The three-year-old crowdfunding website Kickstarter could very well be called a design incubator. Of 75,000 total project launches, the “design” category ranks third overall in dollar haul, and other categories like fashion and publishing easily overlap into the design disciplines. In this vibrant online community, socially responsible architecture and city design are gaining attention and pledges. Campaigns for parklets and other tactical urban interventions are becoming commonplace, in particular.
For now at least, burgeoning social entrepreneurship takes place informally. Despite a rumor that Kickstarter had added a fourteenth category called “civic,” company spokesperson Justin Kazmark confirms that no such launch is on the immediate horizon. He does note that internal conversations have been conducted concerning a new classification.
With a name that is practically synonymous with crowdfunding, Kickstarter’s potential change would heighten the visibility of civically minded crowdfunding. Yet a move would not be pioneering, as that marketplace is growing at a quick clip already. Kickstarter’s closest competitor Indiegogo operates a community section on its crowdfunding platform; it includes the occasional rehabilitation and adaptive-reuse initiative for youth centers and other gathering places. A large number of smaller websites focus on physical places specifically. The oldest (which, in this universe, means February 2012) is the British website Spacehive. Currently its most ambitious project is a redevelopment of Cody Dock, a former gasworks in East London.
Stateside, the elder crowdfunding platform for civic placemaking is ioby, which launched nationally in April 2012 after a two-year pilot phase. The Brooklyn-based nonprofit (the name stands for “in our backyard”) focuses on environmental neighborhood improvement. Total contributions since the site’s inception are nearing $400,000. New York is also home to the newest website in the field: Patronhood is inaugurating its crowdfunding platform with Patron Shack, an internally conceived coffeehouse, coworking space, and salon.
Kickstarter asks project creators to itemize their risks and challenges for their financial backers. In the case of activist architecture, the biggest hurdle may be presumed: government approval. Two other civic crowdfunding platforms attempt to mitigate this risk. On Citizinvestor, for example, only municipalities submit approved projects for funding. Cofounder and partnerships director Jordan Raynor reports that the site has had more than 5,000 unique visitors and 550 users so far. “We are on our way toward building a significant community of micro-philanthropists,” says Raynor. Since September Citizinvestor has been piloting its program in Philadelphia, although a petition tool allows visitors to brainstorm civic improvements anywhere.
And earlier this month, Neighbor.ly concluded its pilot phase in Kansas City by launching a campaign for a skate park in Portland (see the video below). According to the Neighbor.ly model, submitters may include municipalities, counties and metropolitan-area government partnerships, public-private partnerships, and nonprofits and similar institutions working in civic infrastructure. “The system you see is just three months old and only partially complete,” says Neighbor.ly founder Jase Wilson, an urban designer and city planner by background. “Future releases include tools useful for funding adaptive reuse, historic preservation, and collective acquisition of blighted or underutilized structures.”
Indeed, none of these platforms suggest that civic crowdfunding replaces government dollars or responsibility to build and maintain infrastructure and public space. As Kazmark puts it, “We’re complementary, with the ultimate mission of bringing more culture into the world.” Notable, though, is how current crowdfunding options create an inverse relationship between the creativity of individual architects and designers and the certitude of public approbation.
Brickstarter may change that. A project of Sitra, the innovation fund that reports to Finnish parliament, Brickstarter will unite community and local government in Helsinki by crowdsourcing ideas and designs in a Kickstarter-like supply-and-demand model. It will then expedite planning of the winning vote-getters, and encourage further citizen participation via public meeting reminders and crowdfunding campaigns. Just not yet, though: The Brickstarter platform is still under development for the City of Helsinki.