Creating Technology for Social Change

Civic crowdfunding from the Statue of Liberty to now

statue of liberty_crop

I’ve been asked recently to define what I mean by civic crowdfunding. For the purposes of my research, I’m characterizing it as crowdfunding campaigns that involve the development of public assets. It may or may not include the investment of public funds; it may take the form of towns and cities supporting civic projects being executed by other stakeholders (such as New York City’s Kickstarter page or the town of Wycombe funding a space for local entrepreneurs). The key is that the outcome is a public asset that all members of a community can access.

One of the most iconic crowdfunding projects you’ve probably not identified with that term is the Statue of Liberty. In 1884, with the finished monument due to be shipped from France, the American Committee had raised only half of the $300,000 it needed to pay for the pedestal on which the statue would stand (The French funded the statue itself). Funding for the project was controversial: Grover Cleveland, governor of New York, vetoed a plan for the city to invest in the statue, while Congressional Democrats voted against federal funding. With the statue’s completion seemingly┬áin jeopardy, Joseph Pulitzer launched a call for public donations through his newspaper The World. The result would today be regarded as an archetypal crowdfunding campaign: supporters gave 120,000 micro-donations to┬áraise $100,000 in five months.

Despite the controversial genesis of its funding, the Statue of Liberty would meet my definition of a civic crowdfunding project, since the monument became state property, administered by the US Lighthouse Board (and later the National Park Service). However, any number of private projects could claim to support civic values of one sort or another. The reason I’m making the public asset distinction described above is because my work focuses on the means by which civic crowdfunding projects can be a new and open space for public participation in the planning process. Can it, in Archon Fung’s words, be a way for citizens to exercise their role as “the shock troops of democracy”?

For citizen participation to be meaningful, it should involve a shift in the structure of decision making or power. I attended a consultation meeting on a local planning proposal in Cambridge recently, and it was a telling reminder of the deficiencies that beset many public planning processes: the absence of open project data, the opacity of who is funding the project and stands to gain from it, and the essential passiveness of the non-expert in the process.

With this in mind, it’s helpful to contextualize civic crowdfunding in terms of some of the established work on public participation in the planning process. A good starting point is Sherry Arnstein’s “Ladder of Citizen Participation” (1969), which challenges us to think about the amount of influence the citizen or community has over the decision-making process. At the top of her ladder is ‘Citizen Control’, in which there is no intermediary between the community and the funding mechanism for a project; the community also exercises complete managerial control. Not every civic crowdfunding project delivers this level of control to its funders, but for community-led campaigns, that potential exists. For projects that aren’t owned by the community, managing what happens after the project reaches its target is a challenge that the civic crowdfunding community (like the crowdfunding community at large) is yet to comprehensively tackle, although some solutions exist, such as Spacehive’s Project Delivery Manager framework.

Arnstein warns that greater citizen influence over the planning process does carry with it several risks, such as the ‘balkanization of public services’, the possibility that it is more costly and less efficient and the danger that minority groups can dominate the process and discriminate against the have-nots. These are all important questions that the civic crowdfunding community needs to address, and remind us that civic crowdfunding cannot, and does not, exist in a political vacuum. Communities and governments that support it need to be mindful of, and transparent about, the policy goals that their projects are fulfilling.

To some extent, public participation can in itself enhance the planning process and shape its goals. The economist Noreen Hertz and others have argued for the importance of non-expert knowledge in planning, to inject valuable specialist knowledge of the site and community. A strong civic crowdfunding project has the ability to fulfil this ambition: since the non-expert can not only participate in the process, but start it. It doesn’t matter that the non-expert doesn’t have all the resources to execute the project on their own. Hanna argues that we can understand participation as the act of creating knowledge. An individual who starts a civic crowdfunding campaign is creating two types of valuable knowledge: firstly, identifying a need in the community and secondly, publicizing possible solutions that many stakeholders can debate and act upon.

There are many models of civic crowdfunding, as there are many models of participation, and each will have to find its own niche that suits local circumstances. There’s a much larger debate over what public goods should be provided by the state and which should be supported by other actors, but I’m not seeking to address that question here. Civic crowdfunding is beginning to make important inputs in reminding us of the importance of non-expert knowledge in the planning process, creating knowledge within communities and shifting the balance of power in the planning process towards communities.

Image: NYPL. Cross-posted at