Strengthening Democracy Through Civic Innovation

07/06/2017 10:03 am ET

There’s a lot of anxiety these days that the basic mechanisms of democracy at the local level are coming apart—that we’ve lost the ability to speak to and connect with each other. At the same time, people are losing faith in public and private institutions of all kinds. Amidst these concerns, it’s not hard to wonder how communities can continue to prosper into the future.

Yet cities are not wilting in the face of this narrative. They are thriving. In the face of intense uncertainty and threats to their basic resilience of all kinds—not just the climate, but rapid technology change, structural economic change and socioeconomic change—communities across the country are taking their fates into their own hands.

We know because we’re seeing it firsthand.

Three years ago, Knight Foundation launched the Knight Cities Challenge, posing the question: what’s your best idea to make cities more successful? The question was open to anyone and everyone in the 26 U.S. cities where Knight invests.

We took this approach to affirm the basic fact that local communities know best what they need to thrive, and because we believe transformative change comes from what is organic and authentic to a community. Rather than prescribe certain kinds of projects or issues, we left the door open to be surprised. And we prioritized collaboration and experimentation over any set outcomes. And thus the Knight Cities Challenge was born.

The results were staggering. More than 16,000 applicants submitted their ideas over the next three years. The submissions showed that all sectors—government, business and civil society—have a strong appetite to, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, “think anew and act anew.”

The grants totaled $15 million, seeding nearly 100 extraordinary ideas. These included a bold pop-up initiative in Macon, Georgia, that temporarily increased bike lane access to all residents, giving them an opportunity to test out the lanes and provide feedback, and giving the city an opportunity to collect data and fine tune the design; a new pop-up swimming pool in Philadelphia that bridges communities and has inspired the city’s government to adopt and expand the program; and a program in Charlotte that challenges municipal workers to take 10 minutes each week to connect with city residents and report on their findings, deepening community-government ties. We’re excited about the ideas, but even more excited about the energy these efforts unleash. We support civic innovation to strengthen democracy. And civic innovation is at its best when people lead the conversation about how to make their city better. By simply encouraging people to participate, leaders new and old come together to form enduring partnerships.

For example, nearly every winner of the Knight Cities Challenge reports that they built lasting relationships with fellow innovators in their local communities; many of those bonds extended to new colleagues in other cities around the country. Even the majority of applicants who did not receive Knight grants say they went on to form relationships and connections with peers in their community. And, in some cases, applicants who did not win grants nevertheless went on to pursue their ideas anyway.

These projects have shown us is that cities can, have and will continue to confront the future boldly in the face of enormous challenges. They have shown us, in line with the aspirations of our founders John S. and James L. Knight, that an informed, an engaged, and a more democratic community is alive and well—if we do the work that’s needed.

The challenge for the community of policymakers, foundations, businesses and stakeholders of all stripes, then, is to figure out how to build on this spirit of innovation and commit to the prospect that a good idea is worth trying.

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