Inspiring Solutions: Place-based Engagement

Image from here.

Motivating citizens to pay attention to issues affecting their community and convincing them that they can meaningfully contribute is not a small task. With the demands of daily life and attractive entertainment options vying for people’s attention, getting them to participate in the process is even harder. This is particularly difficult when there is no perceived crisis, the problem seems overwhelming and impossible, or there is no particular focused outcome.

While watching “Urbanized,” the documentary by Gary Hustwit (see earlier blog post) about the design of cities, I was captivated by the street art project “iwishthiswas” created by Candy Chang, an artist, designer, and urban planner living in New Orleans. She initiated the project in 2010 in her own neighborhood out of her frustration that the neighborhood didn’t have a full-service grocery and other basic amenities, but had plenty of abandoned buildings and vacant lots.

The “iwishthiswas” project employs bold bright red and white 4.5″x3″ vinyl stickers that have the words “I wish this was” printed across the top and large space for writing your wish. According to the project website, vinyl can be applied or removed without damaging property. The stickers are offered for free through various businesses within the city and citizens are encouraged to use them to tag their neighborhoods for what they would like to see in their community. In an effort to encourage more participation, Ms. Chang added grids of stickers on empty storefronts and other abandoned structures accompanied by markers people could use to add their thoughts. Examples include “I wish this was … a butcher shop, community garden, a bike rack, an affordable farmer’s market….” The  project is described as a “fun, low-barrier tool to provide civic input on site, and the responses reflect the hopes, dreams, and colorful imaginations of different neighborhoods.”

What I found inspiring about the project was its simplicity and place-based direct engagement within a neighborhood. I imagine that these qualities play a significant role in the success in getting people to participate.

While the “iwishthiswas” project provides an outlet for expressing citizen’s hopes and dreams, a drawback is compiling and prioritizing responses in a format that can facilitate making these ideas a reality. As an evolution of the project, the Civic Center, a design studio based in New Orleans that Ms. Chang co-founded, has created an online spin-off called Neighborland. This project is supported by the Urban Innovation Fellowship at Tulane University and the Rockefeller Foundation.

Neighborland is another simple and straight-forward sticker campaign that ask participants to answer “I want [blank] in [neighborhood].” The site provides tools for citizens to vote and comment on the ideas. Ideas are categorized by neighborhood and can be viewed as current, most popular, most recent, or by neighborhood.

By collecting ideas in one place, encouraging participation and conversation, and providing easy ways to prioritize, the hope is that developers, entrepreneurs, investors, public leaders, and others will see the market potential and needs within various neighborhoods and act upon them. Additionally, the site fosters relationships that could catalyze changes within communities. It would be nice to see the next evolution of the project adding tools for implementing the ideas.

OpenIDEO is an open innovation platform that “seeks to provide tools for the global community to solve big challenges for social good” and provides an excellent example of taking this next step. The platform takes users through the design process of inspiration, evaluation, and selection.

The platform has tackled a number of interesting topics ranging from “How can technology help people working to uphold human rights in the face of unlawful detention?” to “How might we better connect food production with consumption?” The results summarize the design process and outline the top selected ideas.

One of their current challenges is “How might we restore vibrancy in cities and regions facing economic decline?” This challenge is in the refinement phase with four days left until the evaluation phase begins. The challenge has garnered over 890 inspiration posts and 331 concepts in seven categories. They include Great Connections, Empowered Youth, Design For Well-being, Amplify Citizen Voices, Re-purpose spaces, Foster Local Identity, and Enable Entrepreneur.

An unfortunate shortcoming of projects and platforms like OpenIDEO, iwishthiswas, and Neighborland are that they rely on inspiring others to implement the ideas.

The dilemma reminds me of a recent quote by Thieu Besselink in an interview by Christine McLaren published on the BMW Guggenheim Lab’s blog. He is quoted as saying, “I don’t think that we have a problem coming up with solutions. There are enough ideas. The problem is getting those ideas done or shared, and then committed to, so that people are actually going to realize them.”

I disagree that all of the ideas are on the table so we can stop thinking and act on the ones we have. Most pertinently, not everyone knows that they have a voice for proposing solutions and the Civic Center’s initiatives address this issue. However, making ideas into a reality is the hardest step. There are a lot of great ideas out there that never get implemented and one of those reasons is not having the resources to make them happen.

To address resource deficiencies, it would be great to see a Kickstarter component or a similar platform added to the phasing of these programs. Kickstarter provides a low-risk funding source for creative projects through individual pledges. The site claims to raise millions of dollars every week for projects. The proliferation of these open networks and tools are exciting and bode well for citizens across the world to work together to solve the tough, seemingly intractable issues. The inclusion of a funding mechanism into these open innovation and public participation platforms would make them even more effective and provide an opportunity to empower participants to make change themselves.

News junkie, amateur economist, twitterholic, and lover of cities: As a senior associate at Hawkins Partners, Inc., a landscape architecture and urban design office in Nashville, Tennessee, Brian Phelps explores viable market-based solutions for repairing our cities and improving our urban experiences. In addition, he is co-founder of, where he blends his interest in photography, technology, and urban design to create an extensive on-line image library of projects from around the world.

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  1. Inspiring Solutions: Place-based Engagement

    Great post. I’m teaching a seminar and studio addressing this set of topics, beginning in a few days. Agree – it’s all about the implementation.

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