iA


Brickstarter prototype v0.1, and using sketches to ask questions

Brickstarter

Previously on Brickstarter: our project is about sketching new cultures of public decision-making, predicated on reversing NIMBY cultures to become YIMBY cultures. We’re creating a platform for making suggestions about how to improve your neighbourhood or environment, and then turn those proposals into projects. We do this in order to start constructive conversations within and around government and other relevant institutions. This aspect engages with “dark matter”: the often imperceptible regulations, legislation, organisational cultures and behavours that can either enable or block systemic change. As such, Brickstarter is actually a prototype of a service, or culture, that attempts to get to the heart of what democratic decision-making might be, of how we might develop our cultures of politics and governance in cities, towns and nations.

This latter aspect actually reveals that the point of Brickstarter is not really in making a website at all, necessarily, but rather in developing a sketch of “a 21st century social contract”. Or at least aspects of that. It’s not making a statement about what that should be, but using prototyping to explore what that might be.

SKETCHES

For a few months we’ve had some hi-res “sketches” of a notional and prototype Brickstarter service, which it’s time to share here. We’ve been using these sketches in conversations (with city officials, in other meetings with interested parties, with audiences locally and overseas, and so on) – they’re a token for conversations at this stage (as with our street food book and In Studio book.)

So, below you see a couple of the quick designs we’ve done for a notional Brickstarter service. I’ll probably post separately elsewhere about the design choices themselves, just for the record (though I’ll reveal here that the birdie is a magpie). This post will concentrate more on the meaning, and much of this is “thinking out loud”, or sketching out loud, perhaps.

Caveat: this is about a week’s work, a while ago, so be gentle with me! It’s a hasty sketch, and no more. But we hope it begins to make concrete some of what we’re talking about here, at least from this end of the project. This design will be thrown away at some point, as the project progresses. Note also this is what I call the “kitchen sink mock” i.e. the mockup with everything thrown at it; you couldn’t possibly reveal all this complexity on a live public service aimed at a broad, if not universal, swathe of the population.

WALKTHROUGH

In any case, there are two pages, which outline the bones, and some of the flesh, of a prospective system: a homepage, which lays out a series of projects (and people), and then an example project page, which indicates what a live project might look like. (Click the long images below for full size versions.)

The homepage is very simple—a very quick layout of an index.

Homepage

(View full-size .png version of this homepage)

This is a simple “welcome” at the moment, with some obvious hooks to start with—a sense of what it’s about, and some invitations to engage—and an explanatory panel for new users. But there’s little here for you to chew on, save a sense of the kind of projects that might be obviously catered for by such a platform. So let’s have a closer look at the project page:

Project

(View full-size .png version of this project page)

You’ll see a fictional project in progress, aiming to convert a bit of underused/disused infrastructure in central Helsinki. And yes, all the examples here are the usual clichéd set of co-working spaces, community gardens and so on, but each of the spaces and buildings mentioned here are “real”, with realistic proposals (and some genuine proposals like Cloud City—perhaps Brickstarter can help even this scale get traction? Whether it should is another question). Most cases happen to be within a 1km radius of my home (yes, I’m lazy)—yet it’s worth stressing that while you don’t know what you get with an open platform, you can set a direction.

Example projects

And on some of them—and others not presented here—we’re working with active community groups, or potential businesses, to understand how they approach such opportunities. This is part of our approach to co-designing the project around real participants. (If you’re in Finland, and want to join this aspect of the project, drop us a comment below.)

 

Language drop-down

Language
Before we go further, you’ll note that the page is in English, not Finnish! There’s a language drop-down implied top-right (“ENG” for “English”), which would offer Finnish, Swedish, English, Russian as basics, and perhaps more, ultimately. One of the things we’re interested in is how rapidly Finland, and Helsinki in particular, is diversifying. That means tools for Finnish communities—whether produced by public sector or private sector or in-between—need to handle this. Of course, cultural diversity is beyond language, but here’s a start, and this little drop-down is a hint to generate debate about that.

 

Targets vs deadlines

Target and deadline
The proposal has an apparently financial target, and a countdown of time remaining for the project to hit that target here. (Web design fans, spot the deliberate mistake with this layout.) The money, at this point, is probably about making this a convincing proposal (many such projects fall over at this stage, as they’re going up against a well-equipped planning department, say, with little or no resources.) So this money might pay for professional services, permits, some marketing and facilitation, and so on. In terms of timers, we’ve somewhat randomly given 60 days per project, as it seems more complex than a Kickstarter project (where they advise that 30 days or less is best, though they too can last for up to 60.) Those dynamics are interesting, and will need testing for these kind of projects which might have an element of permanence.

 

Overview

Details
Then you can see some sense of what that finance might be for. The idea here is that a Brickstarter service usefully bundles up “packages” of work, and paperwork i.e. this is a “medium-sized” project (there would be S, M, L, XL), and the package consists of the necessary permits, advice, contacts, guides and so on. We’re hinting that might be a service run by a municipality, or it could simply be in collaboration with it (both the little “YIMBY over  NIMBY” and municipality crests.) You can also see who’s behind the project, recognising it always takes one or two committed individuals to drive such projects. These are super-users, in a sense, but our imperative here is also to lower the bar on development, such that activism becomes activity, or that the heroics usually required to pull these projects off becomes in reach of mere mortals, who might also be doing other things. (Again, Kickstarter is an interesting analogue here, as the capital generated there is often used just to buy a bit of time to pursue a long-held ambition; this might also be useful in these projects.)

 

Badges

Badges
Then the badges, which we’ve talked about before. As an avid Foursquare user, the potential power of gamification is clear—at least for a certain type of user! This might be an admittedly sneaky way of testing whether we can get an open platform to tend towards sustainable outcomes i.e. you might earn a badge for people liking the fact that you’re trying to turn a parking lot into an edible garden, but you can’t get a badge for turning a garden into a parking lot. It’ll be interesting to test if that works, and exactly how to couch it in a way that is open and clear. I’d argue that any so-called “open platform” is never entirely open—it is always within a framework of sorts, with particular constraints, affordances and biases. We can at least be clear about ours.

 

Pitch

Pitch
Then we have a video pitch of the idea. We’re interested in video as a ‘higher resolution’ way of conveying ideas; higher than the standard text field implies, anyway. Again, this may be too much (Marcus Westbury suggested it was a bit much, when I showed him a sketch, and I added the short text underneath on his advice.) Then again, most people—in Finland, anyway—have access to being able to produce video now, and the nature of the project is such that it’s always possible to stand in front of a place and talk about what it could be. Behind each of these elements might be a Neighborland-like, or Kickstarter-like, “how to” guide for how to do a pitch. Much of this project might be about exposing tacit knowledge, such that each field required of a project proponent has these little how-to guides behind it.

 

Multiple ways to contribute

Get involved
We’ve sketched four different ways of getting involved; again, this is too many in reality, but we need to be explicit for now to flush out the right questions. The discussion around these affordances will need expanding later, as there’s a lot going on. But for most users—given most people won’t be running projects, but simply observing, enabling or discussing them—this is the crux of the service.

Meeting

Currently, we’re suggesting it’s mandatory to hold real, physical meetings (and the service suggests it provides a tool to store details of those—another thing we learnt from talking to Kickstarter is the value of giving light project tools to people.) We feel these kind of decisions, unlike Kickstarter decisions, might necessitate looking your neighbour in the eye. Note “Brickstarter South” implies an event (or even physical space), like a monthly gathering of prospective civic start-ups, which might enable peer discussion as well as debates and votes. It would actually be a genuinely useful kind of incubator i.e. unlike most. More like the Summit café in San Francisco, but more accessible, open and richer with possibility than the usual tech industry-oriented incubator; how great could that be? Note that this is a suggestion, a half-formed thought, rather than a statement of intent.

Invest

We have a way to invest in the project, if you want to help make it happen (and more on this below). With Kickstarter being at least one point of inspiration, this seems a no-brainer—and yet this area is fraught with complexity—and politics for that matter.

Vote

We also have a vote box. Again, in reality we might collapse this and the Invest box into only one interaction, of just “backing” the project. Financial backing is perhaps a meaningful form of getting behind a project. Then again, we don’t want money to speak too loudly, so the idea of a non-financial vote is appealing. It’s sort of a counterbalance here, as if these two boxes—Invest and Vote—are in tension. And vote needs defining, of course. It’s somewhere between a vote in a local election and a Facebook Like button. But where the latter is infinite, ad-hoc, and almost meaningless, and the former is finite, infrequent and outsources responsibility for a few years, we want something in the middle. Note also we might be able to infer locals from others—what does it mean when a non-local votes for it? (In this case, it might be a bit of civic infrastructure used by people who don’t live in the area—but then some people have to live with it 24/7, more or less.)

Invest time

We’re also interested in a Brickstarter service that can act as a kind of brokerage or switchboard for people to find professionals who are interested in contributing to such projects, on a pro bono basis perhaps, or via time-banking. There may be some changes in tax legislation required there, actually. We feel this is particularly important as it both reinforces the idea that amateurs need professionals and vice versa (these are not mutually exclusive), but also that one of the major hurdles for community-led projects is simply being convincing. Understanding who you might need, and then finding them, may be key to whether projects get a hearing from institutions—or not. Oh, and there’s the usual spray of social media icons there, but of course you should be able to embed project hooks elsewhere too, which I haven’t drawn yet.

 

Contributors and backers

Contributors and backers
Then we have a straightforward area for who’s contributed so far. Note it’s interesting to bring in the relevant councillor here, and maybe make their views explicit. Note they also look like any other user, more or less, and appear underneath the other citizens. Note also the is dialogic presentation of opinion, over and above simple thumbs up/thumbs down. Interesting to see if this scales.

mayor

You also have a one-click way of getting in touch, with the councillor, or organisers. All of these little details have implications! (Note, if you recognise your picture here, and you’re not happy, let me know and I’ll swap it! These are all somewhat randomly lifted from Facebook, with a Finnish-skew, but then given made-up names.) There’s some notion that we can pick out “locals” (though the local footprint of a project is an interesting question) and some kind of super-contributor (the stars).

 

Project decisions

Project decisions
Decisions is partly about denoting where this project is in the process (which might be different for different scales but we’ve come up with a fairly abstract set of stages at the moment). These projects are arguably more complex than 99% of Kickstarter projects, and we also want to make explicit the “dark matter” of these processes, to open it up and make it less opaque. In a sense, this could be an interface on top of the existing institutional interfaces, cohering, simplifying and user-centring. With these timelines, there are key decisions yet to be made about when projects appear in the system, when funding kicks in (is that about funding, in the language below, the “hatching” to “permitting” stage?)

Project in progress

It’s also clear that there needs to be some kind of service element on the way in to these projects, with people watching this (this is why we hint that Brickstarter might be a service, an agency, perhaps even a place, as well as a website.) As in, Kickstarter reviews and rejects projects as well as accepting them (most are rejected, apparently). As a private entity, that’s entirely reasonable. But there is a complex ethic at work here with something like Brickstarter—as in, with an open platform, about spaces, places or services that might be public, who’s to say a project should be rejected? That needs to be a decision made in public (although currently, most might be rejected by the municipalities, often with little information in public; and a few might make it through for a more public review). That public decision isn’t represented here yet, nor is the idea that many projects might ultimately not happen—yet rather than be rejected, perhaps they go back into a “pool” of projects waiting to be re-shaped, or looking for a better place, or the right time. (This is partly how Renew Newcastle works, as I understand it.) So this element of project progress needs a bit of work.

 

Permits

Permits
Note also the idea of rating permits—this is clearly a bad idea, as bluntly implemented here (every permit will score 0 out of 5, no?!) so it’s more of a placeholder. But the idea of users sharing experience of permits would be more useful (“no need to fill in question 5″, “describe it like this and you avoid this form”, “you definitely need this one” etc.) This is also a useful feedback loop for any government institution involved i.e. the only real feedback loop on such processes and permits presently is things not happening; here, we have a scalable system for capturing user feedback, enabling user-centred re-design of governance.

Beyond that, Finn Williams pointed out that one of the challenges with these projects is maintenance; it’s rarely thought about, which is why many councils knock things back (as they have to pick up the bill there). So the faded-out right-hand-side of the progress bar needs to actually be a little less faded-out, and explicitly ask questions as to maintenance and ongoing operations sooner rather than later (and that’s probably a conversation or negotiation, if public.)

 

Location

Location
Then we have a location (everything here probably has a location, though its conceivable some projects might have multiple, or a wider radius than a map marker would indicate. Can we draw that? How to convey the remit or scale of impact of a project? Equally, how might we convey other projects proposed for the same space? How to understand the opportunity cost from a spatial perspective? Or how might users suggest a better place for a project? One that isn’t NIMBY, that is.)

 

Debate

Debate
This again is too simplistic, clearly (and see below note about Facebook implementation hinted at here), but another placeholder. Debates around decisions often disappear into the ether; whereas online platforms are not bad at capturing and representing such things. We believe this is particularly a problem in Finland, where a docile media is combined with more deference for authority than is usual in Europe—some key decisions can often slip through without debate. Equally, there is a tendency towards quantitative analysis over qualitative—the multiple-choice survey over the discussion—hence this deliberate evocation of a conversation, no matter how neutered that conversational mode usually is via something like Facebook comments. So, a placeholder for a discussion in itself, rather than a proposed solution.

 

More like this

More like this
Finally, some related projects. As above, it would be good to more coherently understand and represent the spatial aspect of this i.e. the opportunity cost of projects proposed for the same space.

DISTILLING CONVERSATIONS INTO PIXELS

As this prototype develops, we might take each aspect apart and unpack in more detail, just as we’ve been sharing many of the research conversations that have gone into it so far.

Each of these elements—each of these pixels—have design choices behind them. I don’t mean visual or interaction design choices, though they are those too, but conceptual and strategic choices. This sketch exists only to suggest and clarify questions. I’d previously posted some early sketches from my sketchbook, which are often drawn in the middle of conversations, almost like reverse subtitles (improvised visual sketches to reinforce, translate, expand, explore what we’re talking about.) There are many more, scribbled after that those earlier sketches, which now lead more closely to the outcomes you see above. Looking back,  I note many of which are still drawings of systems and processes rather than interaction details or layouts, however.

Sketchbook

Though some show signs of heading towards what you see above:

Page layout

Sketchbook

But the resulting hi-res sketch (and I still call the webpages you see above “sketches”)  is informed by conversations with Bryan in particular, and the wider team, as well as the ongoing research presented here previously. You can see, say, the conversation with Rodrigo Araya forcing the requirement to have public meetings, and to compress the time for discussion (although this is also an idiom drawn from most crowdfunding platforms.)

Marcus Westbury was more equivocal about the need for public meetings—which are notoriously easy to derail, after all, though he was also wondering about which projects actually need them (Renew Newcastle towards projects that can be quickly taken down, if there’s a problem.) But he did stress the “process wrangling” required to get projects done, and so the idea of sharing experience of permits comes in. He suggested text to describe projects, rather than videos, certainly at the start of the process, as part of a general comment about removing as many barriers to entry as possible, enabling widespread and ongoing experimentation to become part of everyday city life.

Finn Williams also talked about the need to make these opaque processes legible in some way, or even a platform for creative interpretation of existing legislation (via “Sub-Plan”) as well as directly engaging local authorities and institutions. Hence the city council appearing here quite explicitly – we’ve actually poised this sketch halfway between a decision point, in that it could be interpreted as a public service run by a city (and so challenging the idea of how such public services look, feel and behave, compared to current offerings), or by a public partnership in collaboration with a city. It can be taken either way. It might be that Sub-Plan-like elements are part of useful “how-to” guides, as noted above (we also met Teele Pehk and Regina Viljasaar from Estonia’s Linnalabor this week, who have produced a similar user guide to Tallin’s planning regulations, which is equally excellent.)

We’ve had many more conversations which can’t be connected so directly to a chunk of interface, but have shaped the sketch nonetheless.

DETECTING DARK MATTER WITH DESIGN PROBES

We decided to draw from the idioms of contemporary social media practice and dovetail them with public services, again as a challenge to much current offerings. You’ll note lots of elements here drawn from existing services—this is on purpose, not least for the benefit of working with well-understood idioms (though looking to extend and improve where possible), but also as a statement that contemporary public sector web services could be just as “contemporary” as private sector web services. Not for the sake of being contemporary in itself, but because such idioms are tested, malleable, honed and popular. They are attractive.

Many institutions don’t understand they could easily be worked around; that they no longer have a monopoly on “running the city”. Thanks to the tools the average citizen has to hand – which can now enable Occupy Everywhere, Arab Spring, and mass, organised cleanups after London riots et al, as well as Justin Bieber fan pages – many unresponsive institutions could be what I call “Maginot Line’d” out of the way. In fact, increasingly, we might call this “Ravintolapäivä’d” i.e. neatly sidestepped, using transient networked organisational models, rather than engaged. So we might want to borrow elements of that culture and collide them with existing governance culture, to see what hybrid forms are possible.

So every little design cue here has a strategic point in terms of generating a conversation about that. This use of idioms and patterns, then, is a way of de-risking applied research, to rapidly generate alternative proposals to current practice, rather than simply being the outcome of a user-centred design process.

For this research to have effect, it has to look and feel like a contemporary web service, suggesting the kind of platform for citizen participation in decision-making we’ve been exploring here. And to be clear, we’d love something like this to exist. We might help make that happen; one of our partners might; one of the existing adjacent services might take on some of the aspects sketched here; or it might inspire someone else to do so. The field is growing so rapidly that we can assume this will happen. Since our project started some months ago, after years of background thinking, it’s incredibly heartening to see a new proposed service popping up almost every week (our emerging “Fact Cards” series will help track that a bit.)

What won’t “naturally” happen, though, is a thorough investigation of how “dark matter” might, or can, change. Few of these new entrants are genuinely grappling with governance and decision-making as a design challenge—nor is it their job to do so, necessarily. That is not something the market is likely to produce any time soon, and it’s also complex for government to move swiftly into this space too. As a result, you get some false dawns, like the idea that a crowdfunding site might be able to conjure up a light rail line by aggregating enough ‘Likes’. This will not happen without, as Gladwell might say, a little engagement with non-networked structures.

We’re also aware of the potential critique that some institutions and governments might nurture crowdfunding initiatives as it focuses citizens on the everyday small stuff—the things one can buy with merely tens of thousands of euros, their immediate neighbourhood, their individual concerns—as a way of distracting the same citizens from bigger questions, bigger strategies, bigger budgets, bigger procurements, wider societal concerns, and the potential need to genuinely re-engineer governance itself. It might placate with the notion of genuine local engagement, yet ultimately diminish engagement in broader politics. Personally, I don’t buy the “conspiracy theory” here, as I don’t think many governments really know what to do about this. They would not be that strategic. Yet it could indeed produce the same outcome, and so we want to understand the broader governance frameworks and cultures themselves as part of this project. To see this local experiment in its wider context.

So at this point, as you can see from the way things are framed above, the website is a token to enable genuinely pragmatic and constructive conversations about, for instance, what city government might need to be in the near future, or what legal practices might need to change to enabling crowdfunding of such projects, or what new social structures might emerge in terms of housing assocations or consumer groups, or what kind of richer understandings of citizens might be required in a diversifying Finland, and so on.

It’s a kind of “dark matter probe” that we can send over the top to attract and stimulate that engagement. It’s a kind of very-near-future version i.e. it could be launched tomorrow, of Phillips’ “far-future” design probes. Without “objects” like this, questions as to “21st century governance” are just too abstract, and daunting.

FROM BUTTONS TO QUESTIONS

Behind all these innocuous looking buttons, there are perhaps hundreds of unanswered questions. Again, this is the point. So let’s take an example.

Invest button

If we look at that simple INVEST button alone, we might generate questions like:

  • What actually happens when someone clicks “invest”? (We have legal experts looking into that, in terms of crowdfunding and current Finnish laws around investment, and so on.) But what should happen?
  • Should it be a direct citizen donation, as per Kickstarter? Or, given the “tradition” of paying for effective, quality public services here, should it be some small proportion of a citizen’s existing tax payment made available back to them to place on projects they like? Should it be akin to being able to direct charity donations, as in some countries? Here, there is a payment to the church, which one has to opt out of, so there is precedent for additional discretionary items added to taxes. What’s the right way to do this, given many of the projects might be public in scope, remit and value generated?
  • Indeed, how do we ensure that crowdfunding doesn’t begin to unhelpfully “destabilise” local taxation that pays for the often-excellent public services? (That is too precious a result to carelessly destablise through importing aspects of a model developed in a context where taxation is anathema, government is necessarily small, and any semblence of the welfare state barely exists never mind functions well. The corollary is that public finances may soon not stretch as far as they need to.)
  • How do we validate transactions? When is the money actually transferred? And to what form of legal entity? Can Finnish cooperatives accept this kind of funding? (Again, these question is currently being investigated by our legal team—we’ll publish a “state of play” in August)
  • Should there be some kind of City-led neighbourhood matched funding scheme, like Seattle and other cities, to top-up crowdfunded projects?
  • If we say “invest”, what does that mean? That your return-on-investment (ROI) is a form of non-financial “shared value” reward of a new service or space existing? Or should it actually be a projected financial ROI? ANd if so, how does that work in terms of legal and financial practice? Should we even make the idea of a shared value return an explicit, rather than implicit, part of the project?
  • What happens when a community group reaches 99% funding but doesn’t make 100% before the 60 day limit? Should some public body step in to make up the shortfall? (It would be almost heartless to build a system that lets a community group raise €29k and then take that all away because they missed their €30k total by two hours. And yet deadlines must be observed in order to have the focus-compressing effect.)
  • How open are the accounts of community projects?
  • How do we ensure due democratic process, such that money doesn’t speak too loudly? It would be possible to make particular projects more likely happen by dropping large donations on them – but with the opportunity cost involved in public spaces, and with public value generated, this wouldn’t be a democractic process. How to balance this button with the one beneath, voting?
  • How does the City council appear and participate in this open platform, in terms of its funding? Can it create projects in the system, and drop its own funding on them, to open up public financing around public projects? What happens when the citizen reject them all (for the sake of argument)?
  • Should those donating be made visible within the community? We assume so, as per web idioms and Kickstarter – but is this different when you can see what your neighbour is voting for, or donating to, and vice versa? How do we balance a healthy and rich public discourse alongside these simple mechanisms and transactions?
  • Should such a service accept donations for local projects from citizens in other countries? (We could! Perhaps there’s a bunch of people that want to make wind turbines and community gardens happen in cities they’ll never visit – but what are the local politics of that? We might call this the Detroit Robocop Memorial Dilemma, as referenced here and here. Who makes the decision about their engihbourhood seems a simple question, but what if a neighbourhood could take advantage of the internet to receivef funding from anywhere, as per Kickstarter?)

And so on. And you’ll be able to come up lots more. And that’s just one button! Over time, we’ll pick apart each aspect of this proposed interface, and reveal the complex dark matter wiring behind it; at least, that which we can see, and we’ll use the “matter” of the website to flush out the “meta” surrounding it.

We also need to understand all the potential connections, as part of an “ecosystem” (much as I don’t like that word) of services around areas like this. We’re keen that Brickstarter helps and promotes the various other projects that are kicking around in this space – Joukkoenkeli, Hukkatila, Helsinki Region Infoshare etc. in Finland, and others – by plugging into, or pointing to, those where they exist (Again, keep an eye on the “Fact Cards” that Maiji is progressively posting). This might be via some kind of “civic API” which enables us to share elements across multiple services. So, the crowdfunding mechanisms of one might be able to deploy the financial transaction-handling module of another; the voter registration or citizen identity records of one service might plug into another (it’s the lack of these interoperable modules, these small pieces loosely joined, that currently hold back “open government” services like Avoin Ministeriö for instance.)

Sometimes, even these syndication and interoperability issues throw up interesting questions.

We might, for instance, draw in data from Foursquare, so we can easily aggregate “surrounding attractions or services” for a project site. Equally, and given that we are Sitra, should we use OpenStreetMap rather than Google Maps in order to reinforce mapping refinement into open platforms? Similarly, my pasting in the comments module from Facebook (available via the Facebook social plugin) is both pragmatic and contentious. If a city government were to run a service, it probably couldn’t require its citizens to use Facebook to comment, in terms of open access. But if the city government enables commenting elsewhere, somehow – ensuring universal access – could the ease and power of Facebook’s social networking infrastructure be of such value that it’s impossible to ignore, and could augment existing discussions?

QUESTIONS, QUESTIONS

From a design practice point-of-view, I’ve recently written about the value of prototyping to flush out questions, as well as answers. This is a case in point. The value of strategic design is partly, we believe, in terms of aiding decision-making. When you’re designing something, you have to make decisions. The stairs have to go here or here, not in both places (usually). This courtyard can be a community garden or a parking lot, but not both at the same time (usually). The button on this website has to be labelled “INVEST” or “DONATE” or “FUND” or “BACK THIS” or “CONTRIBUTE”, but not all of them. It can only be one, and it must be consistent, and each choice has a subtly different inflection, and implication.

The practice of actually making something forces these decisions, in a way that most strategy and vision work simply does not, and so, we would argue, fails to locate, understand and answer questions seriously enough. (This is even before we get to the genuine public value of actually iterating prototypes into services—something that is just not usually done—and which is a whole other conversation.)

There is clearly a balance to be struck in terms of resolution of detail when sketching to flush out questions. And this is a high-res mockup, no doubt. Personally, I find it easier to sketch this way, but it can of course have the unfortunate outcome that people think things are set in stone, that this is closer to the end of a design process than the beginning. This isn’t the case, as these layouts are all entirely malleable at this stage—as I said, they’re entirely throwaway.

But more importantly, we believe that we have to make the website—and make it convincing, and work with real partners to co-create it—for the real questions to emerge. Otherwise, it’s all abstract guesswork.

To this end (and incidentally, reflecting the fact that designing and coding should be done at the same time—they are in fact the same thing), we have a coded-up prototype too, which we’ll post shortly. Even there, there are implications. Only a few in the public sector, like the UK’s Government Digital Services, for instance, are producing contemporary work at high-quality, quickly, and at scale, though some are doing it for public good from outside of that environment, such as the rapidly-built Ravintolapäivä app. We need more activity like this. So, just to geek out briefly, we asked the excellent Ville Kolehmainen at Fusion Inc to take a week coding our admittedly basic and untested prototype using responsive layouts, CSS transforms, masonry grids, and so on, partly to reinforce that this it is possibly to produce contemporary work quickly from a public sector position. Such a position also involves ensuring universal access, either through backwards compatibility, reductive simplicity, or creating a range of services for all citizens. With public service design, each technical choice is also a political choice.

From talking to other cities about this project we know that virtually all western cities are facing similar challenges, and we know our existing cultures of decision-making, as well as operating models, are under increasing stress. Partly this is self-induced, as organisational models, and many behaviours, have largely not changed significantly since the 19th century (according to the likes of Jocelyne Bourgone, for instance).

But also because, as the Mayor of Oslo put it at Cisco’s Public Services Summit in December, “our so many rules and regulations have made it easier to say ‘no’ and to find a way to stop things.”

But another of our principal beliefs is that such things are malleable. We have created every one of these outcomes, one way or another, either through conscious thought or emergence, and so we can choose to plot a different course if we want to. In order to do that we need to, as Marco says, understand the architecture of the problem in order to discern the architecture of the solution. This means producing an artefact that helps us flush out these connections, this dark matter. We also know from our work in food systems and culture that this dark matter is key to enabling systemic change, over and above installations, popups and isolated breakthroughs.

To paraphrase and slightly contradict the “duck test”, even though this looks like a website, and might behave like a webiste, this work isn’t actually about a website per se — we’re doing this work to help anticipate the characteristics of a more productive 21st century social contract, and how we might get there.

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Dan Hill

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Dan Hill


Fact Card: Aloitekanava.fi

Fact Card is a series of posts summarising crowdsourcing and public decision making initiatives relevant to our project. Please post a comment or email us with any clarification.

aloitekanava_2

What?
Aloitekanava (‘Initiative Channel’) enables young citizens to take part in municipal decision making online and to give suggestions to improve their immediate surroundings. Aloitekanava responds to the requirements of the youth act to provide young citizens with an opportunity to take part in decision making on a municipal level.

How does it work?
Like Avoin Ministeriö, Aloitekanava facilitates the crowdsourcing process for young people to send suggestions to municipal decision makers. Municipalities can also post topical questions for the youth to comment on.

  • Each city and municipality in Finland has their own ‘channel’ and registered users can submit suggestions
  • Registered users can comment and vote for suggestions, suggestions with favourable votes will be carried on and moderators will edit them into initiatives
  • Initiatives can be commented further and they are tracked through their way on the municipal level

Who’s involved?
Young citizens, municipalities, Nuorten tieto- ja neuvontapalveluiden kansallinen koordinaatio- ja kehittämiskeskus (Centre for National Coordination and Development for Youth Information Services).

What’s new?
An easy way for the youth to contact municipal decision makers in an environment familiar to them.

Status:
Active. Usage varies between municipalities. 140 municipalities had joined Aloitekanava by early 2011 and the expansion continues. New interface being tested.

Website:
http://www.aloitekanava.fi/

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maija

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Maija Oksanen


Fact Card: Avoin Ministeriö

Fact Card is a series of posts summarising crowdsourcing and public decision making initiatives relevant to our project. Please post a comment or email us with any clarification.

avoinministerio_3

What?
Avoin Ministeriö (‘Open Ministry’) started on 1 March 2012 in accordance with the new Citizens’ Initiative Act. Avoin Ministeriö is a crowd sourcing platform for citizens. Anyone can post their ideas as suggestions for new acts and comment on other users’ ideas with their own name.

How does it work?

  • Avoin Ministeriö facilitates the crowd sourcing process and provides collaboration tools enabling citizens to develop their ideas into actual law proposals
  • Registered users can submit proposals which are debated and refined as the discussion goes further. The ideas and comments submitted to the service are under a Creative Commons license
  • Registered members can also vote for (or against) the proposals
  • The best ideas are refined into initiatives which are evaluated by volunteer experts
  • Law proposals are submitted to the Parliament after the required 50,000 signatures have been collected online

Who’s involved?
Citizens and volunteers behind Avoin Ministeriö (Avoin Ministeriö is a non-government related service)

What’s new?
The first online portal in Finnish to take advantage of the Citizens’ Initiative Act

Status:
Active. The first phase of the website includes basic functions. More functions and tools are being developed by volunteers. Some 130 initiatives were posted during the first 2 months. No initiatives have been passed forward to the parliament yet since electronic signature (coming soon) has not been enabled and signatures in favor of acts cannot be verified.

Website:
http://www.avoinministerio.fi

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maija

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Maija Oksanen


Conversation with Nene Tsuboi & Tuomas Toivonen (Kulttuurisauna)

Although the sauna holds a special place in the heart of Finland, it’s not so often these days that a new public sauna is built. They’ve fallen out of fashion with the rise of private saunas that are now built into most residences. As of 2010 there were 1.5 million saunas in flats alone here in Finland, which is approximately one sauna for every 3.5 people.

IMG_0619

Tuomas Toivonen, an architect, and Nene Tsuboi, an artist, are a rare exception in that they’re building a new public sauna. The Kulttuurisauna, as they call it, will sit on the water’s edge in Helsinki’s upcoming Kallio neighborhood.


The site is that little rectangle of land on the lower right. View Larger Map

With the duo having recently broken ground on the building site, we sat down to learn from their experiences exploring the dark matter of Helsinki and the travails of NIMBYism.

How it started

“The possibility of building for yourself only happens when you understand how [the system] works,” Tuomas recounts. “When you build up enough courage to walk into [a city] office and say, this is going to sound crazy but…” Without enough knowledge and experience with the permitting and approvals process it’s hard to imaging having the confidence to tackle something as complex as a sauna-sized project. Tuomas has had the benefit of some seven years of operating his own practice for paying clients. That’s a good amount of time to build up enough confidence to walk into the city offices and venture an unusual idea.

So it’s easier to imagine architects, property developers, and other professionals who are familiar with the process being in a position to initiate these kinds of projects because they don’t have to pay themselves (not market rates, anyways) to wade through the muddy parts of the process.

By making decision making processes more transparent we can demystify the process, making it inviting for experts and enthusiastic amateurs alike.

Dark Matter

kulttuurisauna.posterous-2

Source: Kulttuurisauna

Describing the process, Tuomas and Nene struggle to find peak moments of difficulty:

“there are not really specific bottlenecks, more like a general friction.”

As a self-initiated project that includes an architect as half of the core team, they were able to progress, if slowly, despite this ‘friction’ which would cost too much money and take too long for a paying client to maintain.

The effect of this friction is to weight the decision making process towards larger projects that are likely to have a significant income stream able to recoup the costs incurred. Simply put, bigger projects have a better chance of surviving the battle of attrition in the current decision-making structures.

The difficulties of sorting out dark matter become apparent in the dense details of the process. The waterfront site features a seawall which is maintained by the parks department, therefore raising a question about long term maintenance and making the parks department extra cautious with geotechnical concerns. Although it was not clear at the outset, in the end Tuomas and Nene were obligated to install pilings instead of a foundation.

The concerns were known to all parties, indeed an analysis that showed it was possible to build without pilings was a deciding factor for the economics of the project in early financial projections. But when it came time to build, different parts of the city had different opinions about what was required as a minimum standard.

dm squid

Coming late in the process, the requirement to install pilings forced them to make a decision: abandon years of effort or find a way to scrape together a significant amount of money to cover the costs of re-engineering the plans and the capital costs of the pilings themselves. Tuomas and Nene doubled down on their commitment to the Kulttuurisauna and now we have a very real visualization of the ‘cost’ of the darkness of dark matter. The city’s decision-making is as opaque as the pilings are deep.

When a proposal involves specific risks that have not been assessed before, extra time should be taken to make sure that balanced perspectives may be properly synthesized.

NIMBY

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Tuomas proudly showing off the definitive stamped, signed, and approved YES to the Sauna.

Projects like Kulttuurisauna go through a period of “neighbor listening” where people who live near the proposed site are given the opportunity to make comments on the plans. It’s possible to do this oneself, but Tuomas and Nene opted to pay the city a standard fee of 180€ to have them handle the legwork of this listening period. In practice, this means that the approvals architect in the city planning office made a judgement about how wide the catchment for the project is and then sent invitations to comment to everyone in that area. They had 2 weeks to comment.

The results of this call go into a dossier and then a judgement is made. Kulttuurisauna was approved by the city architect at this stage and moved on to the next phase, a month-long option for complaints. A single complaint was lodged, it went to the permit council for consideration (taking another 8 weeks), and the complaint was eventually rejected by the city’s permit council. On the day of our conversation Tuomas and Nene had just received final, written confirmation from the court of Helsinki that the project had cleared all appeals. This piece of paper represents a resounding YES to Kulttuurisauna.

In parallel to this process, Tuomas and Nene were receiving direct and indirect encouragement from members of the direct community who enthusiastically supported the proposal but it’s important to note that the bureaucracy is better set up to accept complaints than it is compliments towards a proposal.

This experience begs the question, could there be a way to think about the right to appeal in the context of a parallel right to support, in effect limiting appeals that are not backed by a wider base of support or balancing appeals against support?

Now or forever

kulttuurisauna.posterous-1

Source: Kulttuurisauna

Planning permissions are set up to OK an event or infinity, with nary an in-between. Semi-permanent constructions or meanwhile usage for a handful of years are therefore difficult in Helsinki. The Paviljonki may be one exception but it’s not clear how it happened (perhaps though WDC mandate?).

Short to medium term usage of spaces could provide positive room for experimentation with a lowered threshold for approvals, and a faster cycle of innovation, while maintaing stafety standards.

Rituals to match acts of consequence

kulttuurisauna.posterous

Source: Kulttuurisauna

“You could say that the Civil servants have been really civil during the process.”

Tuomas and Nene noticed a positive inclination on behalf of many of the civil servants they interacted with during the project. In their estimation, a self-initiated effort that is clearly a project of passion lends a different tone to the conversations. They recalled with a bit of glee the excitement of the moment when they signed the land lease: “we expected a bureaucratic stamp but instead when we arrived they were asking ‘so you are the ones doing the sauna’ and very excited to see us.” These kinds of stories that are rich with detail and personal commitment make for cities that people love.

Bureaucrats are people too. Could rituals in the context of bureaucracy subtly create opportunities to encourage civic entrepreneurship? How might a coherent, articulate, and widely-accessible city strategy empower individual civil servants to calibrate their decisions in support of larger values?

The pointy tip

IMG_0636

While developing the project from the very beginning, Nene and Tuomas were interested in a network of possibilities. For them the perfect project was not just a sauna or a special building, per se, but one that would combine those and more. They sought a project that folded architectural merit, public sauna, a waterfront site, and energy efficiency considerations into one effort. This particular mix, one imagines, is what happens when future owners dream up a project that they’re willing to tie themselves to for thirty years or more. It’s bound to be specific, even quirky, and it will succeed or suffer on its specific composition of these aspects.

Tuomas and Nene describe it slightly differently: they talk about the project having a “pointy tip” which is articulated in a way that appeals to a broad base of interests. It’s never just one thing, and therefore is able to be part of multiple narratives at different moments, retaining the best possible chance to break through blockages or other adversarial moments. Kulttuurisauna can be a place to sauna and swim in the center of Helsinki; it’s also an experiment in highly efficient energy use for a small building; it’s also a rare example of contemporary architecture in Helsinki; and so forth. The strength of the proposal supports multiple stories.

Having a good idea is not enough. The narrative of the proposal must also be compelling, and compellingly presented and shared again and again during the course of the project. That’s the pointy tip.

Summary

Screen-shot-2011-11-02-at-9.26

Source: Kulttuurisauna

Many thanks to Tuomas and Nene for sharing their exciting project with us. Having survived a two year process of design and development, they’re now in the full swing of construction and hope to have the sauna open this summer. In our own words, here’s what we learned from them, abstracted up a level to be generally useful for Brickstarter:

  • Transparent (or better yet, legible) processes lower the barrier to entry and attract a more diverse pool of applicants. Important if you’re interested in diversity, as any good city will be.
  • When considering innovative projects, extra time should be allocated to explore risks through a collaborative process, sharing the cost of this between entrepreneur and institution.
  • There’s opportunity for careful innovation in appeals procedures that take into account individual rights together with the costs incurred by this right.
  • Good ideas are not enough. A strong narratives is important too.
Why do I blog this?
Although we’ve known about the Kulttuurisauna for a while now, it was not until recently that I understood the winding path that Tuomas and Nene followed to get to this point. Hearing of their travails with the community meetings and all of the efforts to endear this project to their future neighbors, it became clear that we have a lot to learn. In our discussion, the last point about the importance of the narrative and the power of personal commitment bubbled up as key themes. Today we live in a world filled with abstractions: properties built by developers have no client, per se, they’re abstract or distant from real people. They’re drained of idiosyncrasies in order to be imminently salable. But those idiosyncratic details, those slight but risky choices, they are the things that give our best cities texture and make places livable. Brickstarter is about making it easier to bring that texture to the city, so learning from lead users like Nene and Tuomas is essential.

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Bryan

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Bryan Boyer


Readings: Together by Richard Sennett

One thing that Brickstarter has been very good at so far is adding to the proverbial bedside stack of books. On our field research visit to Berlin, Dan and I stopped into the excellent bookshop Pro QM where I picked up a copy of Richard Sennett’s latest book, Together: The rituals, pleasures, and politics of cooperation.

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I’ve enjoyed devouring this volume rather quicker than I usually make my way through a text, as Together gives me words to describe things that I previously knew tacitly, only in my bones. It’s almost as if Sennett wrote the book to flesh out some of the philosophical issues we’re attempting to prod through Brickstarter.

His observations on the value and practice of cooperation touch on a few key issues for us: how communities learn together, how rituals enhance sociality, and the social value of repair.

Learning together

A simple observation: “Experiment involves doing new things, and more, structuring these changes over time.” (p. 13). From the point of view of making changes to the built environment, there are experiments happening all the time but the knowledge from those experiments are often kept within the organizations that execute them.

If you’re a private developer, say, that’s part of your competitive advantage. However, if you’re a community group or some other less commercial endeavor the experimental learnings of your efforts are often trapped as well unless you’ve taken great pains to document and share your work in public. Despite the fact that you don’t stand to lose anything by sharing your insights, it’s an act that takes time and is not core to your mission so it’s usually among the lowest priority. This adds up to community-led efforts requiring recurring heroic efforts: one can go to school to learn how to be a property developer, but there are no (few?) equivalent sources of structured learning if you hope to, say, convert your building’s courtyard from a parking lot into a park. The High Line might offer inspiration to subsequent aspiring civic entrepreneurs, but what does it teach them? And how easily does it make the learning process?

One of the important roles of Brickstarter is to provide an infrastructure for learning. We want the platform to help manifest positive projects in the world, but beyond that we want the platform to also provide a learning resource for future civic entrepreneurs.

Sennett describes two analogs that are relevant. The first are a pair of workshops that Booker T. Washington established in the US for former slaves where participants learned skills such as horticulture, carpentry, metal-working, and animal husbandry. The interesting bit, however, is that graduation required more than mastery of skills, it also required graduates to learn how to teach (p. 56). The workshop became a self-replicating dispensary of knowledge.

The second useful analog is from the emergence of movable type. Sennett describes how this allowed “ways of making” to be written down in how-to books and transmitted further and faster than previous systems of guild-based face to face knowledge (p. 114). It’s a well-trodden argument that the written word created network effects for learning, but what’s important here is that new practices that want to grow should pay particular attention to how they replicate their knowledge base. We view civic entrepreneurship as a (relatively) new practice.

For Brickstarter this informs the way we think about the core functionality. One of the decisions we made early on is that the platform must be functional (i.e. allowing people to launch projects) and informative (i.e. helping them imagine possible projects as well as conveying how to execute successful works).

Informative content takes time. It means we have to research, reflect upon, and document successful practices. It’s important work, but it doesn’t scale very well.

Our task is to devise a way for civic entrepreneurship to scale, and that means we need to get beyond person-to-person transmission of knowledge and know-how. The trick for us is to design the platform’s functionality to ambiently produce useful learnings. How? By keeping a public record of how a project is developed, one that’s legible to others who happen upon it. We need to go beyond the “updates” of Kickstarter and other sites. Our hypothesis is that this will require straddling the line between enabling communication to supporters and providing useful project management armature. That puts pressure on devising exactly the right tools for our target user groups. After all, few people use tools that are not useful.

If Brickstarter is a useful tool for pursuing a civic project, it will attract users and those users, by virtue of using Brickstarter, will produce a public record of their work. Scale is important here because over time as successes (and failures) accumulate it will help us build out what Sennett calls a ‘quiver’:

Sometimes it’s imagined that becoming skilled means finding the one right way to execute a task, that there is a one-to-one match between means and ends. A fuller path of development involves learning to address the same problem in different ways. The full quiver of techniques enables mastery of complex problems; only rarely does one single right way serve all purposes. (p. 210)

The Importance of Rituals

“Ritual makes expressive cooperation work” (p. 17), or put differently, ritual is an expressive form of cooperation. Sennett argues that rituals bind communities because they are an act which is simultaneously bigger than the individual and yet allows for personal and expressive interpretation. In his view, society suffers when it loses its rituals, and we’ve lost many.

To an extent, I think we would agree. In the context of Brickstarter we’re interested in tiny rituals as a way of celebrating specific kinds of usage. It’s an idea that hinges on one seemingly obvious point: specific kinds of usage require specific uses! By narrowing our scope to civic entrepreneurship in the built environment we’re isolating a wide but specific spectrum of issues, opportunities, and challenges to deal with. We have identified a territory that allows us to hover between general and specific and begin to speculate about reasonable rituals therein.

One of the rituals we’ve identified already is the notion of celebrating/decorating projects that exhibit pro-social values through the conferring of badges or other means. Side note: On Friday Dan and I had a good discussion about an alternative to badges which connects to Finnish history and symbolism. As both of us have a background in interaction design, we’re concerned with those aspects of the project as a point of innovation as well.

I appreciate Sennett’s thinking on ritual because it forms the sociological flip side of what behavioral psychology tells us about gaming and game mechanics. Motivate the individual with a badge, sure, but use the act to create wider ripples of meaning that reinforce the values of a community.

The social value of repair

Sennett argues that societies which have a culture of repair are more integral cultures. I’m struck by this perspective as it links the physical and the social through the quirkiness of matter. When things break they break in unique ways, always with a slightly different context, even minutely varried details. Repairing things implicates the owner and the repairman in an unavoidable dialog of diagnostics.

Making can happen in the isolated atelier (though it usually doesn’t if we’re honest with ourselves) but repair almost always happens in the world, with people.

Sennett describes repair as “[re-formating] an issue so that it becomes changeable” (p. 229). In some sense this will be the task for Brickstarter: if we can make the built environment feel mutable to a larger group of people, not just developers, architects, and other insiders, then we’ve done a good job. A question for us, then, is “how can we make the cracks, seams, and loopholes of the city legible and actionable to a wider variety of citizens?”

Reading Together challenges me to think of all acts within a city as repair rather than creation. Understanding a creative act as ‘repair’ implicates the ideological underpinnings of that choice: is it a good repair or a bad one? Implicit in repair there is a sense of history that’s valuable to retain. Or more poetically, as Swedish impressario Jens Lekman puts it, “what’s broken can always be fixed; what’s fixed will always be broken”.

Changing the courtyard from parking lot into a park could be seen as repairing a broken courtyard rather than creating a new park. But in some cases it will be useful, even necessary, to consider how to gracefully accommodate those who fall on the losing side of a public decision. Sennett explores the question through the example of David Chipperfield’s renovation of the Neues Museum in Berlin which was devastated in WWII, but we will also need to think through these issues on a much more humble scale, like courtyard gardens repaired into place in entirely peaceful settings. In our courtyard example above, how to retain a sense of history is a useful quandary.

Reorienting the book’s subtitle, I might phrase its relevance to our work as: supporting the rituals and pleasures of cooperation to ease the politics of shared decisions in shared spaces.

If you want to skip all the reading you can watch this talk from the Harvard Graduate School of Design instead:

Why do I blog this?

Because the book was excellent and thought provoking, duh. OK but seriously, because I wanted to get some of these issues into the flow and writing this blog post gave me opportunity to merge the concepts that I picked up from Sennett with the loose threads of various Brickstarter conversations. Writing congealing the liquid thought, perhaps.

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Bryan

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Update: Where we’re at in May 2012

Every now and then I look over and Dan has a new set of sketches on his desk. They’re usually boxes within boxes, which means he’s drawing out versions of the various screens that will comprise Brickstarter. The boxes are chunks of interaction that he’s nudging around. He draws, we talk occasionally, and eventually the result of those two get crystalized into pixels that look something like this:

pixels

Wait, did you think I would give it all away already? No… that will come soon enough, but for now this post is about some of the thematic issues we’re crunching on.

While Dan digs into the function and use of the site, I’m focusing on some of the structural issues such as who, really, is the site for? And what does a successful Brickstarter project look like in specific terms?

We’ve been writing scenarios which are brief use-cases that describe in narrative form how someone might plausibly use Brickstarter. These are currently organized into small, medium, large, and extra-large based more or less on the amount of money required to build the thing. Kalle, Dan, and I spent a bit of time making sure the scenarios we chose were representative and covered a good spread. Small looks something like this:

Untitled-2

Yrjö had been warned by a friend that the cobble stone streets of Helsinki might vibrate the screws of his bike loose, but it wasn’t until his seat flew off that this became a problem. He and his trusty Pelago were in the middle of the city’s newest cycle path, Baana, a sunken laneway cutting through the middle of the city. It’s lovely… until your bike needs maintenance and you have to lug it up the stairs.
This personal need highlighted a civic opportunity for Yrjö. With hundreds of cyclists using Baana every weekend a self-service maintenance station would be a useful asset for all and it’s cheap enough that it can even be crowd funded. Let’s make this happen.

As you can see, each scenario describes the proposal of the imagined Brickstarter campaign, a dash of the back story, and the kind of help the campaign is trying to attract. This last bit is key because it really changes depending on the scale of the project. Sure, it’s possible to imagine crowdfunding something like a bike maintenance station which may cost in the thousands or tens of thousands of euros, but could you imagine crowd funding a wind farm which is many millions? Not so likely, at least not in the way that crowdfunding is generally understood. Instead, larger projects may use crowdfunding as a way to enable proper feasibility studies and permitting due diligence. That might sound like this:

Untitled-1

________ has always been a small community that prides itself on sisu, the Finnish sense of perseverance. As this community of farmers look into the future, they’re concerned about energy prices and looking for ways to insulate themselves from price fluctuations.

Someone suggested a particularly 21st century version of “talkoot“. Rather than coming together to raise a barn for a neighbor, the people of ________ hope to pool their resources to build a small wind farm of three turbines. They’re using Brickstarter to bring attention to their project in hopes of attracting help from energy professionals and those who have navigated the approvals process before. Let’s make this happen.

We write these use cases because they help us make decisions about what’s worth keeping within the boundaries of the project and what should be put on a wish list for tomorrow. By exploring the possibilities through a range of plausible uses we make more coherent decisions. As a first stage, these scenarios help us articulate a v0.1 or so of the prototype.

The outcomes of this process will be mockups of the key pages on the site and those will go to a local firm to be converted from photoshop files into web pages that we can click on and interact with in a basic ways. In turn, we will be showing those clickable mockups to our key stakeholders, collecting their feedback, and iterating again. It’s cheaper, faster, and easier to make changes in these early stages than it is when there’s a real site up and running, so we want to maximize this phase of development and get the most out of it.

One of the things we’ll be paying close attention to when we show the prototypes to people is their reaction to the gaming aspects of Brickstarter. At the basic level Brickstarter is about enabling people to develop proposals about the world around them, but a substantial reason why an organization like Sitra wants to develop Brickstarter is tied up in our current mission of supporting sustainable wellbeing. If we’re able to offer the most compelling platform for attracting support to community proposals, we’re able to encourage those proposals which foreground sustainability in terms of social, economic, and ecological factors. But how? We’re looking to behavioral economics and game design for clues. It’s a subject we’re tiptoeing into.

When I was in New York last week I had the pleasure of being on a panel discussion with Colleen Macklin, a game designer who is Associate Professor in the Department of Communication Design and Technology at Parsons. Our conversation there touched on an instructive aspect of game design. Colleen was describing how her clients sometimes ask for games which teach players a particular lesson. A natural assumption may be that the game should direct players to a particular outcome e.g. “the only way to win is to collaborate with your neighbor every time”.

In fact, building a game like this can be frustrating to players and for good reason: a game that always ends the same way is a boring game. No one wants to play that. Instead Colleen suggests that games should allow a wide spectrum of possible outcomes but encourage specific desirable outcomes. These kind of games are more likely to convey the pedagogical message their designers are attempting to impart because they’re more compelling games and people engage them more deeply and for longer periods of time.

We’ve been toying with the idea of badges a-la-Foursquare as they’re a way to celebrate the projects which most clearly embody the values of sustainable wellbeing. It’s amusing to draft the lists of badge and I’ve gotten a bit lost in it: Pramistan… the project is designed to be convenient for parents and child carers. If you want to use Brickstarter to propose a drive through fast food restaurant you’re welcome to do so, but through basic game mechanics we expect that such suggestions will be rather short lived.

Here we tie Colleen’s advice to a thought from Richard Sennet’s latest book, Together: winner-takes-all scenarios are counterproductive to long term moral building and vitality because they’re essentially anti-collaborative. In other words: if we want to highlight and build long term support for sustainable efforts, they need to genuinely win against a background of other, less sustainable proposals.

Will it work? Don’t know. Can’t know a-priori! That’s why we build a prototype as quickly as possible and test it as widely as we can.

Brickstarter cannot magically ordain anything into existence, but we aspire to help boost up the best proposals. In that sense, Brickstarter is a statement of hope. Not generic hope but a particular, honed belief that communities will tend to make sustainable decisions if they’re provided a forum and tools to do so easily:one that makes shared values legible and actionable.

badges

If Foursquare has taught us one thing it’s that the maxim to decorate is to celebrate is as legitimate online as it is offline. These are some badge sketches for things such as year-round operation, food production, and renewable energy.

The end of May looks like: information architecture, use-cases, mechanics, mockups, and paper prototyping. Next we’ll move into early clickable prototypes, looking for a small group of beta projects to road test the live version of Brickstarter, and fleshing out production look and feel, tone and voice.

Why do I blog this?

As a fund, we at Sitra are more used to paying for projects than developing them ourselves, with our own muscle. Brickstarter is amongst a crop of new efforts which are developed in-house first, with the project team actively engaged in all aspects of both the conception and delivery of the project goals. Posts like this are helpful for keeping a record of where our thinking was at during a particular phase of work, but it’s also important to play out the process of designing and developing a product in public. Product design is a new culture within Sitra and the public sector more broadly, so we want to be extra careful to make the process explicit. And especially to expose the intertwined relationship between the details and the big picture.

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Bryan

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Early product sketches, March-April 2012

Increasingly all our projects at Sitra are being produced in as open and legible a fashion as possible. We’re a public body, with a mission of stimulating system change, and generating debates as to what that might mean, so sharing is a strategy as well as a (good) obligation.

With that in mind, we’ll be sharing some of our design work behind the product, as well as the field trips, conversations and reviews that we’ve been posting so far. As we’ve begun to indicate, we’re using the product to help unlock some of the wider ‘dark matter’ around the area—to do this, the product needs to be convincing, and in this case, a real service.

We believe products, services and projects need to be real—or at least convincing, plausible, executable—to uncover the details required to enable systemic change, as it is only in the process of actually building something that you find out the possibilities and the pitfalls, the barriers and the sweet spots. Under conditions of uncertainty, there is only one way to find out what needs to be done, and that’s to do it.

So here are a bunch of early product or service sketches from my notebook, over the last couple of months. In the next couple of weeks, we’ll be able to share what they’ve turned into so far.

Most of them are a little oblique (!), sketched as they are in haste, often during a conversation, and as a way of exploring and opening up as much as refining and deciding. So they are ‘for the record’ at this point, as a form of reflection for the project, rather than particularly meaningful or insightful to others. However, I’ll try to unpack them a bit here and connect them more over time. These sketches have been long since superseded but they do describe where later iterations came from, to some extent.

brickstarter_sketch1

The above scribble explores whether we might need a stream of good ideas—user-generated? curated?—which users can borrow from and translate for a particular place. “Translate” is the key interaction there, perhaps. Creating a set of global good ideas isn’t so hard, but unpacking why they worked and what is transferable or replicable is clearly key. It also (slightly unthinkingly?) suggests that everything in the platform is tied to a particular place.

brickstarter_sketch2

This sketch notes the basic proposition or flow on the left facing page—possibilities are combined with places which generates proposals for projects, which in turn produces investigatory or transformational work in dark matter and debates, ultimately leading to decisions. (I think the alliteration here was actually accidental to begin with but pleasing!) The idea that debate should be part of the platform is key, given the lack of debate around public decisions in general in Finland—see the lower left sketch has three objects: project, process and debate (over-simplified.) Right-hand side has a level of refinement, with project details (text, a polaroid-like image), a kind of gauge of vote or funding (here, a bit like a vertical “totaliser“), and then, below, a few similar projects (around here, like this), debate, and on the right, bundles of legislation this project touches. This right hand side is quite key—what permits and other elements of legislation might this project hoover up, and how might it a) avoid unnecessary permits, and/or b) shape existing permits or legislation (or indeed organisational stance) to become better, smoother, more citizen-centred. This is one of the key aspects of the project for us (and so is somewhat different to the other crowdfunded/-sourced urbanism platforms we’ve seen emerging out there.)

brickstarter_sketch5

Above, some variation on the previous idea, I think part of a sketch of part of a conversation with Bryan. On the right I can see a sense of a progress indicator, but rendered as the kind of ‘bits downloaded’ grid-like pattern familiar from Bittorrent clients like XTorrent (also a bit like a hard disk fragmentation diagram.) So this describes a picture being slowly assembled as the project progresses, through the accretion of elements like permits, funding, votes or time contributions from, as it says, lawyers or engineers working pro bono. Note also the text snippet “legibility engine”, which is partly how we see the project, with, lower down, “dark matter legibility” broken down into legislation, possible business models, and other (like demographic data on possible audience/customer base/local community etc.) The left hand page is a bit of a mystery, but I can see a scribble of a Camionette in there, and Bryan suggested idea of borrowing the “minimum viable project” concept i.e. setting a low bar, figuring out only what needs to be in the platform it to be viable, in order to enable prototyping and experimentation. And yet, lower down, testing the idea of “due diligence” (how diligent? how much is due?). Squaring this circle, bearing in mind we are often talking about public resources, public spaces, public projects, will be key.

brickstarter_sketch4

Again, perhaps, the idea of collecting/accreting approvals and backing, but here the idea of using Foursquare-like badges comes in, somewhat (the grid of circular badges). I’ll come back to this (but just quickly, as a Foursquare user, it’s amazing how compelling the simple badge idea is, and what is often not discussed is how it produces a particular set of outcomes i.e. you only get badges for certain things. How can we use that to tend projects towards holistic decision-making, say, or even more explicitly, sustainable development? All will (may) become clear. You can see a scribble which says “BADGES + STAMPS”—this takes Foursquare and combines with the idea of civic seals. I was watching Borgen at the time, and like the official seal at the end of the title sequence. The scribble below is an abstracted rendition of the emblem of the City of Helsinki—a crown over a boat.) See also the phrase “civic Whac-A-Mole“, which I like but can’t remember what it refers to. Unless it was this sense of knocking off permits or hurdles as soon as they appear. Again, these are scribbles accompanying a conversation with Bryan, I believe. See also the idea of a “clinic” to help potential projects—this is super-interesting (borrowing a little from the VC world), but obviously expensive. Bottom left a list of potential field trips.

brickstarter_sketch3

Here, not much, save the map becoming very prominent (since downplayed.) Still the vertical totaliser, but indicating a more hybridised progress bar, featuring as it does “milestones” like visiting a clinic, and so on. A horizontal version of this looks to be at the bottom.

brickstarter_sketch6

Finally, the result of these scribbles (more or less, though they’re not in chronological order) is this fuller sketch, which has a lot of the detail. This is part of figuring “the edges of the system”, rather than an attempt to make a plausible wireframe of a real service you’d put in front of a user. In a sense, though, it should look vaguely plausible, and so vaguely self-explanatory. Vaguely. So we have a toolbar, focused solely on ‘Add a project’ (in reality, would be more.) And then a large image (we’ve later promoted video in our thinking, after Kickstarter, but here the photo), helping define a central block containing the project essentials—a text description, who’s proposed it, who’s backing it (not picking out yet what “backing” means), some icons indicating a sense of scale (big or small), timing (slow or fast) and value (in terms of shared value, or different kinds of value created.) Then a discussion, noting the social media icons (for it to be a genuine public service, it will need to be fully accessible to all users, one way or another, and so one can’t rely solely on Facebook comments, for instance. Probably.)

On the right, note that the totaliser has become three kinds of progress bar (yes, this is too much, but this is drawing everything in order to discover what to erase)—this is because we want to explore, at this point, crowdfunding as well as voting (here called “backing” which is confusing, with funding) and how far the project is through the approvals process. We need to balance all these elements somehow—or at least we do, at this stage. Note that the permits also generates a sort of “issues register” to deal with. We want to bring this stuff in explicitly, but without creating a foreboding sense of bureaucracy that puts people off, and simultaneously using the platform to look critically (constructively) at those permits and processes. This will be a particularly interesting tightrope walk in terms of both system and interaction design.

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Dan Hill

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Dan Hill


Vastustuksesta myönteiseen muutosvoimaan

Briefly in English: This first post in Finnish explains the Brickstarter project basics. Moving forward we aspire to have all posts with a bilingual summary. As resources allow, of course.

Kun lähiympäristöön aiotaan rakentaa vaikkapa tuulivoimala ja asukkaat alkavat vastustamaan sitä, on kyse ilmiöstä nimeltä NIMBY. Nimby tulee sanoista not in my backyard, ei minun takapihalleni. Termillä tarkoitetaan lähialueelle suunniteltujen, epämiellyttäviksi koettujen rakennushankkeiden vastustamista.

Luultavimmin suurin osa ihmisistä kannattaa periaatteellisella tasolla ympäristöystävällisiä hankkeita, mutta usein juuri oman takapihan uhraaminen esimerkiksi tuuli- ja biokaasuvoimaloille on kuitenkin liikaa vaadittu. Vastustajat saattavat pitää rakennushanketta yleisesti hyödyllisenä ja tarpeellisena, mutta eivät käytännössä halua sitä omaan lähipiiriinsä. Suhtautumisessa painaa lopulta enemmän oman maiseman ja elinympäristön muuttuminen, kuin hyödyt paikalliselle taloudelle ja ympäristölle.

Viime vuosina nimbyn vastareaktioksi on noussut yimby (yes in my backyard), kyllä minun takapihalleni. Ilmiö tarkoittaa sitä, että haittavaikutukset hyväksytään, jos rakennushanke edistää yleistä hyvää tai edesauttaa laajempien ongelmien ratkaisemista. Esimerkiksi Saksassa paikalliset asukkaat voivat perustaa omia tuulivoimaosuuskuntia tai hankkia osuuksia läheisistä tuulivoimaloista ja saada näin tuloja lähimyllyjen tuottamasta sähköstä.

Yimby-ilmiö tarvitsee kuitenkin paljon vahvistamista ja edistämiskeinoja, joiden avulla ihmisten on mahdollisuus kokea hankkeet reiluiksi, avoimiksi ja oikeudenmukaisiksi. Keskeisessä roolissa ovat keinot, joilla parannetaan paikallisen yhteisön (ml. kesäasukkaat) mahdollisuuksia osallistua päätöksentekoon alusta asti. Vain näin vihreän talouden rakentamisessa ja ilmastonmuutoksen hillitsemisessä voidaan edetä hyvässä hengessä ja tehokkaasti.

Sitran Nimby-Yimby -hankkeessa etsitään ratkaisuja siihen, miten paikallisyhteisön yhteiskehittelyä, yhteispäätösmenettelyjä ja hyödynjakomalleja voitaisiin parantaa kestävää hyvinvoinnin edistämiseksi. Tavoitteena on edistää Suomessa sellaista päätöksentekoa, joka huomioi paremmin paikallisten vakio- ja kesäasukkaiden, yritysten ja hallinnon tarpeet yhtä aikaa. Saksassa, Tanskassa ja Chilessä on jo hyviä ratkaisuja, joista Suomessakin voidaan ottaa mallia.

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karoliina

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Karoliina Auvinen


Conversation with Finn Williams (Sub-Plan, Friends of Arnold Circus, Croydon Council &c)

Sub-Plan

We were fortunate to have Finn Williams in Helsinki recently, courtesy of a WDC event called Unbuilt Helsinki (organised by Nene Tsuboi of NOW etc. and Benjamin of Åbäke etc. with the Museum of Finnish Architecture.) Finn is part of the urban design team at Croydon Council in the UK (one of the largest London boroughs) as well as running his own practice, Common Office.

I caught up with Finn to talk Brickstarter, NIMBY to YIMBY, planning policy and law, Big Society and numerous other things. Quick hits follow.

Croydon, like many London boroughs, is large, complex and diverse. Unlike most, however, it has a strongly defined large commercial core – almost a “CBD” in US/Australian terminology – and as with most CBDs, there are attempts to create more of a mixed use environment (read: introduction of residential.) This is one challenge. But the borough is diverse in numerous ways, and was particularly hit during the London riots last year. That indicates quite another challenge.

In this context, and that of a major rationalisation of UK planning guidelines (see below), we spoke at length about transforming the culture within British (actually English) local governments, particularly in terms of working in design, and particularly in terms of the need to work “strategically”. Finn laughed that he hadn’t done a stroke of “traditional” urban design for a couple of years now, instead focusing on redesigning the context of the problem, helping shape the organisation, moving backwards and forwards between citizen and institution (familiar language to us, even if a different context.)

As with everyone these days, Finn is involved in numerous ventures simultaneously. One such productive sideline is Friends of Arnold Circus (FoAC), a community group based in London’s Boundary Estate public housing (known as “council housing” in the UK). The Boundary Estate was the first publicly-funded social housing in England, and replaced the notorious Old Nichol slum in 1897. Old Nichol was 1400 houses in an area less than 370m2, with around 9 people per house, and so infamous that police refused to enter it.

The Old Nichol, early 1890s

A street in the Nichol, 1890

Plan for the new Boundary Estate

The centrepiece of the new Boundary Estate was Arnold Circus; originally a delightful small garden and bandstand, this was always in murky, dangerous disrepair when I lived around the corner a decade ago.

After months (years?) of negotiation with the local council (Tower Hamlets) the FoAC have agreed to provide basic regular maintainance and programming for Arnold Circus from within the community – essentially the lighter, daily/weekly work that they can do, as well as organising events – with the municipality doing the more heavy-duty long-term maintenance on the space. FoAC’s website says *we garden, work with schoolchildren and volunteers and run events.”

Arnold Circus

That this simple arrangement took months indicates the basic “social-contractual” problems we have got ourselves into, a form of negative dark matter blocking proactive engagement from communities whilst locking civic spaces in stasis (they actually deteriorate.). Yet its success is redolent of the observations I made in this recent post about a Brickstarter research trip to Berlin last week. (More on that here soon.) There are some things that are better done through productive collaboration and agreement between citizens, civics and institutions.

Arnold Circus

Finn is both a local resident and trustee of FoAC, and tells the story well. He reminded that maintenance is almost always the key issue around such ideas. Planting, building, opening – these are the easy bits. Maintaining is where the cost is, particularly for municipalities, and the lack of thought around this stops many potential developments. FoAC addressed this very directly.

(In a sense, this could be seen as an example of the controversial ‘Big Society’ policy initiative that the current UK government is promoting. Yet it predates this by many years, and is not new in approach, reflecting instead the collaboration, hard work, perserverance and civic pride that successful communities have always been constructed from. There seems to be little new in policy terms here, just as, ironically, most critiques of the Big Society have also suggested that there is no there, there.)

FoAC is a strong example of ‘Yes In My Backyard’ (even if it is a renovation of an existing yet defunct bit of civic infrastructure rather than a new development.) Our project is about taking such examples and making it easier; but importantly, “making it easier” by using such collective voices and activities to reshape ‘dark matter’ (governance, legislation, culture, attitude, stance) such that it reflects the holistic and collective desires of communities. In this way, it reinforces the role of democratic governance through a more proactive and responsive social contract, rather than trying to sidestep it; can we make public decision-making more holistic, and so sustainable, by working with increased diversity, and so also more resilient?

(Note: here’s the community’s website for logging and sharing ideas about how to use the space.)

Finn had some strong ideas about how such activities might fit within the “localism” agenda also on the UK policy table at the moment, indicating the need to rework the various levels that planning is enacted at. UK planning law has just undergone radical surgery, with the national planning guidelines slashed from 1000 pages to 52. Apparently, despite a very close call involving the Treasury, the guidelines are generally thought to be better. (Read The Guardian’s Simon Jenkins on the somewhat fraught process thus far)

Another touchstone for Brickstarter is “legibility”, enablng a kind of user-centred redesign of policy, regulations and procedure. Precedents here would include Candy Chang’s work, such as the Tenants’ Rights Flash Cards and Vendor Power! as well as Center for Urban Pedagogy.

Tenants' Rights Flash Cards

In this context, the reduction of planning documentation by 95% could well have been done through this more user-centred approach; I don’t know. Most of the discussion has been about how the reduction itself must surely be better (and perhaps that’s right; at some basic level, the sheer weight of the previous documents was a barrier) but there is more to “user-centredness” than simply reduction. Reduction would be an outcome of such work, almost certainly, but alongside many other aspects. Finn was great on this aspect, and talked convincingly about the need to follow this reduction with a concerted rethinking of all levels of planning in the UK (not necessarily reduction, but rethinking). Within such a centralised governence culture, but with a desire for increasing local agency, the real issue is a systemic redesign up and down the scales.

Sub-Plan

In the hyper-local arena, the really interesting work Finn talks about is a short booklet produced out of a summer school that Finn taught at the Architectural Association in London, with David Knight and graphic designers Europa. Called “Sub-Plan: A Guide to Permitted Development”. Here’s an excerpt:

“SUB-PLAN is an exploration of this legal no-man’s-land; a guide that reveals ambiguous grey areas as openings for opportunist architecture. The study looks for semantic loop-holes and legislative cracks to develop examples of Permitted Development: architecture that limbo dances under the radar of regulations. SUB-PLAN highlights building possibilities hidden within a labyrinth of legal jargon and ambiguity. The guide inspires the householder to make the most of their new freedoms. How far can these new rules be exploited? And what might the urban environment look like if householders work collectively? SUB-PLAN investigates the moment when architecture appears to slip into insignificance – when it doesn’t even need a planning application. Are the implications of minor development more significant than planners imagine? “

(There’s a good review by FAT’s Sam Jacob here.)

Sub-Plan

Sub-Plan

Sub-Plan

Sub-Plan

It’s an excellent project: witty, accessible, quietly radical within civic constraints and genuinely thought-provoking. It describes all manner of potential development that might transform a municipality like Croydon (where the research was based). Yet it does this using entirely new tactics derived directly from existing legislation that seem near-impossible at first glance – at least based on how people have traditionally interpreted that legislation. It’s very smart.

Sub-Plan

Sub-Plan

Sub-Plan

Sub-Plan

This is not quite in the tradition of the semi-legendary “Non-Plan” manifesto, despite the name. “Non Plan” (produced for New Society in 1969 by Reyner Banham. Cedric Price, Paul Barker and Peter Hall) advocated for effectively no planning controls at all, an essentially libertarian position that would have been exploited by power interests (see Adam Curtis on the inability of self-organising structures to balance the effects of power and politics) and have left no strategic capability to address issues that stretch beyond individual self-interest.

Sub-Plan

Sub-Plan

Sub-Plan

Sub-Plan

“Sub-Plan”, however, smartly addresses the gaps in existing legislation, and works creatively within them (something like Renew Newcastle, discussed a few weeks ago.) It doesn’t remove planning regulations; rather, it looks to exploit the fact that they are generally poorly designed, and finds ways to create a denser, more diverse urban form within them, yet often taking orthogonal, almost absurdist positions. It’s a wonderful demonstration of working with dark matter as a material. It even proposes such an approach could scale to major buildings, well beyond the backyard alterations, and in keeping with central Croydon’s relatively unusual condition.

Sub-Plan

Sub-Plan

The UK Town and Country Planning Act is reproduced at the back of the book, and the contrast with the vivid front section could not be sharper where it rendered in pink neon or the medium of modern dance. One clearly feels like an enabler, the other a blocker. I’ll leave you to decide which is which. “Sub-Plan” is inspiring; you can buy a print-on-demand copy here.

The rest of our conversation circled around the specifics of planning in the UK; you’ll thank me for sparing the details, though it’s clear that austerity is pushing the UK – either through accident or by design – into some interesting areas (not that that compensates for the pain elsewhere, in my view). Finn has some great insights into what this could all mean …

Some core points then:

  • Maintenance: We’re determined to move beyond the pop-up, the installation, and towards the systemic, the ongoing. This means focusing on maintenance, lifecycle, even end-of-life issues directly. This is not something Kickstarter gets near, of course.
  • Persistence: FoAC also indicates the perserverence required when faced with opaque, outdated or oversized regulation or institutional culture. City-making is perhaps the slowest pursuit we have invented yet, yet the interventions one sees in Berlin indicate that small changes can come quickly and add up to systemic change — if citizens are also engaged in city-making as FoAC have started to do.
  • You can innovate within existing legislation …
  • …But existing legislation needs to be changed if we want different outcomes: Sub-Plan indicates the rich possibilities of manouvering within existing legislation (see also Renew Newcastle), and one would always want such activities to act as a form of loosely-joined “innovation system” to continually provoke and suggest potential improvements, but it’s the wholesale revamping of the planning laws that is of course the bigger deal, systemically. Here the challenge is to make good on the localism agenda in the UK, which will mean increased and skilled resourcing at that level, whilst reworking the more strategic layers above.
  • Make it legible: Finally, both the format and content of “Sub-Plan” suggest that there might be a different way of framing planning for citizens.

Why do I blog this?
Finn’s work is inspiring in many ways, not least as he traverses the local at the scale of a neighbourhood, as a resident of Arnold Circus, with the local at the scale of the city and country, as an urban designer in Croydon. As a result he is able to move freely from direct experience of working within communities to direct experience of creating strategic frameworks for other communities to work within. This balance of the particular with the systemic gives key insights, such as the role of legislation, or of the stance inadvertently conveyed by governance through its presentation of legislation, or the fundamental importance of accounting for maintenance, of persistently looking to enable small improvements within existing frameworks, or in enabling innovation by making things legible.

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Dan Hill

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Dan Hill


A timely global survey of crowdfunding platforms

Trade publication Crowdfunding.org have just released a survey of global crowdfunding activity in 2011. The full report comes in at a $1000, but I browsed through the free abridged version and pulled out some useful findings.

They break the market down into four categories based on what the person giving funds can expect to receive in return: equity, reward, lending, donation.

  • Equity: funder gets ‘stock’ in the company
  • Reward: funder gets a gift, i.e. material object or service
  • Lending: funder gets their money back plus a commission after a set period of time
  • Donation: funder gets personal satisfaction

The overall market is getting more crowded:

As of April 2012, 452 crowdfunding platforms (CFPs) were operating globally… North America leads other regions in terms of the total number of crowdfunding platforms, however Europe is gaining percentage share within the market in aggregate.

Reward-based and equity based platforms are higher in numbers in Europe than in North America

The number of equity and reward CFPs are predicted to grow at 300% in 2012

And in map form:

Screen Shot 2012-05-11 at 4.30.08 PM
Screen Shot 2012-05-11 at 4.30.49 PM

Source: crowdfunding.org

Some insights into the performance of the various types of CFPs:

Crowdfunding for financial return (i.e., collectively, equity-based and lending-based crowdfunding) is most effectivefor digital goods such as applications or computer games,films, music, or literature. It also raises the largest sums of money per campaign. More than 80% of the campaigns in this category raise above $25,000.Donation-based and reward-based crowdfunding for cause-based campaigns that appeal to funders’ personal beliefs and passions perform best (e.g., environment, community, faith). Donation-based and reward-based crowdfunding for art and performing arts projects drive less funding volume than the mainstream media suggests. The campaigns in these categories are much smaller, with two-thirds of them generating less than $5,000.

Of the four categories, Brickstarter is most suited to donations or rewards, so let’s look at those:

Of the funds raised on donation-based and reward-based crowdfunding platforms, 63% are paid out to projects that draw less than $5,000 in funding. Only 10% are paid out to projects that draw more than $10,000 in funding. The remaining 27% of all funds raised by donation-based and reward-based crowdfunding platforms are paid out to projects that raise between $5,000 and $10,000

Screen Shot 2012-05-11 at 4.32.19 PM

Source: crowdfunding.org

Based on conversations with some CFP operators, we have been operating under the informed assumption that the ‘curve’ of payments over the life of a fundraising campaign follows this image. Rapid rise, lull in the middle, and then, if successful, a rapid rise to meet the goal. The Crowdfunding.org report tells a different story.

In contrast to popular belief that the first 25% of funds take longer to raise than the last 25%, our data shows it takes 2.84 weeks on average, across all categories, to raise the first 25% of the funding goal and 3.18 weeks on average to raise the last 25% of the funding goal… Approximately 45% of all CFPs require investors to deposit money in escrow accounts. 63% use PayPal as a payment method.

Again, let’s zoom in on the data for our two likely categories. Campaign time-to-completion (in weeks) data based on a sample of 83 CFPs:

Reward:

  • Launch to completion: 10.0
  • First 25% milestone: 2.9
  • Last 25% milestone: 3.6

Donation based:

  • Launch to completion: 10.2
  • First 25% milestone: 3.6
  • Last 25% milestone: 3.3

Operational aspects of the site can be a deciding factor for potential funders. In other words, if the site is flakey, people will bail:

Platform reliability (i.e., up-time) is a differentiating factor of choice for reward-based CFPs.

Finally, the income stream(s) for the site itself. Most of the CFPs take a percentage of the total funds raised. However, some also employ a fixed fee.

An additional source of income with some CFPs (12% of our survey respondents) is to charge funders a fixed fee, in the region of $15 (median), per campaign.

Why do I blog this?

On Tuesday we were having a discussion in the office about the “currency” of the site, so this report which gives us insights into the financial side of crowdfunding is very timely. It’s tied to a number of aspects which will effect Brickstarter’s long term health. First and foremost, the currency used on the site has to be neutral. When considering ways to crowdfund public projects, there’s always a risk that the system preference those with more cash to throw around. That’s not the way democracy works (or it shouldn’t be). Second, the currency must be relevant and meaningful to the users of the platform. For this reason, we are intuitively gravitating towards a zero-sum option. The endless quantity of ‘likes’ on Facebook and other sites devalue the meaningfulness of ‘paying’ a like to something. Finally, we have to consider Sitra’s exit strategy for Brickstarter. Who will operate the platform in the long term? There’s a strong case to be made for Brickstarter being part of the municipal service offering. It could also be operated by an NGO or charity. There’s even a case to be made for it to operate as a private venture. The field is wide open, but one of the tensions we must resolve is how the currency of Brickstarter is relevant to both the users of the platform and its operators.

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Bryan

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Bryan Boyer


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