Why Neighborland could be a platform for citizen-led civic improvement:
Neighborland is not a “Facebook for cities,” as Grist suggested, or even really a social network in the traditional sense of an online venue where people can gather and share for nearly any purpose. The virtual community bulletin board for civic improvement ideas, founded in New Orleans at the Civic Center creative studio and soon rolling out in Houston and Boulder, is much more focused and business-like than Facebook, Twitter, or even LinkedIn. Neighborland is not a place to share cute photos or interesting stories from a given locality, it is a place to get down to the serious business of collectively improving physical communities and in that respect it is almost an evolution from social networks; beyond networks of sharing and into networks of collaborative improvement.
While Neighborland’s general model of a virtual idea marketplace is not new and can be seen in sites Kickstarter and Change By Us, it is its commitment to using its online network to complement and expand upon existing physical networks which makes it particularly noteworthy. Connecting physical and online networks is a key prerequisite for the future success of civic tech programs. Online participants need to know that their virtual contributions will make a physical impact in their communities and civil society organizations need virtual tools to complement and multiply their physical efforts. This symbiotic relationship ensures that physical and digital efforts connect in a way that utilizes essential local knowledge to direct online resources. The connecting digital to physical principle is the core of neighborland and makes it a tool for those who want to improve their communities as they see fit, instead of an external effort to enact change from outside of the community.
One of the most admirable characteristics of Neighborland is that it is a tool designed to help communities improve themselves. The team at Neighborland has not set out to solve the problems they see with communities, instead they built a toolset that enables users to self-identify problems and pursue solutions in their own communities so that change comes from within. Neighborland is focused enough that users are pursuing the same general goal of civic improvement while being open-ended enough that users can contribute to whatever projects they deem necessary. This principle is a good one for all civic technologists to follow: design tools that allow citizens to collectively identify and solve their own problems. Neighborland helps facilitate the process of collectively identifying civic problems and solutions, which is one leap towards solving them.
While Neighborland is still a very young project and I am sure they will add features as they grow, they could take their process further by making it easier for users to take the extra leap and turn collective civic assessment into collective civic improvement. While bringing concerned citizens together in a public sphere goes a long way towards facilitating collective improvement, the great potential of sites like Neighborland is to make it easier to organize collective action. Additional features like the ability to crowdfund projects would help some projects gain momentum in city hall by showing that citizens are willing to contribute more than just ideas and would help other projects be completed without involving municipal resources.
Time will tell if Neighborland will grow into a great platform for citizen-led civic improvement. Until then, what are your thoughts on the prospect for collective civic improvement?