MindMixer. In return, nearly 23,000 people have visited the site so far, contributing about 3,000 hours of free, directed brainstorming at other challenges, like how to revamp the Municipal Transportation Agency’s logo in time for its 100th birthday this year. (The winner, an abstract “plus” sign made out of the intersection of multicolored transit routes.) Now that the site is up and running, users themselves are offering up their own challenging questions for future consideration. One top contender: How should the city better use vacant lots for community engagement?
“We spent a long time trying to figure out what the city’s priorities are and how we should be responding to people,” says Shannon Spanhake, the city’s deputy innovation officer. “This is a public-private-people partnership that aims to make civic participation sustainable.”
To that end, businesses are kicking in support in surprising ways. To keep everyone talking, the site is incentivized; the most active submitters and commenters earn vouchers for local shops and concerts, guided tours of the city, and can even win a voice mail greeting recorded by Mayor Ed Lee. In the food justice challenge, for instance, sponsor Zendesk, a cloud-based help desk software company (that’s fitting, right?) offered to fund a “Dream Day in San Francisco"--something like dinner and a Giants game--for the most promising non-business venture.
That winner, dubbed Loaves & Fishes, is a hybrid culinary school, soup kitchen, and upscale restaurant that would distribute leftovers from farmers’ markets to other kitchens and locals via food trucks that act like mini-commissaries. It was also thought up by its beneficiary, a Tenderloin resident living in a single-room-occupancy building and struggling firsthand with these issues.
There is no straightforward implementation for that plan—the city just can’t afford to fund it. Still, Spanhake hopes it will become a sort of blueprint for other charities that might combine forces to make it happen. “The trick was not to assume that coming up with one idea would solve everything across the board,” she adds. “This is about taking a complex problem and breaking it into small parts that are a little bit more manageable.”
As traffic to the site has increased, so have the side conversations and fresh thinking, which have covered everything from how to optimize mass transit to what new icons might help folks take better advantage of a revitalizing neighborhood. Those answers--that many people favor reducing the number of travel stops, and many also want a pictogram for, say, farmers’ markets-- represent the type of casual polling that can’t happen amid the time crunch and strict agendas of city planning meetings. More important, it lets citizens better explain to each other how their decisions might affect everyone. After all, cutting transit stops is cool, unless it’s your stop that’s on the chopping block. Then you might want people to consider how to bring in more access to cabs or bike-share programs. Creating a farmers’ market icon is neat, too, as long as it’s not too Americana. The best symbols need to transcend language and cultural barriers.
This all sounds nice, but the biggest question of all is whether something like this can actually work beyond such a zany, insular, startup-centric place like San Francisco. The answer: Yes. A similar challenge-question model was recently adopted by North Carolina, which is working on a statewide master plan to improve biking and walkability. MindMixer cofounder and CEO Nick Bowden says he’s fielding questions from two dozen other agencies about how to get started.