community engagement

Ending poverty through innovation: translating ideas into actions and challenges into opportunities

There are numerous initiatives and programs that target underprivileged communities. A wide variety of academic studies, economic analyses and policy briefs that list out recommendations to break the cycle of poverty have been written. And many governments around the world, such as those in Latin American countries, have federal agencies specifically dedicated to design and implement social policy for poverty reduction. Efforts come from the developed and the developing world, from different levels of government, from large international organizations to local NGOs and grass-roots associations.

And yet, despite the amount of effort and resources, the process to achieve the main goal – ending poverty - seems to be moving slowly, and there is an urgent need to accelerate it. We often hear about cooperation but it hardly materializes into concrete actions. We need to land those initiatives and translate ideas and good will into action. This requires changing the paradigm through which we have envisioned the end of poverty and making the shift away from the traditional models.

In recent years, we have witnessed the expansion of a phenomenon called “urbanization of poverty”. As cities continue to grow, the number of pressing needs increases in all fields, from health to public infrastructure and utilities, transport, education and employment. At the same time, citizens have changed from being passive service recipients, to key actors that get actively involved and demand transparency and results to their governments. How can cities improve the services they deliver to their communities in a faster way? In the era of knowledge and information, we have the very powerful tool of technology to deliver change.

As Sascha Haselmayer, CEO and co-founder of, acknowledges “there is great technology out there and it is in everyone’s hands; these technologies are scalable and can transform societies”. These words were pronounced at the 8th Forum of the World Alliance of Cities Against Poverty (WACAP) that took place in Dublin earlier this year, to introduce the Program “Cities Pilot >>> End Poverty”.

Cities Pilot to End Poverty

This two-year Program is designed by and Dublin City Council to find the most innovative technologies to end poverty and implement them in real life. The World Alliance of Cities Against Poverty (WACAP) and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) endorse the Program.

The process starts by finding the 30 most committed WACAP member cities that share the values of innovation, collaboration, openness and transparency. Selected cities will join forces to call for the most innovative solutions to empower our communities. gives cities the tools they need to get inspired by worldwide social and urban innovators to find solutions to their most pressing challenges. In order to achieve this, our team’s expertise provides cities guidance to identify a specific problem and frame it as an opportunity. Together we define the city challenge in a way that attracts global response from social and urban innovators, and which is published as a global call for solutions on our virtual platform.

Once the call is open for submissions, our dedicated research team starts a proactive outreach campaign to discover worldwide solutions that have the potential to address the city challenge. Each submission to the call is a commitment by a provider to co-invest in a community to implement a high-impact pilot, if selected as the most promising solution. Research findings are documented and shared with cities in real-time, so that their officials, representatives, stakeholders, and citizens can participate. Cities are also encouraged to communicate this opportunity to their local community of social and urban innovators.

In order to select the solution that best meets the city’s needs, we help cities to coordinate a Jury composed of a minimum of five members and at least one international representative. All submissions will be evaluated, five of them will get nominated, and the most promising one will get selected. sets up the technological tools to assure an accessible, transparent and straightforward evaluation process.

The campaign results are announced at the Dublin Summit in February 2014, where cities and providers get together to express their commitment to implementing the selected solution on the ground, while they share how innovation turned a local challenge into a global opportunity. This is a unique experience for both, cities and providers, to network and kick-start new collaborations in their communities.

Most importantly, the ideas get translated into actions, as the selected providers actually demonstrate their innovative solutions in participating cities. A pilot is a cost-effective way to test the chosen solution, which allows cities to make better-informed decisions and smarter investments. In two years from now, cities will meet again at the WACAP Forum in 2015 to collaborate and exchange results.

In this win-win scheme, cities accelerate problem solving through innovation and technology, and social and urban innovators have the chance to implement their solutions to an unresolved need. All participants exchange results as part of a global collaborative community, and facilitate the sharing of high-impact solutions across cities. Together we deliver real change and the outcome is community empowerment and a better quality of life for our citizens.

MindMixer partners with San Francisco to launch ImproveSF

   Last year, we published this post about MindMixer, an online tool designed to bring citizens and officials together to brainstorm on ways to improve their cities. MindMixer has partnered with over 100 government organizations across the provide a flexible, convenient interface for local collaboration.

Now the online community engagement service has joined forces with the City of San Francisco and its new Office of Innovation to create ImproveSF, a site devoted to providing ideas for and feedback on municipal projects. San Franciscans can submit ideas to challenges, vote on proposed projects or challenges, and review others' submissions. Office of Innovation staff oversee the proposed challenges and help to judge the submitted entries. Participants are awarded points for submitting ideas, which they can redeem for prizes in the site's Rewards Store.

One of the challenges currently open for voting is "What are the best ways for SFMTA to improve your transit travel time?" which includes a list of six possible solutions for citizens to review and comment on. While I would like to see the option to submit an original idea to this challenge outside of the six provided, this sort of online voting system is a great start to encouraging dialogue between San Francisco residents and those in charge of planning and decision-making.

Providing an interface that allows for public comment and collaboration 24 hours a day, 7 days a week goes a long way towards opening up discussions that used to be limited solely to public meetings. For those who can't make meetings because of scheduling conflicts or mobility constraints, MindMixer's ImproveSF is especially empowering.

More and more cities are getting on board with online community engagement as a way to reach out to citizens for broader, more diverse public feedback. We'll keep you posted on the latest trends from MindMixer and other innovative public outreach tools in the coming weeks, some of which have been submitted for this year's Living Labs Global Awards. Stay tuned!

~ Allison Bullock

Tech Solution for Community Engagement

I will be attending the annual meeting of the American Planning Association (APA) next week in Boston.  In my preparations for the conference, I discovered MindMixer, and online community engagement tool meant to encourage more participation in local urban planning. MindMixer is one of a handful of community engagement tools I’ve heard about in the last year or so.  It attempts to overcome the traditional barriers to idea generation and prioritization in matters affecting the community.  For years, the “rational planning” model has been employed in cities all over the world to try to gather input, prioritize concerns, and choose the most suitable combination of opinions for the basis of decisions regarding community growth and change.  Because the process involves subjectively developing “weights” to prioritize concerns, some have criticized the process for being deceivingly correct or just.

It’s unclear to me exactly how MindMixer deals with these concerns, or if it does at all.  However, it does promise to engage a wider base, which is probably always better than nothing.  The challenge for tech solutions in community engagement is similar to that faced by researchers performing telephone-based surveys – each engagement/feedback tool is biased toward a particular section of the population.  Telephone interviews miss the whole section of the population who either have no phone (tend to be low income) or who only have a mobile phone (tend to be younger).  In the case of MindMixer, I worry that while it will help engage some members of the community who don’t have time to make it to community meetings, but will not reach the elusive lower-income, sometimes immigrant, often highly-transit dependent population.

All in all, I’m a fan of these solutions, and will keep an eye out for how they approach this challenge, and how municipalities augment its functionality, in the future.

­-Terra Curtis