Built by the crowd: the changing world of public infrastructure

(Wired UK, November 2013. Photo: Cameron R. Nielson)

IN THE SPRING OF 2012, the citizens of Glyncoch in south Wales had a problem. For years, their rusting community centre — a corrugated hulk built in 1977 when the local mine still produced coal — had been a shameful eyesore, a grim reminder of how far their tiny village in the Rhondda Valley had fallen. If they could build a new one — with modern IT facilities and classrooms for job training — it might help prise their lives from poverty and boost their civic pride. But the cost, at £793,000, was prohibitive. Over several years the citizens managed to raise as much as £750,000 in charity grant pledges, but those pledges were set to expire in March 2012, if they couldn’t raise the remainder on their own.

Rather than turn to the council, local people turned to the internet. In March 2012, they pleaded their case on a UK startup, SpaceHive. Launched that month, SpaceHive seizes Kickstarter’s crowdfunding model and applies it to civic building projects. Within weeks, Glyncoch’s citizens had raised £43,000. “The money and the old ways of doing things are drying up,” says Chris Gourlay, the 32-year-old founder of SpaceHive. A former architecture critic at the Sunday Times, he launched the site after being inspired by the DIY ethos of social media and crowdfunding models and because he was frustrated by the opaque procedures of municipal planning boards. The financial crisis fuelled his belief that infrastructure problems must be solved not by governments, but by citizen designers and street activists. “It’s a more democratic way to engage in and change the built world around you,” he says. “It’s created opportunities for citizens to solve their own problems with market efficiency.”

As budgets shrink, the restricted ability of cities and towns to build parks, pools and art centres is leading citizens to step in with new ways to create public spaces and buildings — using crowd-based models. In Rotterdam, locals pooled money to build a pedestrian bridge across a city roadway. In Bogotá, a group of local citizens will soon own part of a new 66-storey BD Bacata skyscraper in the centre of town. And in New York City, two architects are creating and crowd-funding the first ever underground park, in an old tram station. The trend has spread so far that a report published in February this year by the American Institute of Architects argued that members whose fundraising is limited by property developers could seize crowdfunding to build not what a big developer wants, but what they and the community think it needs.

“Creating cities based on the Kickstarter model is a cultural and business shift,” says Rodrigo Davies, a research assistant at MIT’s Center for Civic Media, where he is pursuing his master’s on civic crowdfunding. “But there’s a big difference between funding a folding bike and funding a skyscraper.”

It’s not just about size. Firstly, Kickstarter project-supporters can pledge money for a simple consumer product from anywhere on the planet: a bike, for example, is shippable. But a skyscraper or bridge is static, meaning that the pool of potential investors is limited by geography. Cities such as London and Paris have millions of citizens and tourists who may have an interest in funding something they might visit or use. Contrast this with towns and villages that have a smaller base of people, which means they are able to attract less revenue. Secondly, large capital projects cost more than bikes and need to be broken into phases. That can test the patience of donors accustomed to seeing projects reach goals in weeks, rather than the years it can take for a civic project to go from plan to realisation.

A case in point. Three young designer friends in New York City decided that they wanted to build a public swimming pool in an unlikely, but highly visible, place: the middle of the pollution-choked East River. The idea was to build a floating pool and use the river water to fill it via a sophisticated filtration system. In June 2011, the friends posted a proposal on Kickstarter — the first time the site had ever been used for a municipal project. The designers sought $25,000 (£17,000). Within a week, their +pool had gained so much buzz — thanks in part to a cool animated video — that they had pulled in $41,647 (£25,970).

Yet the 1,203 people who pledged money to +pool weren’t funding a pool. They were funding a lab test to see if the filtration system would work. “The scale and amount of money you need to fund a capital project is multitudes bigger than what you need to fund an iPod watch,” says Dong-Ping Wong, who, with friends Archie Coates and Jeffrey Franklin, is designing the $15 million +pool. “The trick is how do you start breaking down the scale of the project and funding it in pieces? And then how do you keep people excited about those pieces, even if it’s something boring like a feasibility study?”

Projects such as this not only raise awareness and money, they create communities. The +pool has 30,000 followers on social media, along with 2,000 funders. This is why civic crowdfunding has an enormous business upside: backers accustomed to social media think in terms of personalising what they experience. “More citizens expect, or at the very least desire, to be involved in the decisions around them,” says Bryan Boyer, a 32-year-old Harvard-trained architect. Last year, he founded an experimental site called Brickstarter, with the help of the Finnish innovation fund Sitra, a hybrid think tank and economic-innovation incubator. Its proto site researched the civic crowdfunding field and its business implications. One of the problems in cities, Boyer says, is that “it takes a lot of time to put together a legitimate proposal, shop around for finance and get authorities behind it. If we get that money up front, we can make it plausible.”

The California High-Speed Rail project, a $9.9 billion (£6 billion) public-works plan to connect several major cities, from Sacramento to San Diego, has diverse opponents, from anti-tax groups worried about cost to environmentalists. Boyer says he can see a site like Brickstarter offering to bring these people into one community. “Most people don’t have time for meetings,” he says.The democratisation of design for public structures and spaces encourages leaps of imagination and innovation that would be unlikely to occur in a developer’s boardroom or the cubicles of a local planning authority. For 65 years, a century-old tram station sat abandoned beneath a crowded street on New York’s Lower East Side. The city’s transportation agency had never thought to reclaim it. But James Ramsey, a 28-year-old architect, discovered it and thought it would make a great public space. So he devised a system for turning the station into a pioneering underground park: collect sunlight on the surface with parabolic dishes, channel it through fibre-optic cables and disperse it below ground, creating enough photo-synthesis to support acres of trees, shrubs and grass. His renderings of the site depict a Jules Verne-like ceiling. Beneath it, families and a sprinkling of hipsters (who tend to support these schemes) lounge in the weird subterranean light.Barasch, who says he won’t use Kickstarter for his next round of fundraising, says groups such as his need to expand their definition of crowdfunding to include “traditional models” — meaning asking corporations, foundations and philanthropists to foot the bill.”Your broadest base of supporters probably doesn’t have 20 or 30 bucks to spare, and that’s OK,” Barasch says. “But they are seriously engaged and that attracts big money.” In other words, crowd psychology can be as important in executing such projects as the money itself.”When you see thousands of people involved,” says SpaceHive’s Gourlay, “that makes it very attractive for politicians and for industry to get involved. These are their customers.”Consider the Luchtsingel pedestrian bridge in Rotterdam. For generations, a major road sliced through central Rotterdam, cutting off the city’s bustling Hofplein district from easy pedestrian access. The result was a dangerous crossing. Several young architects proposed crowdfunding a pedestrian bridge and plaza where locals could hang out and reclaim the region from cars and trucks. Their funding method influenced their design: 17,000 U-shaped planks to sell and stamp with the donor’s name or message. Called I Make Rotterdam, the project’s slogan is “The more you donate, the longer the bridge”. Donors can buy a single plank for €25 (£20) or a larger section for €1,250 (£1,068). The project, begun in 2012, captured the public imagination and became part of Rotterdam’s urban renewal. And because of its crowdfunding success, the bridge won a €4 million (£3.4 million) municipal grant to continue. “It’s a new reality,” says one of its architects, 35-year-old Kristian Koreman. “We have retreating governments and an ongoing economic crisis. But people are no longer simply going to wait for things to happen. There is a soft revolution going on.”But it’s a revolution that needs the chequebooks of corporations and foundations. Jase Wilson, CEO of Neighbor.ly, a US-based civic-crowdfunding platform, watched the Rotterdam project for clues. “We think of the crowd as individuals, but it’s also corporations and institutions,” Wilson says. “Who’s buying hundreds of these wood planks at a time? It’s not individuals. It’s organisations that have an interest in getting their name on something. That taught us to look beyond the Kickstarter definition of a crowd, which is person-centric.”Ramsey and his fellow mastermind, former Google marketing strategist Dan Barasch, dubbed it the Low Line and raised $150,000 (£93,000) on Kickstarter last year, the site’s highest amount ever for a civic project. But Barasch, who deals with the drudgery of fundraising and winning over politicians and planning boards, quickly saw the limitations of crowdfunding his $100 million (£62 million) project. “It’s great for getting people motivated,” he says. “It creates an inspired community of people that didn’t exist prior to this. But it doesn’t work for every phase of development.”Wilson applied this lesson to Neighbor.ly’s first project, a tramline in the platform’s home town of Kansas City, Missouri. Using the Rotterdam model, the site hopes to sell naming or advertising rights to individual seats, stops, the outside of the cars and to offer pre-bought ridership rights. The group hopes to build a sense of ownership and enthusiasm, and that locals and corporations will find value and civic pride in having their names on it. Wilson’s approach also aims to draw government back into the mix by raising money to draw US federal matching funds. “We’re looking at Neighbor.ly as a down-payment engine,” he says.

But should private citizens have to pay for public infrastructure? Isn’t this the business of central government and local authorities? “People say, ‘Shouldn’t our tax money be paying for this?'” says MIT’s Davies, who worked for SpaceHive as a government liaison before joining MIT. “That’s one of the biggest questions we try to address: ‘If citizens start doing this job, won’t governments just pull back?’ And we’re saying ‘No, this money will not replace it, but sit alongside it.'”

SpaceHive works likes this. Anyone can start a project — a citizen, special-interest group, business owner, even a governing authority. In addition to providing a fundraising portal, the site offers publicity strategists, legal contracts to ensure the work gets done, and verification of the project with councils and landowners. Gourlay and his cofounders target projects that have already received partial funding from federal or local agencies, but have been unable to raise the target amount. They then try to match them with local donors and charitable grant funding. “We thought when we started that the councils would be threatened, that there’d be this sense of anarchy from the streets thanks to these upstarts,” says Andrew Teacher, policy director for the site, which has formed dozens of council partnerships. “They realise the opportunities here for them, of harnessing this power and money.”

One of the ironies of the financial crisis, says Gourlay, is that no matter how hard a business owner on the high street might try to improve their shop or café, the street itself remained run down and untended due to a lack of infrastructure financing. And trying to source funding from the local council is a lesson in bureaucratic frustration. “The system makes it difficult for ordinary people to invest in pavements and parks, or increase footfall outside their business,” says Gourlay.

SpaceHive overcomes this by directly partnering business owners and citizens with local councils, charity groups and corporate donors. For instance, to increase foot traffic in Mansfield in the east Midlands, SpaceHive raised £36,850 to help the town become the first in Britain to fund its own Wi-Fi hotspot. Donations came from the council as well as Experian.

In Somerset it paired activists with the local council and Experian again, to turn a public toilet into a £10,462 micro art gallery and food kiosk. “It’s been an empowering tool for sourcing creative and fantastic ideas,” Teacher says.

One thing that inspired the SpaceHive team is the knowledge that a generation of young people who would never consider setting foot in a planning meeting eagerly take to social media to discuss ways to improve the built world around them. “There is a growing awareness that young people do care about where they live and have great ideas on how to improve it,” Teacher says. “Let’s say a park has sat derelict for 15 years and there’s no political will to fix it, meaning there’s no resources that will ever be devoted to it,” says MIT’s Rodrigo Davies. “This is a new form of democratic representation. The voters are speaking to you online. You have to pay attention: these are your constituents and this is a referendum.”

Since SpaceHive launched last year, a half-dozen similar sites have sprung up, mostly in the US, including Neighbor.ly, IOBY.com, and Citizinvestor. As odd as it seems, cities themselves, such as Philadelphia, are launching their own crowdfunding initiatives. Boyer of Brickstarter and his colleagues have floated a unique idea: using your own tax money to fund a project of your choice. “Imagine your own tax given back to you as currency, or credits, on a site like Brickstarter, allowing you to decide what gets funded,” Boyer says.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Brickstarter, which was funded in part by money from the Finnish government, is that Boyer wants someone in the US or UK either to take it over or use its research to build a moneymaking, community-generating site out of it. “From the beginning, I didn’t care if we built it or someone else does it,” Boyer says. “It was meant as a way to show people this can be done and how to do it.”