And building a movement is exactly what Carol Coletta, president of urban advocacy non-profit CEOs for Cities, and Jake Barton, principal of the media design firm Local Projects, set out to do when they came up with this idea. This week in Chicago, CEOs for Cities is convening what it calls a “Challenge Event” where it will be discussing its ambition for everyone in the city to get where he or she needs to go without owning a car. To that end, for the past few weeks Chicagoans have been asked, through ads in subways, buses and newspapers, “What would encourage you to walk, bike and take CTA (Chicago Transit Authority) more often?” Read on to learn about how Carol and Jake came up with this idea, and what they plan to do with it next. And get ready for when Give a Minute hits New York next year. –C.S.
What is Give a Minute?
Jake Barton: Give a Minute is a new way to create public participation and conversation at a citywide scale. It allows for the asking of a question (or questions) to an entire city simultaneously. Instead of looking at the way cities work as a sort of zero-sum game of limited and finite resources, Give a Minute seeks to identify and then deploy questions around shared priorities; questions that tap into the interests of the general population as well as those of different city leaders and organizations that might be able to put changes into practice.
Carol Coletta: Nobody thinks that public engagement works very well in America. You can certainly see from trends in voting and other indicators that we have opted out from public life in many ways. Public life in a democracy shouldn’t be so painful and depressing that you would rather watch Dancing with the Stars than make your voice heard. And a lot of elected officials would rather slit their wrists than attend a community meeting.
So we started to ask ourselves, can we do it differently? Can we imagine community engagement in which people are not just checking a box, but really engaging? When I became familiar with the work of Local Projects, I approached Jake and said, “Hey, I have a project for you. How would like to help reinvent public life in America?” And he said, “Okay.”
“For most people, public meetings try your patience; they are hostile and certainly no fun. Give a Minute is an attempt to make participation fun.” –Carol Coletta | Photos by Chris Schneider.
Jake Barton: The question Carol was really asking was “How do you redefine public participation in the 21st century?” And the solution involved using existing technologies to facilitate a conversation and focusing or structuring that dialogue in a constructive way.
As they exist now, most contemporary forms of participatory activity in the public sphere invite critique: if you put forward a plan and put a microphone in front of it, people are going to critique it. And, because community meetings happen in physical space in a very restrictive amount of time, the only people who go are those who already care about the issue at hand, who have the time and disposition to make their voices heard, or the people who are most polarized on either side of the debate. For Give A Minute, we wanted to lower the barriers for entry into constructive dialogue focused around positive collective change rather than specific complaints.
The project emerged from a series of challenges that CEOs for Cities has issued to specific cities – including Detroit, Indianapolis, Memphis, Grand Rapids and others – across the nation as part of their US Initiative.
Carol Coletta: Which is a national initiative that imagines opportunity, community, connectivity, livability and optimism as best achieved through good urbanism. It came out of frustration that a lot of things aren’t working. We can’t continue to drive as much as we do, consume as much as we do, under-educate ourselves as much as we do, vote as little as we do – essentially ignore the public realm as much as we do.
We want to make a different future compelling so that people will move forward to meet it, not because they are scared of today but because they are excited by a shared vision for tomorrow.
We’ve come up with what we call the Declaration of Interdependence, which articulates some of the values we would like our shared urban future to uphold. For example, on the topic of connectivity, we want a future in which we can realistically say: “We can go where we need to go without owning a car.” On the topic of community, we want a future in which we can say: “We can engage in a robust public life.”
Jake Barton: Our first Give a Minute question in Chicago was related to CEOs for Cities’ “connectivity challenge.” The question we wanted to ask was, “How can we get you where you are going without driving a car?” But, in an effort to engage as much of the general populace of the city as possible, a lot of work went into figuring out how best to ask that question. The final phrasing is: “Hey Chicago, what would encourage you to walk, bike or take CTA more often?” Chicago is serving as our test case for the platform as we work on expanding the project to other cities. When we launch Give a Minute in New York City next year, we hope to address sustainability in some way. We’re talking to the city government about what questions might be most useful.
But before we came up with the platform, we started with a lot of ethnography, a lot of observation of existing systems on different scales. From the beginning, we had a sense that we wanted our system to be based on mobile apps, texting and websites, so that it could feel as open and universal as possible. It is clear that, of all the communication technologies available at this point, texting has the most penetration.
We also spent a lot of time working on how to motivate people to participate. The idea that we landed on was to reinforce that people’s answers are valued by attaching the questions to what we are calling “response leaders.” The response leaders are a way to make clear that the project was about dialogue – if there is someone specific asking the question, and reading the answers, members of the public will be more likely to respond. The response leaders that we have in Chicago are the head of the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA), the head of a bicycling advocacy group and the head a private company that builds bicycling accessories. The idea is that by texting or using the mobile app or website to answer the question, you are not just communicating with government alone, but with a coalition of leaders from private, public and non-profit sectors. It’s collective action combined with conversation with specific individuals.
So, specific leaders are asking the questions and citizens are sharing their ideas, but to what extent are subsequent actions designed into the process?
The satisfaction of simply being asked isn’t going to last for a very long time if nothing ever changes. But, on the other hand, once I’m asked – as someone who is not a transit expert but who does ride the CTA every day – once I’m asked to share an idea about what would get me to walk, bike or take public transportation more often, then I’m going to start thinking about how the conditions for walking, biking or transit ridership could be better. And once I start thinking like that, I’m going to ask, “Why isn’t that on the agenda? Are we talking about it? How do I make sure we are talking about it?”
The simple notion that Give a Minute has opened up a way for me to express my personal feelings and ideas without having to look up the CTA’s phone number or email address or trying to figure out who in the world might be listening; the fact that I send in an idea and get an instant response and a thank you – these little things make a big difference in changing the perception of public participation.
Jake Barton: The system is a space to get users of city services to make their voices heard. We want to make a hierarchy and database out of the input, but any actions that ultimately result from that feedback require another, deeper step. So I think it will be on a city-by-city case. We have plans to create proof points around the system itself, so when people text something they get an actual response from someone who is paying attention. Based on our work in Chicago, I think the cities understand what’s required to make the system feel functional and responsive and that will be built into future partnerships.
Our hope is that people, whether groups of citizen responders or city agencies or other kinds of coalitions, will be able to create actions out of the answers themselves. Essentially, Give a Minute can bring together a bright idea, a group of people that can make that happen, a group that feels passionately about this concern, and a group that can be deployed when and if we are trying to rally support for x, y or z issue.
How does Give a Minute work in practice?
Jake Barton: In Chicago we had ads in the Chicago Tribune, around 500 donated ads from the CTA running on buses and trains, and then just word of mouth. People can also choose to post their answer to their Facebook or Twitter status, which helps their friends hear about the project.
In the current, beta version, the website simply groups the answers chronologically. Going forward, we will group them by common interests. For example, in the case of the Chicago question, we can group all the biking people together and then within that group we can have a sub-group for bike lane advocates, bike safety advocates, etc. That allows us to message those sub-groups directly to help turn common interests into actions.
Carol Coletta: Identifying these interest groups will allow users to go find other people with shared priorities and get together to do things that don’t necessarily need government intervention.
Jake Barton: Some ideas that may be floated through Give a Minute recommend government action – like, we should build a light rail, or pay more attention to places open after midnight. Other kinds of answers – like, we should make a pocket park in my neighborhood, or there’s this vacant lot we should make into something cool, or we should start a walking group in my neighborhood – are exactly the type of things that groups of private citizens can take on. For actions that can be addressed by citizens meeting in physical space, we’ve talked about kicking out some of the next steps to meetup.com (if the next step is getting strangers to meet in physical space) or Kickstarter (if the next step is micro-fundraising to help start a pocket park, for example).
Give a Minute aspires to be the kind of system that can support both of those types of answers – those that require government action and those that can lead to self-organized action – simultaneously. Because, right now, all the existing crowdsourcing platforms take a big picture approach and a lot of cities don’t have the funds or political will to work like that.
A lot of current technologies that are working now on city-scale questions are all based on a pyramid structure, where it is presumed that there is one golden idea that should rise to the top. Give a Minute works differently: it’s not about sourcing ideas that haven’t been floated before, it’s a matter of building enough momentum and political will to actually implement change.
So it’s as much about movement building as sourcing information and ideas?
Jake Barton: Exactly. It is using the sourced information to hopefully build a movement – that was the idea.
Carol Coletta: It is legitimately both. Simply asking people in Chicago about what would make them walk, bike or take transit more often will, we think, encourage them to walk, bike and take transit more often. It really is that obvious.
How will you measure success?
Jake Barton: Of course, one goal has always been to make participation as easy as possible, so we have multiple platforms and we like to capture people anywhere that we can – texting when you’re bored on the subway, or participating through Facebook or Twitter when you see your friends doing the same. But the trick is to make sure that the questions are both compelling and make sense but also that they have a productive aspect to them. You can ask dumb questions and get a ton of participation, but we want to ask the best questions possible that will actually spur people to participate.
I think one measure of success would be if Give a Minute could actually produce enough political capital to help cities make changes. We don’t have one specific approach that we are pushing as a metric of success. This is an experiment to try to help cities create a more qualitatively successful approach themselves.
Carol Coletta: We recognize that we are still dancing in the dark a bit. This is the first of what will surely be many iterations of the project, so we are out there learning. But ultimately, our goal is to reinvent public engagement in ways that are more suited to contemporary democracy. Without a robust public life, democracy suffers, our cities suffer and we suffer. So, call me ambitious, but that’s what success looks like for me.