The words ‘community buy-in’ make me cringe, almost as much as ‘have your say.’ We have come so far in our community consultation and engagement practices over the past two decades, yet we continue to say and do so many things really badly.
But full credit to the disruptors - those dragging us out of drab meeting rooms and community halls to engage in more exciting settings, whether online, in our streets or via hybrid platforms; those who have decided that community reference groups and advisory committees are dead, and are designing and deploying creative methods to build community, rather than asking people to ‘have their say.’
Why have your say when you can be part of something bigger, be a leader, an investor in projects, and be an agent of change and take part in building a better community.
Enter ioby, an organisation out of New York taking community engagement to new heights in the United States and expanding its footprint rapidly. The organisation’s name, ioby, stands for In Our Back Yards, which is the positive opposite of NIMBY - and we all know what that stands for! The NIMBY undercurrent has and continues to ‘kill’ good projects. Rebooting this way of thinking, embracing positive change and future opportunity is at the heart of ioby’s work.
Crowdfunding platforms globally funded more than $34 billion in projects, gadgets and ideas in 2015. ioby is a type of crowdfunding platform designed specifically to support community-led, neighbour-funded projects that make neighbourhoods stronger and more sustainable. Crowd-resourcing - ioby’s unique blend of crowdfunding and resource organizing - allows residents to tap the financial, human and social capital they need to bring their projects to life, from within the neighbourhood itself.
I had the opportunity to interview Erin Barnes, co-founder and executive director of ioby, on her recent visit to Australia. She was awarded the Jane Jacobs Medal for New Technology and Innovation by the Rockefeller Foundation in 2012, shortly after she and her co-founders launched the platform. Prior to ioby, Barnes was immersed in the world of water economics and hydrogeomorphology, involved in something totally different!
Here’s what she had to say when we caught up (my questions in bold):
You had me at ioby. What is it, and why?
"I’d argue that one of the most soul-sucking experiences is when one attends a community meeting, you know, the kind where the same 22 people are there to dig their heels in and express displeasure. It’s an unhappy experience. It doesn’t build community, it doesn’t really help decision makers, and it doesn’t really advance good projects that build sustainable cities. We set out to disrupt this idea with ioby, we wanted to create a place for people to work collaboratively, to do great things together, by tapping the financial and human capital in our neighbourhoods.
I think many of us are familiar with the crowdfunding concept - you know, Kickstarter and others. What ioby does is borrow the best of this model, creating a mash up with the process of community organizing, which builds knowledge, capacity and leadership with those seeking the funding."
Can you share more on this?
"ioby bridges the online-offline gap, by planting community organisers in our cities. ioby builds trust by having real people work with the community in their neighbourhood, helping them identify the unknown civic leader in their neighbourhood, working with them on developing their teams and project ideas, and with funding for their local crowdfunded project on the ioby.org platform, deliver great things."
You recently presented to the business community in Sydney, what was their reaction to this idea?
"It was a fascinating experience, hearing from both big business and community foundations, on this emerging ‘tale of two Sydneys.’ Extreme wealth and prosperity, but a growing level of disengagement, poverty, and lack of affordability in the western suburbs. Building community, and building a sustainable greater Sydney seems to be a real challenge for political leaders and community leaders alike.
It seems like there is a growing need for new community philanthropy to align with grassroots bottom-up work. The other level of strong interest was tactical urbanism, giving the community an opportunity to be part of short-term projects that can build spirit, pride, ownership and identity within a community. All critical elements for sustainable communities."
Recently, we celebrated iconic urbanist Jane Jacobs' 100-year anniversary. What would she be thinking of our progress in city building if she were with us today?
"For starters, she would be pretty embarrassed that there is a Broadway show about her right now!
I think she would be curious about how her ideas about vibrancy and small-scale community interactions were being applied in older industrial cities designed for cars. I bet she would be surprised to learn that there are Jane’s walks in her name all over the world. People are walking around communities to learn about its history, using her name and ideas on community building is a testament to her advocacy for more human-centred cities. I would love to talk to her about using the internet - can you build ‘weak ties’ online like you do in the street? I would love to know if she would like Twitter! So many questions for a great woman, if only."
Where to next for ioby?
"Literally, Pittsburgh and Washington DC, where we will open field offices in September. This is on the heels of our recently opened operations in Cleveland and Detroit. There is also a lot more ioby does which is not online, so we have a new website coming in 2017, providing more resources, allowing people to deliver better projects. It’s an exciting time for our small but impactful organisation."
Might we see ioby in Australia?
"It seems like a real possibility. There is a lot of hunger around more creative placemaking and the financing of urban projects, and giving people more tools to help them do this. There is a lot to figure out before anything would happen, but I spoke with a lot of key potential partners while I was in Brisbane and Sydney. I also look forward to a potential future visit to Melbourne and Adelaide in the not too distant future, and again test the appetite for ioby."
Not that we get competitive or anything, but which was the better city – Sydney or Brisbane?
"Sydney has something really special going on, its sparkling all over the place with the harbour and the beaches, but Brisbane feels more like a place where you would live, things are more accessible, easier to go across bridges. Its more ‘people sized,’ like comparing Philly to New York. But I loved them both, in different ways!"