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The Public Square Goes Mobile

“We don’t need more leaders. We need more followers. Wherever & however you can enter public life is ok.”

That tweet by Carol Coletta, president and CEO of CEOs for Cities, is a radical provocation in our age of the non-expert. The nation is gripped by the fantasy that the least-qualified, least-experienced among us make ideal leaders. Dissatisfaction — no, real anger — with the status quo, as opposed to informed ideas or policy experience, seems to define qualifications for public service.

This shouldn’t really come as a huge surprise. I guess moms have stopped telling their kids, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything.” Far too many of our public processes, from school board meetings to town halls, provide citizens with a forum to complain but not much else. Hand ‘em a mike and two minutes and they’ll unleash a torrent of opinion — but it’s unlikely anyone will step forward with constructive advice or proactive steps relating to budget cuts or the latest environmental action report.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with complaints — we’ve all got plenty to gripe about these days — and it is important that we have forums in which to air them. In just one recent week, for example (as illustrated in this beautiful infographic from Wired UK), New York City’s 311 number received 34,522 complaints, mostly having to do with rodents, noise and taxi cabs. So there is no shortage of problems to solve. But, increasingly, there is less time, and fewer resources and people, to do so.

What if there were a way to transform complaints into something positive and productive? What if we reframed the exchange to be less about adversity and more about cooperation and action? What if citizens were encouraged to offer their thoughts on how things from transit systems to city parks might be improved — as opposed to simply airing their grievances about all that was wrong with them?

Courtesy of Local Projects

That’s the beauty of Give a Minute, created as part of CEOs for Cities’ US Initiative by the media design firm Local Projects. Says Coletta, “We need more citizens who feel agency — that they can actually influence the future of their communities. Otherwise, there is complacency and resignation. Give a Minute encourages agency. Go ahead. Share your ideas. Change your city.”

In embracing a technology that nearly everyone now possesses — text messaging — Give a Minute provides a fast, cheap and easy way to share ideas, connect them together and make them happen. As Local Project’s Jake Barton, whose firm has excelled in previous participatory projects like StoryCorps, explains, “It’s like 311 for new ideas.”

“There are no hoops to jump through, no points to win, no fake “votes” to solicit, no games to play,” adds Coletta. “It’s a very straightforward question to citizens that treats them respectfully, as adults, and assumes an authentic relationship between citizens and their government.”

As part of its US Initiative, CEOs for Cities is hosting Challenge events in cities across the country. It is at these events that the specific needs of each particular city are identified. In Chicago, where Give a Minute recently launched, the goal was to make it possible for people to go where they need to go without owning a car, while in Memphis (where Give a Minute will begin in January 2011), says Coletta, “The ambition is to develop all of our talent and put all of our talent to work.”

In other communities, the questions will be driven by urban leaders who are hoping to engage citizens in an authentic dialogue on how to improve the community in specific ways. Other cities on tap include Indianapolis, New York, San Jose and Grand Rapids.

Courtesy of Local Projects

Give a Minute launched with the question, “Hey Chicago, what would encourage you to walk, bike or take CTA more often?” Citizens, who are learning about it from billboards, ads on the L and in the local paper, are texting their ideas and posting them to the Give a Minute Web site. You can look here to find the responses texted so far (1,000 in the first two weeks), which range from “lower CTA fares” to “organized walking groups going roughly the same route with similar interests” to “play classical music on train system” to “I need to bring my daughter with me, so the streets need to be kid-safe.”

“We’re just culling through all the different ideas that run from the specific to the hilarious to the utopian,” says Barton. “But one thing that does seem clear is that they are far more diverse and often smaller scale, and actionable on different scales including individual, neighborhood and government.”

Courtesy of Local Projects

These ideas aren’t revolutionary — but that wasn’t Give a Minute’s goal. At first glance, the endeavor does feel like just another version of the often-overrated concept of crowd-sourcing, which aspires to gather together the collective brilliance of those most qualified to solve complex problems but rarely does. Give a Minute did spring from an open exploration into existing open-source and crowd-sourcing platforms, but realized the general emphasis on finding the most revolutionary idea amidst the multitudes wasn’t quite right. Says Barton, “At meetings, Carol would say, ‘What are the experts not figuring out? What are these new silver bullets that trained professionals aren’t coming up with?’ It’s not about inventing new ideas but having those ideas phrased and framed by the public so it doesn’t feel like [the solution] is being dropped down from above.”

“It’s about people in a specific neighborhood saying let’s put in a garden here,” Barton continues. “I’d say it’s a more nuanced approach to crowd-sourcing, less the winner-takes-all model but rather getting a group to rally around something specific. The entire process is designed for maximum participation to some kind of constructive end. The basic idea was to reinvent public participation for the 21st century.”

Courtesy of Local Projects

When participants text their responses, they hear back from representatives of the local agencies, non-profits and other groups working in that area. Then you might, optimally, hear back again about opportunities to get involved with like-minded individuals and organizations. Or you might get a response to your text message back from the head of CTA, or some other expert involved in the issue. Give a Minute is aiming for a broad range of respondents — not just transit or government folks, but also grassroots activists and local celebrities (on the wish list might be, say, David Byrne or Jay-Z in New York, Steve Wozniak in San Jose/Silicon Valley).

Give a Minute wants to recruit change-minded people to do more than text for change; in tracking responses, Local Projects will be able to point to particular ideas and causes in common, and direct individuals into larger efforts through other technology platforms like Meetup or Kickstarter. And cash-strapped government agencies and non-profits understand that being open to, and willing to cultivate, these ideas — including allowing for temporary solutions, for execution and management from the bottom up — can not only be beneficial but is probably essential. This helps remove the adversary: it’s not NIMBY, it’s “how can this community work together to make change happen?” Coletta refers to this as a Declaration of Interdependence.

The localism inherent in Give a Minute makes sense for the times. Weary of the national conversation, overwhelmed by the global ones, people are turning inward to their own communities — something I’ve written about frequently in this space. From carshares to communal ovens, local currencies to walkability indexes, people increasingly understand that they can effect change in their own backyard, block and neighborhood. In this country’s quest for individuality, we sometimes forget we do need other people; this project helps facilitate that. It may take more than a minute, but it’s worth a shot.