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  • 06.12.14

Pay For Your City: Crowdfunding For Civic Projects Is Unusually Successful

Citizens can support their cities like never before on platforms like Kickstarter. Here’s a look at what makes a winning civic campaign.

Pay For Your City: Crowdfunding For Civic Projects Is Unusually Successful
[Image: City skyline via Shutterstock]

While most of the action in crowdfunding has been around private entrepreneurial projects, recently there’s been growing interest in Kickstarter-like campaigns for civic ideas. Sites such as Citizinvestor, Neighbor.ly, and IOBY let governments or individuals propose projects like parks, swimming pools, and festivals and potentially open up whole new sources of investment for public goods.

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Rodrigo Davies, a researcher with MIT’s Center for Civic Media, has been tracking civic crowdfunding here in the U.S. and around the world and recently released a 173-page report on his findings. We asked him for his take on these projects so far, and where the field might go in the future.

Civic crowdfunding is small, but successful

Davies focused on seven platforms–four in the U.S and one each in the U.K., Spain, and Brazil–and identified 1,224 civic campaigns between 2010 and March 2014. In total, they raised $10.74 million–$6,357 on average. The projects tended to be small in dollar amounts but successful in meeting their goals compared to other categories. Projects labeled “civic” on Kickstarter were fully funded 81% of the time, for instance.

Parks and gardens the most common projects

Greenspaces were the most common civic projects, a fact Davies puts down to three factors. One, communities are used to volunteering for parks and gardens, so crowdfunding isn’t a big step. Two, greenspace projects (like temporary “parklets”) are quick to execute, unlike real estate projects. And three, greenspaces are uncontroversial: Most people want their neighborhood to be greener.

“People will crowdfund projects that are sexy and eye-catching,” Davies says. “But then there are lots of services that aren’t those things but are still essential. Would we see people crowdfund a drug rehabilitation clinic, for example? It’s hard to believe that someone could pull it off. It’s no coincidence that we’ve started with the uncontroversial projects.”

In the future, Davies expects to see more brick and mortar projects, though. For example, campaigns could try to find new uses for disused buildings, like a campaign in Oregon that sought to re-open an old tavern. (A site in Italy is doing something similar).

It’s a few big cities so far, but that could change

Up to now, civic crowdfunding has been dominated by major cities, such as New York, San Francisco, and London. But Davies sees that changing. Or at least he hopes. “There’s a lot of potential to shake up other types of communities–places that have been overlooked and have found it hard to raise resources,” he says.

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Governments have a choice of roles

Perhaps the most interesting question is what role governments will play. Davies sees four possibilities. One, they can champion projects on existing platforms, as the New York City Council does on Kickstarter. Second, they can run their own campaigns or even set up their own platforms (both of which may require more resources). Or, they can play more of a “facilitation” role, helping along citizen financing without being directly responsible for it.

Davies sees the last option as the most useful and feasible. He points, for example, to San Francisco’s Living Innovation Zones initiative, which has identified free space along Market Street and seeks community ideas for what it could be used for. Its first project, co-ordinated by the Exploratorium museum, ran an Indiegogo campaign last year, showing how that could have a role. “It really opens up public-private partnerships to a whole range of people who otherwise wouldn’t participate,” Davies says. “And, from the government’s point of view, they don’t need to take much risk or invest too much money.”

End of government or new type of government?

In theory, crowdfunding takes pressure off governments to come up with project money. But Davies prefers it when citizens initiate ideas, rather than officials. If it’s the latter, people might reasonably ask why they are already paying taxes for public services, and wonder if they should keep paying them.

Similarly, if governments sit back from campaigns, they may be accused of shirking responsibility and letting citizens eat cake. “I hope governments engage and see it as an opportunity to remake towns and cities,” Davies says.

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.

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