What's civic about civic crowdfunding? | MIT Center for Civic Media

Last week I gave a talk at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society's Cooperation Group about my work on civic crowdfunding to date. A central question in the group was how we define civic crowdfunding projects, as distinct from non-civic ones.

Previously I had been working with this statement: "Civic crowdfunding projects are projects that provide services to communities". This works as a very broad first cut. But it needs a lot of unpacking. For the purposes of the talk, I proposed another approach to the problem, asking two questions: who is contributing resources (input), and what are the goods being produced (output)? These thoughts are a work in progress, and I'd very much welcome feedback and critique on them.

From the point of view of goods, we might expect civic crowdfunding projects to produce goods that are can be enjoyed by all members of a community equally and without regard for their contribution. In other words, non-rival and non-excludable goods -- the classic definition of a 'public good'. To be sure, the term 'public good' is of course heavily contested. Are public goods something that needs to be agreed upon by a community (Craig Calhoun's argument) and does their framing tend to reflect the interests of power holders, as Rhys Williams finds? Keeping in mind these problematizations of public goods, let's begin with a functional definition: goods that, once provided, cannot reasonably be withheld from an individual. Natural examples would be public art, public parks and community centers.

But in many projects, there are several goods being produced, and here's where defining civic projects gets interesting. What about projects whose chief good is not a public good, but which produce public goods as secondary benefits? For instance, a bike-share scheme such as those operating in Boston, London, Kansas City, Missouri and New York is not, strictly speaking, a public good since the bikes are rival goods: one rider using a bike reduces the ability of another potential rider to enjoy the good. However, a bike share scheme has secondary outputs that are public goods, such as cleaner air, reduced traffic and improved public health. Similarly, an arts center catering to a specific community may technically be a club good if it charges admission for events. However, its presence in a community may contribute to greater inter-community understanding and dialog between faith groups. Given the presence of these secondary public goods, I think it's reasonable that we call these projects 'civic'.

Civic crowdfunding projects could therefore be defined as projects that produce some non-rival benefits that serve either the non-excludable public or broad sections of it. Civic projects may produce several types of goods, some of which are rival or excludable, but they should also produce public or civic goods. Civic crowdfunding projects are likely some mix of the classic definition of public goods, club goods or common pool resources.

Outputs may help us to understand how to recognize a civic project when we see one, but what about the means by which it is produced? Thinking about the actors involved in the process can also help to illustrate the difference between civic crowdfunding and other processes for producing the same goods.

The conclusion that civic crowdfunding projects should produce public goods is in obvious tension with the idea that public goods that are most efficiently produced by governments. Rather than discussing the merits of the private provision of public goods and critiquing established hybrid public-private models, let's think about the configurations of actors that civic crowdfunding enables. These configurations are important from two points of view: who is contributing, and who is being invited to participate.

The classic public/social/private models look something like this.

When you add the crowd, it's possible to imagine civic crowdfunding projects occuring somewhere in this very broad space.

This might lead us to particular conclusions about how crowdfunders are expected to behave – and what kind of contributor the crowd is, depending on the composition of the project.

In theory a civic crowdfunding project could be resourced by the crowd alone, or by a combination of the crowd and government (taxation). This is a highly individual-centric model. It also offers a limited opportunity for the project to scale; the crowd is effectively being asked to top up taxation revenues.

Moreover, it's almost inevitable that non-profit sector and for-profit sector will become involved, either helping to deliver the project or by virtue of being impacted by it. Civic projects should, of course, be mindful of existing work being done in the area in which they're seeking to intervene and work with existing groups where possible.

Meanwhile, civic crowdfunding projects could also be provided by the crowd and organized for-profit or non-profit interests, without government investment. But it's likely that government will also become involved if building, planning or other permissions are required to execute the project. These permissions may be costly in terms of time and money, and therefore represent a contribution that government could make to a project.

Therefore we might say that the optimal form of civic crowdfunding occurs at the intersection of all four interests, with each contributing to the outcome. That is to say, the `perfect crowd' for a civic project involves all actors, since public projects in the built environment that serve civic goals will impact or intersect with the interests of government, for-profit and non-profit organizations, and the crowd.

This reasoning is consistent with conventional theories of crowd wisdom, which suggest that more diverse crowds produce superior outcomes. It may also be seen as a stronger form of participation according to Fungs's three dimensions of participation: it has a broad 'scope', offers a common 'mode' of participation (although donations may vary in size, they share a common platform and process) and grants complete authority to the group (the project can be realized as agreed upon).

That is not to say that projects should always necessitate the involvement of all actors – or that involving all of them will lead to the fastest, most efficient outcomes – but projects at scale will likely produce stronger long-term civic outcomes if they involve the complete range of actors affected by them. A project that produces a `civic good' may be of little civic use if the method of forging it doesn't reflect those values.

As I said above, these are thoughts in progress and I'd welcome suggestions and responses.

(cross-posted at rodrigodavies.com)