Can Brickstarter “Kickstart” Crowdfunding for City Planning?

Crowdfunding and urbanism have had a rocky relationship ever since the “Kickstarter revolution” popularized new forms of web-based participatory engagement. While online platforms like Kickstarter and indiegogo were catalyzing waves of independently produced projects and events, giving artists, filmmakers, and other creatives the financial leg-up they need, architecture — as usual — found itself left behind. Bound by its need for abundant resources and widespread consensus, architecture (including its urban planning and landscape architecture counterparts) could not quite appropriate the crowdfunding model to the same effect as other fields. Its efforts modestly stopped short at pop-up installations: pavilions, pools, and inhabitable sculptures, all fated for scheduled deconstructions. The most ambitious campaign of this sort might have been the LowLine, New York’s dream of a permanent underground park, which exceeded its Kickstarter campaign goals to further its design but then entered the limbo of negotiating with city officials and organizations.

Thus crowdfunding could never quite propel urbanism’s grassroots initiatives with its usual fervor. This is the problem that Sitra, Finnish Innovation Fund is attempting to confront with a project cheekily named Brickstarter. “Our interest is in how we can build the city to be the everyday reality we want, not just a nice city when the pop-ups are popped up,” said Bryan Boyer, one of Brickstarter’s four project team members, over e-mail. The project’s moniker is deceiving. The product in development is not a website, despite the witticism of its domain name. “A lot of the attention around Brickstarter has taken it to mean that we are building a live web service, which is not our particular goal,” Boyer clarified. “We think that such a service should exist, and we’re looking at how we can encourage [its] development.” Boyer and his team know, however, that such a service requires more than a user-friendly interface and a one-size-fits-all business model. If the bottom-up organization of crowdfunding is going to scale up to help shape cities, it will need to reconcile with the top-down decision-making already established by city governments.

Thus Brickstarter is not so much a potential platform as it is a developing movement. Rather than function as a prototype service, the current website documents an unfolding investigation. Through blog posts and explanatory texts, the site raises questions on what cities and their municipal organizations can learn from crowdfunding business models. How can these new systems and technologies better connect governments with their citizens? How can citizens contribute positively to the shaping of their civic realm? Or, to coin another play on words, how can NIMBYism become YIMBYism (Yes, In My Backyard)? Boyer and his team believe that by crowdsourcing ideas, skills, resources, and capital, any municipality can adapt the democratizing impulse of the Internet to “build the city to be the everyday reality we want.” The form that this crowdsourcing strategy takes, however, depends on the locality.

“Brickstarter is really about opening up a debate around how we make cities, how technology can be used to enable a more fluid democratic process,” Boyer explained. Though the project aspires to start a conversation that is worldwide, its research is site-specific, beginning in Finland. Currently, the group is developing three small-scale experiments in its native country to evaluate the potential capacity of a Brickstarter platform: The organization is funding a local group in Helsinki to research a proposed alternative for a neighborhood masterplan and potentially working with a city in eastern Finland to organize schemes for a wind park and a small urban development along its coastline. If these projects prove successful, they can begin to outline how crowdfunding can be developed in other cities. The gauge of success, however, is vague and open-ended, but perhaps all the more reflective of the driving concept: Brickstarter is not about fitting every city and urban initiative into a Kickstarter platform; it is about adapting the platform to fit the city.

- Kelly Chan