I don’t generally discuss my personal or professional life here at Secret Republic, but I happen to work with a startup that I sincerely believe could radically change the way we interact with our cities. You should know about it.
In April of 2011 I attended the American Planning Association’s annual conference in Boston. Tucked into the far end of a trade show floor was a booth labelled “MindMixer”. I’d heard the name before, but couldn’t recall where.
Turned out they were based in Omaha, Nebraska (the hometown of my better half), and had launched a very successful project there called “Pass the Potatoes” some months earlier. The project was a website that acted as a virtual town hall, where issues are raised by the city and citizens are given the opportunity to propose their ideas in a neutral and constructive format. It was such a simple concept addressing such a major breakdown in communication between government and citizenry that my first reaction was, “Wait, this doesn’t exist already?”
It didn’t. Now it does, and it’s been expanded and refined into a powerful civic engagement tool. Here’s a cheerfully whimsical video to explain a rather immense idea:
Discussing the model with Nathan Preheim (Co-Founder/COO) and Nick Bowden (Co-founder/CEO) that day in Boston left me inspired and energized. Both gentlemen come from planning backgrounds and understood the major hurdles that planners and public officials face. This was a startup with a clear goal addressing a clear problem - imagine if this platform became a standard tool in American cities! Imagine how the conversation could be transformed, how policies and investments could be democratized in a way never before possible. This could drastically alter the way individuals interact with their communities.
We stayed in touch until I was eventually adopted on to the team as a consultant. My role has evolved a bit since my education took me overseas, but the platform itself has spread rapidly. Kansas City, Los Angeles, Des Moines, Springfield (MA), Burbank, and a whole slew of other cities have begun utilizing MindMixer as a tool for real-time, ubiquitous engagement.
The basic unit of the MindMixer is the idea; users submit ideas under categories such as land use, transportation, public health or “visions for the future”. Other users then support or comment on these ideas, bringing the most innovative and pragmatic ideas to the forefront of discussion.
When the city implements an idea generated by the platform, it is proudly displayed along with the names of those citizens by whom the idea was proposed. Don’t be fooled by the forum-like atmosphere, this is an instrument for action.
More recently, features like geo-tagging and more sophisticated organization of ideas have made the platform even more user-friendly. You could use it, your grandmother could use it, a grade school child could use it - that’s the point.
Beneath the platform’s playfully inviting exterior lies a meaningful shift towards a new brand of urban democracy, one based on an immediate connection between government and the creativity of communities. Students, neighbors, business-owners and church-members come together to craft intricate ideas for their community. Whether it is innovative public space concepts, enhancements to transportation networks, or new housing policies, the public has the ability to discuss and determine its own needs. When people are given the tools they need to collaborate, cities can expect strong guidance and a more seamless process.
It wouldn’t be hard to predict that
the future of urban democracy is web-based, but more importantly it is accessible to all. Open information and discussion is now interfaced with local knowledge and tangible implementation. The traditional town hall is now complimented and reinforced - not replaced - by an accessible, digital interface. For all the times we’ve casually dreamed of ways to better our streets, neighborhoods, and cities, there is now an outlet with planners and politicians listening intently - this is the beginning of an open-source city. If the currency of tomorrow is innovative ideas, expect new models like MindMixer to serve as meaningful tools for the generation of communal wealth.