Abbott Square: Using a community-based approach to bring a Museum into the public sphere

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This is the fifth in a Placemaking Profile series in which we will share short conversations we’ve had with urban innovators – from those who are actively building places that foster social inclusion to those who listen, engage, and tell stories from the communities.

For more information about placemaking, please click here.

From our previous conversations with leading placemakers in Canada, Lebanon, the UK, the US, Belgium, and more, it is clear that there is a growing need - and creative energy to support that need - to open up our public spaces both physically and psychologically. With that need comes opportunities to repurpose and reconnect assets - from libraries to greenspaces - to foster places in which we can share visions, resources, and power.

When we talk about building out the civic commons, one important piece of the puzzle are civic institutions like galleries, museums, and archives. How can these places that often take us outside of our immediate context (temporal, geographic, etc.) ground us in order to build a stronger, more connected community? How can the wealth of knowledge and ideas contained within these institutions be brought out into the communities in which they’re located?

We were lucky enough to connect with Nina Simon, museum visionary and Executive Director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History, just after she was in Toronto to give a keynote at NEXT, the 2017 Canadian Association of Science Centres' annual conference. Read on to find out how the MAH is both sharing out and inviting in to expand traditional museum programming while fostering important conversations about place.

Responses are lightly adapted from our Q&A with Nina.

You state that “the MAH fundamentally has two jobs: we bring art and history out into our community, and we invite our community in”; this is a powerful statement in a world where retreating into private spheres is seen as an acceptable solution. How did this mission statement develop?

Retreating into private spheres is neither ethically acceptable nor financially sustainable. The MAH almost closed in 2011 because it was perceived in our community as closed-off and insular. Our subsequent rebirth and transformative growth was rooted in a community-based approach. We believe we exist for our community, with our community, period.

As we started doing community-based work, we built a strategic framework around it, which we call a theory of change, connecting the activities we do to the impact we seek. The impact we focus on is using art and history to build a stronger, more connected community. Our community doesn’t live solely in our building. Our work shouldn’t, either.

Relatedly, what do you see as next steps to continuing to expand your audience?

We are expanding into Abbott Square to bring the MAH experience out into our immediate downtown community. But we don’t intend to stop there. Strategically, we see growth at the MAH in the next five years as happening beyond the building. We want the museum to be the creative heart of an ever-expanding network of community connections and partnerships. These connections are both ephemeral (pop up museums, collaborative festivals) and permanent (history exhibits in bus stops, public art projects). We are investing on multiple levels to build a more connected community across our region.

The idea of bringing the community into the MAH can be connected to breaking apart the public/private space dichotomy. What have been some of the key actions involved in changing a traditional museum setting to one that is open and interactive?

The first step to being open is being open. Open to possibilities. Open to new ideas and perspectives. Open to the people who walk in your doors. We see creative and cultural assets everywhere in our community, and we think it’s our job to amplify, connect, and empower them. It’s a basic mindshift from scarcity thinking to abundance thinking.

Can you give a few examples of how you are engaging with people who may not normally enter a museum setting?

  1. We bridge people from different cultural and economic backgrounds frequently in our projects. For example, in the spring of 2017 we presented an exhibition called WE WHO WORK, pairing Hung Liu’s gorgeous portraits of ancient Chinese laborers with contemporary tools from locals who are day workers. Most day workers in our community are low-income, Latino, often exploited, often ignored. Bringing them and their labor stories into the exhibition brings them dignity and ties their struggles to those of the historic laborers in the artwork.
  2. We embrace the full spectrum of creative expression in our community. Our biggest annual event, the GLOW festival, is a digital art and fire street festival. It was started when a group of local world-famous fire artists approached the MAH and said, “we never get to show our work here in Santa Cruz County.” Their art may not hang on gallery walls, but it is powerful and worth sharing. We worked hard to showcase their work in a safe, fun, incredible festival experience that has become a signature MAH event.
  3. We make safe space for other groups to use the MAH as their cultural platform. The MAH is home to a writing tutoring center, a puppetry institute, research projects, a racial justice group, Chamber of Commerce meetings, and many, many other endeavors. We want the MAH to be seen as a convening space, and we have worked hard to say yes to as many community groups as possible who can get and bring value here.

In what ways do you measure engagement and impact?

For us, success looks like our audience reflecting the age, income, and ethnic diversity of our county. That’s our basic measuring stick. Beyond that, we measure whether people feel empowered through MAH programs and whether our programs are catalyzing new cultural bridges across divides in our community.

How do we measure these things? We survey people directly with targeted questions, and we also observe and capture stories of impact. For example, on the bridging side, we ask visitors: “Did you have a positive experience with someone from a different cultural background?” And then we also listen for the later stories of deeper bridging: an Oaxacan music group and historical association who team up on an event, a composer and a sculptor who partner on a project, a partner from a marginalized background who tells us she’s made more friends and felt more welcome because of her involvement with the MAH.

One of our thematic areas at Cities for People is strengthening the civic commons (i.e., sharing the planning, management, and use of community assets). Does this framing apply to your work in connecting spaces that were previously viewed as unrelated to one another?

Yes and no. On the one hand, because of the MAH’s impact focus on building a more connected community, we spend a lot of our time sharing / connecting / partnering / co-conspiring. We have literally thousands of local partners. We encourage MAH staff to serve on boards, volunteer for other organizations, and get involved in civic projects. We are delighted to share our knowledge and assets with others… and we learn from them too.

On the other hand, we have a heavy bias for action. We’re not willing to spend years in planning. At the MAH, we’re serious about community participation, but we’re also serious about the fact that that participation has to lead somewhere--to a powerful outcome that all our participants can take pride in. If a particular opportunity appears to be stuck in a multi-year planning loop, we move on.

The MAH seems to pay particular attention to appealing to many age groups - something which art institutions seem to struggle with. What steps have you taken to build all-ages programming into your plans?

We don’t target our programming to specific groups. Instead, we focus on bridging--making the MAH a place you come to interact with people from many different walks of life. That means that we don’t do “young adult” events or “family” events. We do community events, and we design them to appeal to many different constituencies.

For example, we found that only families with small kids would come to an event called “Family Art Day,” but people of all ages--including families with kids--would come to a “Radical Craft Night” featuring hands-on activities, blacksmithing, even a taxidermy demonstration. Bridging different cultural offerings in one space brings together people of many different ages and backgrounds.

How did the Pop-up Museum idea (a temporary exhibit created by whomever comes up with an idea) come into being?

A UW graduate student, Michelle DelCarlo, developed it as part of her master’s thesis in museology. We loved the simple, understandable, scalable format for bringing people together around objects and conversations. We worked with Michelle to adapt her model into a structure that we use in Santa Cruz County and that we share with the world via The MAH’s free Pop Up Museum toolkit has been downloaded over 12,000 times by people in 128 countries.

How did you connect with residents in neighbourhoods away from the MAH to bring the museum experience to their communities?

We’re always looking outward. Where we are interested in a particular community (whether defined by neighborhood, cultural practice, age, etc.), we seek out their events, favored places, and experiences. We are guests in their spaces, learning what they love and value. Then, we reach out, focusing on how we can amplify the incredible work they do.

Can you point to examples of civic institutions that have taken a similar approach to breaking down walls (literally or metaphorically) to integrate and connect their space with the urban fabric surrounding it? I.e., are there any comparable projects that have served as inspiration to you and your team?

Yes - many. Here are just a few...

  • The Laundromat Project in New York City, which puts artists to work in laundromats in low-income neighborhoods.
  • Wing Luke Asian Museum in Seattle, which co-creates exhibitions with community members, putting their voices and artifacts first.
  • Yerba Buena Centre for the Arts in San Francisco, which uses contemporary art to catalyze new ideas about how the city can move forward.
  • Queens Museum in New York, which activates deep partnerships in Corona Plaza.

 Learn more about this transformative project:

  • Why We’re Building Abbott Square (blogpost written by Nina Simon for her blog Museum 2.0)
  • In Santa Cruz? Come visit the MAH and Abbott Square.
  • Keen to host your own Pop Up Museum? You can use MAH’s Pop Up Museum Organizer’s kit, which offers tips and step-by-step advice on hosting Pop Up Museums.

Cities as a commons: Sharing vision, resources and power

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by Alex Gillis

Uber, Airbnb and other sharing enterprises allow people to buy rides, rent homes and hire people for everyday chores, but are those initiatives really about sharing?

“They are full of the steroid of venture capital,” explained Julian Agyeman, co-author of the book Sharing Cities and professor of urban and environmental policy and planning at Tufts University, in the United States. “These are not sharing enterprises anymore. These are about making lots of money, and about exploiting workers and neighbourhoods.”

Last month, at Toronto’s Evergreen Brick Works, Agyeman spoke about true sharing enterprises, the types that involve “just sustainability,” as he puts it, a sustainability that melds human equality with environmental issues, merges social justice with ecological sustainability. He was one of four international experts at an event organized by Evergreen and the J. W. McConnell Family Foundation’s Cities for People initiative, an event that’s part of collaborations to foster inclusive, innovative and resilient cities.

“Let’s go beyond the idea of the sharing economy, to explore approaches that are more cultural than commercial, more political than economic, and that are rooted in the broad understanding of a co-created urban commons,” Agyeman said. “The urban commons is in retreat.” The Internet, for example, is a commons and is under threat. “We need net neutrality,” he argued.

The idea of the ‘commons’ is 800 years older than the internet but is as revolutionary now as it was then. ‘Commons’ refers to places and resources that are open for all people to share — a tradition that’s always been counter to privatization and commodification of places and resources. The origin of the commons can be found in the Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forest, both created in the thirteenth-century to alleviate the mass hunger and suffering created when the nobility took over forests and rivers.

Later, in the England of the 1600s, the idea of the commons was revived after commoners challenged powerful elites who had fenced huge tracts of land for private use. The bloody conflict led to the beheading of the English king and the English Civil War.

Today, the idea of the commons is enjoying a revival and means new things.

“These ‘new’ commons include knowledge commons, cultural commons, infrastructure commons, and neighbourhood commons, among others,” write Sheila R. Foster and Christian Iaione in “The City as a Commons.” In this paper, they argue that inhabitants have a ‘right to the city,’ have a right to be part of creating the city, and have a right to use tangible and intangible collective resources in the city. They list examples: streets, parks, community gardens, open spaces and business and community improvement districts.

And both authors propose new governance models to make the city the facilitator of inclusive decision-making and equitable distribution of resources to vulnerable and disenfranchised groups.

Cities need these new models to address new urban problems. Two thirds of the world’s population is projected to live in cities by 2050, a massive increase from current levels. Migration and urban planning, along with climate change, violent conflict and gaping inequality, are important challenges of the twenty-first century.

Given these overwhelming problems, how can we create smart and sharing cities? The short answer is: urban innovation networks. Successful models in the Colombia, UK, U.S., Italy, Germany and the Netherlands provide examples for Canadian cities — models that inspired the federal government to launch the $300 million Smart Cities Challenge Fund.

Participatory City – Illustrated Guide

The Participatory City initiative in the UK is one such model. “These projects see people working together on practical ideas that make their neighborhoods more exciting and enjoyable and sustainable socially, economically and environmentally,” writes Tessy Britton, founder of Participatory City, which is in the seventh year of researching and prototyping new ways to support practical participation.

“At the heart of the city as a commons are citizens and their creativity,” she explained at the Evergreen event. “Small exchanges of friendship create networks of cooperation that are the building blocks of a sustainable future, but only if we have encouraged these on a large enough scale.” Her organization focuses on redesigning or re-structuring systems to makes it easier for people to participate on a practical, everyday level. “We are creating a commons platform,” she said.

Their next project in the UK will be in a northeast London borough with a population of 200,000. “It’s the ninth most deprived borough in the UK, with a blanket level of deprivation, unlike other areas where you have pockets of deprivation and pockets of middle class areas,” she said. The organization is hoping to raise £6 million over five years for over 300 projects.

“If you live there, you’ll have 70 opportunities each week to share or cooperate with neighbours, whether you’re cooking, growing things, learning, repairing, or participating in everyday activities.” The point is that the urban innovation networks won’t be extraordinary; they’ll be normal and a part of everyday life. “To mainstream and scale up participation, we have to make it attractive, accessible, convenient and beneficial, and every action has to benefit everybody who’s taking part in it.”

“These neighbourhoods will also be created by everyone living in them — not by heroic or extraordinary efforts — but simply by doing many of the things we do in the course of going about our daily lives together, rather than alone,” she added.

Julian Agyeman explained something similar: “There are four conditions to just sustainabilities: improving our quality of life and well-being; meeting the needs of both present and future generations; justice and equity in terms of recognition, process, procedure and outcomes; and, finally, living within ecosystem limits.”

Medellin, Colombia

“Reinvention and revival of sharing could enhance equity, rebuild community and dramatically cut resource use — and we could meld cyber and real space and develop platforms where equity is enabled,” he said. He pointed to Medellín, Colombia, where the city developed the urban commons — providing access to poor areas, opening library parks with free broadband access and practicing other ‘urban acupuncture’ (pinpricks of innovation around the city). Most importantly, the city uses participatory budgeting and planning, a process that contributes to a large portion of the city’s budget.

In Italy, the LABoratory for the GOVernance of Commons (or LabGov) is an organization that, each year, trains about 30 students and experts in urban-commons governance. It focuses on partnerships of citizens, NGOs, public administrations, local business and communities that share scarce resources and care for the commons, both tangible and intangible, in urban areas. LabGov is leading an initiative in the city of Bologna, Italy, to encourage development of a shared city, with urban roads used as a commons. It’s also establishing an agency for industrial and cultural commons. Phase 2 will involve citizens starting projects in the city.

In the U.S., Living Cities and Reimagining the Civic Commons include innovative concepts of the commons. Living Cities is an organization that collaborates with multidisciplinary, civic leaders in approximately 40 American cities to develop new approaches to improving the well-being of low-income people. Reimagining the Civic Commons is an initiative that counters economic and social fragmentation in cities by revitalizing public places, such as parks, plazas, trails and libraries, to bring together people from different backgrounds.

Back in Canada, the next phase of Cities for People involves working with partners to build the Future Cities Network, a collaboration to link new and existing hubs in Toronto, Montreal and other cities. This joint venture between multiple partners, including the McConnell Foundation and Evergreen, intends to pool and coordinate learning opportunities and substantial investment in the coming years. The Toronto hub of the Network — the Future Cities Centre — is already under construction at Evergreen Brick Works.


Alex Gillis

Alex Gillis is an investigative journalist and author who’s written for many of Canada’s mainstream publications. He’s also worked with community- and international-development organizations.


Participatory cities grounded in practical, everyday acts

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This is the fourth in a Placemaking Profile series in which we will share short conversations we’ve had with urban innovators – from those who are actively building places that foster social inclusion to those who listen, engage, and tell stories from the communities.

For more information about placemaking, please click here.

Tessy Britton: Participatory City

In conversations about shaping our cities, we often talk about public participation as a crucial element of decision-making. But how does this translate to people’s day-to-day lives? Are there enough opportunities to get involved in local governance? What factors are necessary to achieve power shifts rather than tokenistic public input?

These are questions that Londoner Tessy Britton and her Participatory City initiative have had on their minds for many years. While we intrinsically know that cities should be places for all (and therefore shaped by all), it can be difficult to concretize this ideal. Tessy, through her deep work in practical participation in UK cities, has answers. Last month, we had the opportunity to chat about supporting networks of citizen-run spaces, connecting everyday acts with larger goals like social inclusion and enterprise creation, and how neighbourhoods can be created by and for everyone.

We began our discussion by sharing what our home cities - Toronto, Canada and London, UK - have in common when it comes to citizens shaping city spaces. In both cities, placemaking is happening on a micro-scale (think tool libraries, 100in1Day, laneway crawls, and myriad other examples), and though it makes a difference to the immediate community, these projects are often disparate and don’t reap the kind of measurable results that influence decision-makers. In other words, small, citizen-led initiatives certainly have localized benefits, but are not adding up to a more supportive society.

What if participating in planning your community didn’t have to involve taking time to attend a formal public meeting or filling out an online survey that doesn’t allow for communicating the nuances of lived experience? What if your regular activities, from gardening on your front porch to preparing food to repairing your bicycle, were recognized as contributing to the collective experience of folks in your neighbourhood? While these support systems exist, they tend to be exceptions to the norm, where we are connected mainly for purposes of financial transactions. In a Participatory City, decisions about place are actually structured around these everyday acts. So what does this look like? Who is involved? How can we harness the know-how, creativity, and passion of citizens into a city that takes care of its inhabitants?

Starting this year, Participatory City will transform one London neighbourhood into a Demonstration Neighborhood - of around 200,00 to 300,000 residents - that will become a model for wellbeing, sustainability and equality. Here is how this impressive initiative is taking shape:

  • It is built on an open-source environment that allows all users to share what they’re doing and collaborate with others.
  • It doesn’t have to involve a lot of new inputs; instead, it makes better use of spaces, resources, skills, and knowledge.
  • It recognizes the potential of essential, everyday acts to effect change, when connected and supported.
  • It supports an ecology of mutually dependent and supportive collections of activity in common places like cafes, schools, and gardens (the goal being 1,000 ideas to transform one’s neighbourhood).
  • It gets unlikely allies working together, resulting in more social capital and greater resilience.

Our conversation kept coming back to power and the ways in which city governments value certain assets and undervalue others. In order for our cities to become places for all, not just for those with certain powers and privileges, change must be rooted in building social capital in a way that is available to all. The Participatory City is different from one-off citizen engagement because the projects within, by their nature, attract people of different socio-economic backgrounds, cultures, and interests. Why? Because the projects are social, practical and productive”, and allow for different ways to participate, unlike many traditional volunteer or charity activities. Since they are built on activities which appeal to a variety of people, they provide easy opportunities to collaborate without much external intervention, resulting in an immediate sense of ownership, and often a tangible outcome.

This is something that we could learn from in Canadian cities. From coast to coast, there are fantastic grassroots projects that demonstrate new possibilities for using city spaces, from Montreal’s Ruelles Vertes to Open Streets projects happening yearly in several cities. However successful these 'temporary activation' projects are, it seems like momentum is slow to build, and that arguably, these projects have not yet shifted dominant practices of city building or community enterprise creation. Perhaps one solution for city governments and private funders lies in emulating what is being done with Participatory City: rather than funding localized projects and then leaving them to fend for themselves, a solution could be a more self-sustaining system of connecting, scaling up and out, and reinforcing community-driven projects and enterprises for long-term impact. Participatory City does this through a cycle of listening to people in ways that enable citizen experimentation and co-creation of projects and social enterprises.

Want to know more about Participatory City? Tessy will be sharing her work at a public discussion series, The City as a Commons, starting next week in Montreal (March 20 and 23), Toronto (March 27), and Ottawa (March 28). All events are free, but please do register.

Further reading:

 About Tessy Britton:

Tessy is the founder of Participatory City and has been developing the Participatory City practice for six years, researching and prototyping new ways to support widespread practical participation. Tessy works on a number of international projects, including supporting Bloomberg Philanthropies Mayor’s Challenge, judging the New Radicals 2016 with Nesta and The Observer. She is also a British Council Fellow for the Hammamet Conference in Tunisia. Tessy is a guest lecturer at: Saïd Business School (Oxford), LabGov at LUISS University (Rome); Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, Brown University; Rhode Island School of Design (Providence. USA).

Voices of New Economies: Pallavi Roy

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New Economies and the Energy Sector
By Pallavi Roy

PallaviRoyKey elements of new economies include:

  1. Resourcefulness: Utilising unused resources, seeing opportunity in what was traditionally considered waste
  2. Disruption: breaking down the old and creating better brighter solutions
  3. Increased citizen engagement, participation and access

Energy sector and the collaborative economy

Decision-making in both public and private sectors has moved in recent years to ensure the inclusion of a variety of stakeholders. As Arnesteine said in her 1969 paper, ladders of citizen power “Citizen participation is citizen power”. This shift in attitudes towards citizen participation has been characterized as a rejection of the top-down policymaking approach: “Sustainable development cannot be imposed from above. It will not take root unless people across the country are actively engaged.”

Collaboratively owned and managed energy projects represent the highest rung of citizen control and an important stakeholder serving as the voice for citizen mandate. While the conventional system of energy provision usually involves highly centralised energy infrastructures with end of the line dependent consumers, locally and cooperatively owned facilities for energy production can constitute a substantially differing model of energy provision and distribution.

This empowers its members to become producers, and to not just be traditional consumers. Recently, liberalisation of energy markets as well as feed-in tariffs for electricity generated from renewable sources introduced in several countries has opened up new actor roles and markets accessible to citizen groups. With the possibility to sell their electricity to the grid as independent producers or even to act as utility companies selling directly to customers, collaboratively owned energy projects are becoming market actors in their own right.

As someone coming from India, energy has always been an issue of prime importance and concern. Millions of people still don’t have access to regular and assured supply of electricity and cheap assured supply is a frequent election campaign promise. Traditionally the burden of providing electricity and power supply is rested on the government, who has not been doing a great job of it. The idea of consumers owning their energy supply, having a say in the choice of energy source and management of facilities is quite liberating.

Cities and energy and new economies

New economies are exciting prospects for cities, to re-define and re-develop ourselves in the face of different challenges. Estimates suggest that hundreds of million people will be added to urban populations over the next 10 years, leading to major demands on resources, particularly energy. Thus, smart city designs equipped to handle the demands of increased urbanization need to be built. Energy security is of prime importance and plays a significant role in the urban landscape, as cities are heavily dependent on assured supply of energy for development. Energy sector, which has traditionally been highly controlled, has immense potential to be revolutionised through new economic practices.

New economic practices in the energy sector have the following potential impact on cities:

  1. Increasing the renewable energy sources in the energy mix thus reducing GHG emissions
  2. Moving towards an energy supply that is more assured yet not fossil fuel based
  3. Increasing citizen participation in energy planning and policies
  4. Creating more resilient cities and communities

Real wealth

Real wealth means the understanding that growth for the sake of it is undesirable and that a triple bottom line approach is more beneficial in the long run. Real wealth means not falling in the trap of consumerism and competition. On a personal level real wealth indicates the ability to have a fulfilling life, one with choices and the ability to make informed decisions.

Related links:

A ladder of citizen participation.Strategies for sustainability: citizens and responsible environmental behaviour.Understanding smart cities

The role of public participation in identifying stakeholder synergies in wind power project development: The case study of Ontario, Canada


Pallavi Roy is a recent graduate from Ryerson University with a Masters in Environmental applied science and management. She is currently working at CultureLink Settlement Services as a Metcalf Sustainability Intern. Her project aims to bring an environmental focus to settlement work, thus making the environmental movement more inclusive for newcomers, and the settlement sector greener. Pallavi is an environmental researcher and community activist with interests in sustainability, energy policy and community engagement. She is passionate about sustainability issues of urban life and is active in the community promoting adoption of sustainable lifestyle choices. Her previous work experience includes various not-for-profit organisations in Toronto, such as Jane’s Walk, Toronto Green Community, Foodshare, and The David Suzuki Foundation.


This blog is part of the 'Voices of New Economies' series within Cities for People - an experiment in advancing the movement toward urban resilience and livability through connecting innovation networks.

The Voices of New Economies series is collectively curated by One Earth and The Canadian CED Network.

This series is an exploration of what it takes to build the economies we need - ones that work for people, places, and the planet. We are connecting key actors, finding patterns, noting interesting differences, and highlighting key concepts and initiatives. Together, this series offers insights into the new economies movement as it develops.

The prize-winning city

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By Jo Flatt

What do canned goods, margarine, fire extinguishers and the first non-stop flight from New York to Paris all have in common? They were all innovations resulting from contests, an old concept that has roared back in style like vintage fashion. Prize contests refer to the practice of crowdsourcing new ideas, strategies or products from networks outside the traditional range of experts - whether across geographies, companies, industries, sectors or disciplines. In the search for the next prize winner - anyone can be an expert.

While prize contests have grown in popularity over the last few years, what’s particularly remarkable is the range of solutions that are being sought. A quick look at, an online platform to centralize all the prize competitions run across the 50 US federal government agencies shows a remarkable range of opportunities for non-traditional experts to engage in solving complex problems. On the website, one can find contests for 3D printable small robots to assist in bomb disposal, to the balancing of dead weight on Mars, or randomized control trials for criminal justice problems. Issues and challenges that one never thought were public information are now being showcased for anyone to explore, transforming the big black box of government to be accessible and relatable.

And is not the only example. Prize contests are being used across private and philanthropic sectors as well. The uptake of prizes has been so great that a wide range of intermediary organizations have popped up to both support development of prize campaigns and connect the ‘solutions seekers’ with the ‘problem solvers’. One such intermediary, InnoCentive, has a problem solver network of over 300,ooo individuals who actively participate in prize based solution development.

So, why are organizations heading down this road? Call it recognition of limitations or hopes of new horizons, as today’s challenges become increasingly complex, institutions are wanting to look elsewhere for new kinds of solutions. In times of fiscal austerity, prizes can also be cheaper than traditional request for proposal (RFP) processes since the solution seeker only pays for success. Prizes can also bring attention to new markets, issues or areas of opportunity by attracting investment and attention to otherwise overlooked industries. The success garnered from a prize contest can make unlikely ideas suddenly more attractive, bringing the good ones closer to implementation and commercialization.

Prizes can also spur cross sector collaboration and the sharing of knowledge between industries. A study completed by the Harvard Business School, Copenhagen Business School and InnoCentive, evaluated the trends of crowdsourced innovation solutions by looking at 166 scientific problems across industries, firms and countries between 2001 and 2005. It showed that most of the winning ideas came from problem solvers whose fields of expertise were furthest away from the problem. This conclusion turns the traditional frame of expertise on its head. No longer must we depend exclusively on astrophysicists to think about astrophysics, with the right level of creativity, dedication and teamwork anyone can take a shot at developing a good idea!

So what does this mean for cities?

As shocking as it may seem, Canadian municipalities have very few ways of making money. Aside from property taxes and user fees - there isn’t much else that cities can do for dollars, which may seem rather ironic given that the majority of Canadians resides in cities. Prize contests, however offer one way of financing creative problem solving for some of the biggest challenges faced by cities. And, rather than just paying companies to develop solutions, contests are encouraging investment in local residents.

Prizes also illustrate a growing a desire to change the dynamics of power in urban governance, by shifting the way that we understand expertise and how we access great ideas. Designing the most successful public space, bike share program or waste management system all require significant insights into the realm of behaviors, needs, and fears of the daily user. And often, it’s the people themselves who are best at knowing what will work – so why not let them be the experts?

A cautionary note:

While prize and contests may seem like a simple strategy for innovative solutions – it’s important to remember that not all problems are created equal - and many complex issues cannot be solved with a contest. The first thing to determine is whether the challenge presented can benefit from a prize format, why has it not yet been solved before and what structural or systemic barriers are getting in the way?

Another key concern about the prize process is selection and implementation - who is choosing the winners and how are their ideas being applied? Every idea still needs work to refine, customize and ensure local receptivity. We can’t assume that all crowdsourced ideas are good ones – the idea may fall flat on its face, even if it won the contest.

Building great cities is no small feat. It is a deliberate process that requires ambitious goals, experimentation, and even more importantly, a commitment to bringing new faces, perspectives and voices to the table. And with no beaten road to follow, we must be open to the full range of strategies or approaches to get there. Prizes are but one arrow in our quiver as city builders and engaged residents. If we continue to complement this innovative practice with other unique strategies, processes and collaborations, we may just uncover that next best city minded thing.

Useful links

  • Interested in running a challenge prize? Check out Challenge Prizes: A practice guide by Perrie Ballantyne at the Nesta Centre for Challenge Prizes.
  • Did you know that the City of Toronto ran a challenge prize earlier this year? See the 2014 NXT City Prize and learn about the winning idea (of over 120 submissions!), Yonge Redux.

Author: Jo Flatt works as a Senior Project Manager at Evergreen Cityworks and Consultant at The Next Practice, specializing in the fields of urban sustainability and change management strategies to support innovation across sectors.

Photo credit: Photo courtesy of the city of Marietta.

Global #MapJam 2014 to Put the New Economy on the Map!

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On October 13th, the Sharing Cities Network will launch the Second Annual Global #MapJam to bring activists together in cities around the world to map grassroots sharing projects, cooperatives, community resources, and the commons where they live.

Mapping all of the shared resources in your city not only shows that another world is possible--it shows it’s already here! Asset maps are powerful organizing tools. They make community assets more visible, create a base for further community development, spark new collaborations, and illuminate openings for new projects to fill in the gaps. They also get a lot of web traffic! Depending on the size of your city, your map could easily get thousands of visits in just a few months after creating it.

Scheduled to coincide with New Economy Week, the Map Jam will launch on Indigenous People’s Day and continue for two weeks from Monday, October 13th - Sunday, the 27th.

Global #MapJam Day will take place on October 16th featuring a 24hr mapping ‘round the world across multiple continents and timezones

The second annual asset mapping event will build upon the tremendous success of last years campaign when 500 mappers partied together in 60 cities and made 50 maps in just 2 weeks launching the Sharing Cities Network in the process. Groups in many cities have already begun to step up and are planning to host #MapJams in Barcelona, Frankfurt, Hartford, Louisville, Nairobi and Rochester just to name a few and many groups from last year will be coming back together… who knew that mapping could be so much fun?

The #MapJam has received a broad base of support led by the Sharing Cities Network  and partners including: New Economy Coalition,US Solidarity Economy Network,Transition US,Center for a New American Dream,OuiShare,P2P Foundation,Post Carbon Institute,The People Who Share,Students Organizing for Democratic Alternatives,Solidarity NYC,Data Commons,  RIPESS (International Network for the Promotion of Social Solidarity Economy) and many other community and Sharing Cities groups.

Interested in organizing a #MapJam in your community? Or attending one? Please sign up here to get involved.

#MapJam’s are easy to organize and a small, dedicated group of people can get together for a few hours to map as many shared resources, cooperatives and sharing services in their city or town as possible. Like a musical jam, it should be fun, social, and jammers should find a groove as they work. Join the Sharing Cities Network facebook group to get the latest updates and meet other ‘map jammers’.

Join us to Put the New Economy on the Map!

Sign up now to host a #MapJam and you will be provided with a comprehensive Guide to Mapping, Webinar, Q&A/Support Calls and Promotional Materials to support the success of your local event.

New Economy Week 2014

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What would it take to build the economy we need, one that works for people, place, and planet?

New Economy Week is a public exploration of creative resistance – an opportunity to shine a light on the thousands upon thousands of efforts that everyday people are making right now to build a new kind of economy. 

From October 13-19, the New Economy Coalition (NEC) will be hosting live keynote panels, publishing powerful essays, and spotlighting member events (open-houses, info-sessions, film screenings, panel discussions, pot-lucks, etc.) from across the US and Canada — with the goal of raising the profile of those doing this work and diving into some of the questions that stand between us and a New Economy.

NEC has partnered with YES! Magazine online to share some of the best responses to their 'questions of the day':

1. How can we honor and learn from the rich histories of communities building New Economy institutions on the frontlines of fights for racial, economic, and environmental justice?

2. How can we catalyze public conversation about the need for systemic change and the viability of economic alternatives that put people and the planet first?

3. How can we connect and learn from successful experiments, pilot projects, and campaigns to build broad-based power and effect deep transformation at scale?

4. How do we transition to a renewable economy without leaving the workers, young people, and communities most impacted by extractive industries behind?

5. How can we support neighborhoods, cities, towns, and regions as the fertile ground for the kind of economy we need?

Get Involved!

We invite you to join these conversations online and to host some conversations of your own in your community.

Two Months, Twenty Cities, One Movement – The Blue Dot Tour

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The David Suzuki Foundation has announced the Blue Dot Tour - a cross-country celebration featuring David Suzuki and a star-studded line up of Canadian performers, artists and leaders.

They are doing this to  promote a simple idea: That all Canadians should have the legally recognized right to drink clean water, breathe fresh air and eat healthy food.

From September 24 to November 9, 2014, David Suzuki and the Blue Dot Tour will take this message on the road. With stops in 20 communities from St. Johns, Newfoundland to Vancouver, B.C., this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience not to be missed.

As David makes his way across the country, he'll be joined by other Canadian icons who believe that by coming together to take action locally, we can guarantee all Canadians the right to a healthy environment no matter who they are, or where they live.

David says this is the most important thing he’s ever done.  Around the world, more than 110 nations already recognize their citizen's right to live in a healthy environment. Canada is not one of them. But by standing together, The David Suzuki Foundation believes we change that.

Visit for dates, line-ups, and tickets.

For more information, contact the David Suzuki Foundation at 1-800-453-1533


Photo credit:

Sparks of the New Economy at 100-in-1 Day

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On Saturday June 7th, citizens in Vancouver, Toronto, Halifax and Montreal created acts of urban change as part of 100-in-1 Day, a movement uniting people across the nation to make cities better. Each Canadian city hosting the event was fortunate to witness an outpouring of engagement. Two numbers tell the story: A total of 460 interventions took place across Canada - many more than the stated target of 100. Halifax had five times as many actions (on a per capita basis) as any of the other cities. Go Halifax!

We’ve taken a closer look at some of the interventions that have new economies at their heart. New economies are about taking a holistic perspective on the nature and origins of wealth, and evaluating the ways in which economies can work for people and the planet through shared, just, and lasting prosperity. This includes fair trade, the sharing economy, collaborative consumption, alternative measures of progress and wellbeing, social enterprise, and social finance.


Toronto featured 174 interventions, including one on the reclamation of public space. In the People's Queen Street, people occupied parking spaces on a major street, and filled the spaces with grass, hammocks, back yard patio furniture and games. Similarly, public spaces came alive with people participating in public poetry (Halifax), hosting a piano picnic (Vancouver) and hosting a potluck in a park

In Halifax, 52 interventions took place. In one, people shared ideas for a new tool library...

“Setting up on the street and selling hot dogs was a great opportunity to raise awareness about the Tool Library in the community where it will be located. We received useful input on our lending policies and some neighbours took the opportunity to donate tools. Like many of our engagements, the most fulfilling aspect was watching people come to grips with the concept of a Tool Library for the first time. We hope it will spark other ideas for the resources we can share.” Halifax Tool Library

Montreal was also buzzing with energy as over 87 interventions took place in the urban fabric - even families got into the action, planting a garden that would encourage eating their leafy greens...and plenty of muddy playtime. One of the 83 interventions in Vancouver was the Match Maker booth hosted by Kits Space Projects at Vancouver's Maker Faire. It provided an opportunity for makers to connect with the Strathcona Resource Exchange where business waste is repurposed for creative projects and new economies...and people see what’s possible when waste is recognized as a resource.

Citizen actions explored the links between the economy and ecology in Toronto: people came together to discuss what engineering means to them; they walked through a ravine while pondering the effective integration of nature and people.

Interventions encouraged local and indigenous food consumption, including by designing a First Nations Indigenous Garden, by holding a permaculture blitz, growing an organic food forest (Vancouver), by distributing seed bombs, and by learning about urban beekeeping (Halifax).

And across the border in Boston, Canadian Justin Ritchie (nonprofit The Extraenvironmentalist) recorded a livestream of the New Economy Coalition conference, CommonBound. He interviewed Mike Lewis of the Canadian Centre for Community Renewal. Other speakers from Canada include Béatrice Alice of Chantier de l’économie sociale and Mike Toye of the Canadian Community Economic Development Network (CCEDnet). Web:


The One Earth team took to the streets of Vancouver to discuss new economies, talking with people to figure out what “real wealth” means to citizens. Our question, “What does real wealth mean to you?” generated interesting responses like, “people reclaiming their power”, “access to sports”, “being in love”, “accomplishing your goals”, and “kindness”. An 88 year old pensioner we spoke with said that real wealth “is loving what you do”, while a 5 year old girl confidently stated with that “snails” make her feel wealthy.

These genuine responses to understanding wealth brought to light an important aspect to consider while re-evaluating our current economic system. They reveal that wealth is a state of being, and not necessarily a state of ownership. This is what the new economy is striving to highlight through these generative discussions on the roots of value, money, and exchange.

Economics has traditionally been about understanding the allocation of scarce resources - but what we saw on June 7th was an abundance of happiness, enthusiasm and connection, not scarcity. The intangible qualities of what real wealth can mean - creativity, innovation, equality, participation, capacity, and ability - all expand the more they are used. These are important to keep in mind when thinking about what we want our present and future to look like, and how economies should be understood and measured.

Our commons don’t need to become a tragedy - they can, instead, be bountiful and rewarding shared assets. 100 in 1 Day showed that through people coming together to act, express, engage, connect and design what they want to see in the world, we join together on the path to manifesting that reality.


Cities for People will continue to explore the different ways in which we all engage with new economies. Sign up on our mailing list to receive updates and invitations to future events, access to insightful discussions, and prizes.

Click the following links to get involved in the upcoming events:

- Sharefest TO, July 16, Toronto

- New Economy Week, 12-18 October

- Cities for People Toronto Leadership Summit, 12 November, Toronto

You can also sign up to watch the recorded livestream from the new economy conference by CommonBound June 4-6th, Boston.

Photo credit: Lucy Gao

CityScapes: The Natural & Built Environment

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With more than 80 percent of Canadians living in cities, the need for resilient and livable cities has never been greater. Our economic, social and environmental success depends on the quality of life provided by cities.

And yet, our cities face unprecedented challenges- from aging infrastructure and increased traffic congestion to inefficient energy systems to urban sprawl. Our cities need to work better.

Innovation is a key driver of our prosperity, but our urban centres seem to struggle to find ways of encouraging and adopting innovation. Nowhere is this more evident than in our built and natural environments- our parks, public transit, energy and housing.

Smart planning, innovation, experimentation and investment will be a determining factor in the resiliency of our urban centres. We cannot build the next 100 years of infrastructure using the concepts and methods of the past 100 years.

CityScapes will be a platform for driving innovation that tackles our critical infrastructure issues and advances our economic, social and environmental prosperity. It will bring together the public, innovators and decision makers to accelerate the shift to more livable and resilient infrastructure in cities across Canada and beyond.

Transformative change can happen when Canadians are engaged with new ideas, in ways that are relevant to them.