KnightBlog

The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Communities
May 15, 2014

Civic Innovation in Action Studio tees up ideas for better communities

Posted by Michael D. Bolden

Photo credit: Tom Clark.

Overview: Knight Foundation hosted 100 civic innovators at a Civic Innovation in Action Studio in Miami May 12 -14 to explore ways to harness talentadvance opportunity and promote robust engagement

Tackling the thorniest problems in the nation’s communities is difficult in any amount of time, even when you attack them with the intellectual firepower of many of the leading minds in civic innovation.

But as Knight Foundation concluded its first Civic Innovation in Action Studio Wednesday, 100 leaders from a variety of fields had developed many ideas – from the general to the specific – that have the potential to grow into community experiments.

Carol Coletta, Knight’s vice president of community and national initiatives, convened the network of civic innovators to view local challenges through the lens of making more effective places. How could you program place, the event asked, to harness talent, advance economic opportunity and promote robust engagement?

Knight Foundation President Alberto Ibargüen officially opened the studio on Tuesday morning. He urged participants to think broadly about ideas but to focus on local impact and authenticity.  Then the participants set to work sharing and developing ideas centered on the three aspects of the central question.

On Wednesday Coletta told participants that Knight Foundation is “looking for new ways of working and new ways of thinking about these topics, and that to me is what you’ve provided. You’ve been hugely helpful in helping us think differently about these topics.”

Coletta herself spent much of the event as one of about 35 participants in the “Advancing Opportunity” discussion, joining in the difficult work of ideating projects on how can we make our communities better. By the end of Tuesday, five teams exploring opportunity each had outlined ideas, but they delayed development of those items on Wednesday to explore how to leverage more of the expertise of innovators in the room and to discuss broader issues around economic opportunity, such as race and class, and even the definition of economic opportunity itself.

“Does this group have the ability to challenge whether or not Knight should only be thinking about this exercise through the lens of [economically] integrated communities?” one participant asked, a focus defined by research gathered before the studio to give structure to the discussion.

Coletta reassured the group that its wide range of experience was invaluable to Knight’s community work. 

“Don’t think you have to fold yourself into some box that Knight has created,” she said. “If you think that Knight should be looking in another corner, tell me what that corner is.” 

After a discussion of the framework and underlying concepts, the group moved on to discuss five ideas that reflected the diversity of the communities in which many of the innovators work, from San Francisco to Detroit to Philadelphia and Macon, Ga. The results included:

·      Pink zones: The team challenged Knight, a leading funder of innovation in sectors such as journalism, to “disrupt the urban development system” by experimenting in five cities with small parcels of land that would put remaking space into the hands of people instead of agencies, such as redevelopment authorities. The idea would  “remove frameworks that people use to avoid living, building and negotiating directly with others.” Team members said the idea would push more private activity into the public space and encourage investment in trails, parks, libraries, recreation centers and other common spaces.

·      Open streets as a platform for public engagement: Disruption was another theme in this idea, where participants suggested Knight hold an open contest where cities would apply for an open streets program that would involve a 5- to 10-mile corridor to connect high- and low-income neighborhoods. Cities would partner with community groups, commit to having a component that promotes physical health and implement catalysts to spur social interaction.  

·      Neighborhood Asset Building (NAB): The idea would use temporary projects, prototypes and collaborations to understand what a neighborhood wants, define challenges and suggest ideas that could propel long-term design solutions and shift community policies. Some of the key questions would be: Who is here? Who has been here? What can be here? Team members envisioned artists as essential in bring people together and imagining the possibilities for an area but emphasized that policymakers, real estate owners and others would have a stake in creating “special places that elevate communities.”

·      Shark Tank X: The idea centered around access to economic opportunity for people who may not have it. A community fund that invests in the knowledge of people in that place would be a key element and have lower barriers to funding than traditional methods. Participants said the idea brought in another topic from the broader studio, “Harnessing Talent,” to translate it to the local economy. They also acknowledged that the idea was high-risk but that even failures would be learning opportunities.

·      Crossing the street/valuing everyone in the neighborhood: Team members conceived of  “a community where everyone is asked what they can teach,” which is then shared to create a culture of lifelong learning. The process would begin with a survey to learn what people can teach and what people want to learn, beginning with specific census tracts. Participants envisioned a process that would begin with middle-schoolers and involve internships, apprenticeships and job creation. “What does the continuum of opportunity look like?” they asked.

Coletta later told studio participants from all three discussions that the ideas and notes from their work would be broadly shared so that they could take the work back to their own communities—and as Knight considers its way forward in civic innovation.  

“I think the fact that you gave up three days to come here with us and share in this experience … is really so generous to Knight Foundation and, I hope, ultimately to our communities,” she said. “It’s such an incredibly rich collection of knowledge and experience and know-how … that we’re deeply grateful that you would do this with us.”

Michael D. Bolden is editorial director of Knight Foundation.

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