While the Internet has given us a great deal of control over our media environments, that control exists largely in digital space. We can place stickers on our computers, change our desktop backgrounds and manipulate our Facebook profiles and web sites, but it's still challenging for the average citizen to change physical space. Permits are required for legal street art in many cities, and signage and billboards remain a costly endeavor.
When I first read about hateful anti-Muslim ads being put up in New York City, I was surprised and saddened. Seriously, who does that? Then when a crop of similar ads went up on San Francisco city buses, I was outraged. As a San Francisco resident, I felt like I had to do something about it, something more than sharing my rage and complaining on Facebook or Twitter.
To channel her frustration, George tapped into Louder, a platform she co-founded with Colin Mutchler. I wrote about civic crowdfunding recently with Citizinvestor, which is limited to city officials' projects; think of Louder as a citizen's version of crowdfunding, but made specifically for reclaiming advertising space. George reached out to her wide network with a Louder page and brought in a number of supporters (full disclosure: I contributed a small amount to the campaign).
Christie George with supporters at the site of the billboard in San Francisco's SoMA district."So much of what makes a crowdfunding campaign successful is the sheer hustle involved—the emails, the social media work, organizing rewards, etc.," George noted in an email interview with Core77 when asked about the potential for crowdfunding platforms to further civic engagement. She noted that building these platforms requires a good deal of work already; it's up to those thinking funding to do the extra legwork to secure commitments. "There's probably some creative way for platforms to help potential supporters get involved beyond money—a way for campaign owners to say what they need and for people to offer up other ways they could help."
According to George, designers in her network played a key role in the billboard's success. Before raising $3,000, she needed a visualization of what the billboard would look like, to help funders make the imaginative leap. "I worked closely with Aaron Perry-Zucker, Chief Creative Officer of The Creative Action Network," she explained. "Seeing a visual representation of the final billboard made the project so much more real for potential contributors."
The work of Louder is part of a larger trend of bringing design to civic engagement. In addition to the Creative Action Network, George pointed to resources like The Designer Fund, which funds design entrepreneurs working on projects of social interest, and UP San Francisco, a festival of urban prototyping. And then we recently learned about Brickstarter, a new book that looks at how to merge crowdfunding, design and urban planning more effectively.
But crowdfunding requires elbow grease, all the more so when it comes to cities. While 21st century platforms like Louder, Kickstarter and Indiegogo make the process of raising initial funds for projects that much easier, budgets and regulations for projects with applications in cities remain in the 20th century. An article in Gawker looked at this issue with regards to the Low Line: "Ultimately, it is the far more mundane choices about space planning and franchisees—coffee or liquor, quiet time or movie night, one tree or a grove—that will keep people coming back and make the Lowline the economic generator it needs to be to justify the capital cost."
An Xiao Mina is an American designer strategist and researcher who recently worked on the Gwangju Design Biennale's Un-Named Design exhibition. She focuses on the role of social media and communications technologies in building communities and empowering individuals. Find her on Twitter here.