Civic Tech

Forefront Excerpt: When We’re All Urban Planners

Credit: Alex Lukas

In Forefront this week, David Lepeska digs into the complexities of civic participation in the Information Age. Moving beyond Gov. 2.0 buzz, Lepeska takes a close look at crowd-funding start-ups such as ioby and Spacehive, exploring their potential to transform the way we improve our communities and interact with our neighbors.Find out about the players and tools vying for a place in this emerging, highly networked world.

We know a community is capable of funding a new bakery or a chicken coop, but can the crowd fund the crowd-funding site? To do so it will most likely need serial project leaders who build strong local networks — people like Tami Johnson. An active resident in the greater Park Slope area for nearly a dozen years, she created one of the first projects to appear on ioby: A cleanup of the lake in Prospect Park. After hitting her funding target of $460, she and a few friends rented pedal boats and pulled trash from the bottom of the lake, including two barbecue grills.

A couple years later, Johnson, who works as a quality assurance manager for a local game developer, convinced the owners of three adjacent vacant lots on Bergen Street to allow her to temporarily use their space for the community. Her ioby project, A Small Green Patch, proposed a 6,000-square-foot vegetable garden that could host concerts, kids activities and other events. After receiving a gardening license from the city, the project quickly reached its target of $4,500.

Johnson recently launched a more ambitious, second phase. The new Small Green Patch project has a $12,000 funding goal and partnerships with several local organizations. An arts group, a mobile urban farming lab and a nearby church are each planning a variety of uses for the space. Johnson hopes to receive full funding soon. Meanwhile, she’s building out the garden and solidifying relationships with local groups, neighbors and the city.

Imagine a Tami Johnson with the resources of a Donald Trump, and you begin to appreciate the revenue potential. Right now, ioby funds its operations via grants from more than a dozen charities and foundations, and receives support from a long list of local businesses. But its long-term sustainability hinges on tips. Upon contributing to a project, each ioby donor is asked to give a 20 percent gratuity. Thus far, three out of every four ioby donors have agreed to the gratuity.

The model has succeeded before. In fiscal year 2011, DonorsChoose covered more than 100 percent of its operating expenses using a similar system, according to a supplement to the Summer 2012 Stanford Social Innovation Review. Considering that DonorsChoose was founded in 2000, and by 2011 had received some $75 million in donations, ioby has a handful of years before it might reach a similar tipping point.

Its latest partnership should provide a boost.

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Tags: technology, civic tech, forefront, brooklyn, crowd-funding, spacehive, ioby, david lepeska