Last December, TED, the nonprofit incubator of "ideas worth spreading," announced that its prestigious annual prize, previously awarded to an individual, would go to an idea: City 2.0. Recognizing the importance of cities’ health and vitality to our collective future, TED created a unique platform that would allow citizens anywhere to participate in the creation of their own new city. The call to action encourages participants to "begin by connecting" and "imagine a platform that brings you together, locally and globally. Combine the reach of the cloud with the power of the crowd."
City 2.0 is thus designed to become an ever-expanding network of citizen-led experiments, with the ability to scale successes, as well as learn lessons from failures. The $100,000 prize will be sliced into 10 $10,000 grant packets and awarded in June to the best of the submitted ideas. The long-term goals for the City 2.0 project are to:
•turn individual projects into an ultimate blueprint for the idea,
•identify the functions and resources to best activate citizen groups,
•create stories that effectively communicate the ideas of the successful projects, and
•devise innovative ways to share knowledge that will activate local groups.
Great ideas. But how can they be achieved? Here are my suggestions for maximizing the project’s potential:
The enormous challenge here, of course, is how to harness the tidal wave of globally crowd-sourced ideas into a single blueprint for a completely new city. A critical first step is organizing the chaotic jumble of culture-changing ideas into a coherent process, a task that falls on the lucky winners pocketing the $10,000 prize for their innovative ideas. TED must ensure that winners don’t just deposit their prize checks and move on to the next big idea. Rather, as part of their agreement, these future visionaries will need to serve as the "city elders" (even though most of them are probably under the age of 30) and establish a process that is innovative, inclusionary, and most important, iterative. Their primary challenge is to take a planning process that begs to be linear (learn/analyze/ideate/test/select/implement) and dive headfirst into a rapid-prototyping model (learn/posit/refine/posit/refine/implement). And this all must happen while elders continue to incorporate new ideas that are dropped from the cloud daily!
While these city elders are cycling through their planning process, the buzz generated for the City 2.0 idea must be kept fresh so that resources and interest from crowd-sourced citizens remain active. Publicity developed by this millennium’s Mad Men needs to be part of an early plan to maintain continuing interest. Enthusiasm for new ideas, as brilliant and far-reaching as they may be, fades over time; a choreographed campaign is necessary to sustain ongoing involvement in the project.
Among the elders’ first agenda items will be to retain a public relations firm and cajole well-connected friends to keep the constituency—of both the TED base and other venues—engaged. Campaigns that reach out via print and social media to civic organizations, the academic community, the planning and design professions should be blasted early and often to keep the awareness and interest at a pitched level. Elders shouldn’t underestimate the power of celebrity involvement; a TED talk on the subject by a Brad Pitt or an Angelina Jolie could help tap new audiences and raise the project’s profile.
To motivate citizen groups to continue their participation in City 2.0, stories of successful projects need to be simply communicated. The good ideas contributed to the project shouldn’t be dense, technical white papers, but rather, told in a straightforward and accessible style and enhanced by graphics and video. The objective will be to engage readers at a visceral level and motivate them to continue to generate new concepts; again the broader goal is to develop the new city concept in an iterative manner with ideas building upon ideas.
TED envisions the sharing of knowledge among citizens’ groups to happen in innovative and perhaps unexpected ways. It acknowledges that they will get strong early involvement from current TED followers and other interested net-izens, so the question is how to reach other groups, solicit their ideas in original ways, and encourage them to share stories? Viral campaigns that generate buzz around a specific issue of great public interest (Would a smoke-free city be challenged as unconstitutional in a court of law?) could be disseminated in many different gateways of both print and social media. From polls and surveys that broadcast results from public opinion on these types of issues, to a contest that provides "carbon scores" as a way of measuring citywide impact of planning ideas, there are myriad ways to keep the momentum of the thinking flowing throughout the process.
And finally, if these elders really want to start the jet engine that generates nationwide interest in City 2.0, they should get sound bite answers from the major politicians in this year’s race to the White House to the question of whether crowd sourcing ideas for a new city represents democracy at its zenith or a blatant symbol of socialism at work. Open the floodgates!