L.A. Designer: LA2050’s Tara Roth Talks about Crowdsourcing Civic Improvement

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DnA spoke with the president of the Goldhirsh Foundation about crowdsourcing ideas for improving L.A.

There was a time when cities were largely shaped by powerful planners and politicians, developers and philanthropists. Now increasingly the wisdom of the crowds is being tapped, through crowdsourcing initiatives made widely accessible through the internet.

The phenomenon is exemplified in the LA2050 challenge, initiated by the Goldhirsh Foundation, a nonprofit concerned with “social innovation.” The foundation initially used its magazine GOOD as a venue for social engagement and recently pivoted to more direct civic involvement. It is doling out $1 million to ten nonprofits with good ideas for improving Los Angeles in five categories — play,  live, connect, learn, create. Five are ideas selected by an invited jury; five were voted on by the public. The themes arose out of priorities determined through public outreach. LA 2050 just took place for a second year and after several heated weeks of competition, it will celebrate its culmination with a big party Wednesday night at Grand Park.

So how does LA2050 make its selections and do the projects they support make a longterm impact? Is it productive to have nonprofits compete so openly against each other? Can the crowd take the place of the political and planning process? Is tapping into the collective imagination a burgeoning trend made possible by crowd-sourcing technologies?

DnA spoke to Tara Roth, above, energetic President of the Goldhirsch Foundation. Read what she has to say, below.

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DnA: S o tell us about the winners in each of those goals. (play,  live, connect, learn, create)

TR: Within the Learn goal, we have City Year Los Angeles and Partnership for LA Schools that’s going to be setting up a mentorship program with partnership schools, and we have the incubator school which is constructing an open source 21st century entrepreneurship educational curriculum. In LA, being the best place to Create, we have Streetcraft, which is going to train street artists and taggers to become creative entrepreneurs and sell their retail products. We also have the Downtown Women’s Center that’s going to empower homeless women with job creation and placement.

With LA being the best place to Connect, we have the Special Olympics which will recruit 30,000 volunteers when LA is the host city for the Special Olympics next year, and we have Move LA which is the group behind Measure R; that’s going to conduct a digital citizen engagement strategy. With LA as the best place to Play, Enrich LA is going to build 75 gardens in Los Angeles schools, and the Pershing Square Park Advisory Council is going to build two playgrounds in Pershing Square and make it the “living room of Los Angeles.” In LA being the best place to Live we have the UCLA Grand Challenges, which is going to help us to plan for 100% energy and water sustainability in Los Angeles by 2050, and we finally have the Trust for Public Land which is going to transform trash-filled alleys in South LA into safe and clean usable byways.

DnA: So these winners generally are non-profits that already exist, that are already doing the kind of work that you’ve just laid out. But they’re looking for more funds, correct?

TR: They’re either looking for a top-up of funds or they’re looking for funds to seed a new innovation or a pilot project. In last year’s 2013 MyLA 2050 Grants Challenge, a large percentage of the submissions came from new ideas, from groups that were already doing wonderful impact work in the community but they wanted to test or experiment with a new idea. It enables people to take some risks, and to test projects that they maybe couldn’t get funding for otherwise.

DnA: Give us an example of one of these groups that might get to test something it couldn’t get funding for otherwise.

TR. Well, the Trust for Public Land for example, wants to work much more locally in a small area of the community of South LA, to beautify certain alleys, get rid of the trash, and make them safe and healthy places for people to walk, and to participate and gather.

DnA: So LA 2050 is taking on the city from multiple dimensions — both the physical environment, as well as social and educational well being.

TR. Absolutely. When we constructed the LA 2050 report that launched this whole project, we looked at eight different community health indicators: arts and cultural vitality, housing, health, education, environmental quality, income and employment, public safety, and social connectedness.  And then what we did was we constructed those into the five different goals that I laid out. We wanted to make these pithy ideas that people could aspire to and everyone could contribute to. But it really is taking in multiple sectors; government, private sector, non-profit, and philanthropic, and it’s making sure that all these groups are communicating with each other and that we can tap into the shared vision.

DnA: There are other foundations in California that also fund some of these same kinds of initiatives. However, the big difference seems to be this crowd-sourcing piece, going out to the community and asking them for their ideas. And it’s a piece that’s really interesting. Can you tell us the origins of that?

TR: Absolutely, so we’ve had a lot of experience working with crowdsourced challenges where I worked prior to the Goldhirsch Foundation, we’ve seen the White House do some challenges among its different divisions and agencies, and we have a Fellow there working on the Jobs Act and crowd-funding. We’ve also seen that now LA County and LA City have different commissions that are looking at crowdsourcing. What we really believe is that creativity is a social activity, and when we bring collective wisdom and collaborative problem-solving through crowdsourcing, it engenders a really dynamic outcome that attacks a problem with a variety of different solutions and enables different members of the community to contribute their ideas in order to to get the possible idea.

DnA: Do you reach people only through your own website or do you have other ways in which to reach the community?

TR: Well, for crowdsourcing we use a technical platform called Goodmaker, which is housed out of GOOD, and it’s available for others to use as well. But we did a lot of physical and digital engagement to get people to come onto the platform to vote. We asked Angelenos to help us come up with those goals, so that they were constructed by Angelenos, for Angelenos.

DnA: It’s not exclusively created by regular Angelenos, because you do have a board of advisors who are LA’s experts in many fields, and you also have politicians who support your goal. So is it a mix?

TR: It is a mix, and what’s interesting is we conducted five different roundtables, one around each goal with the quote-unquote “experts” who are also Angelenos and who have a vested interest in the well-being of their community in addition to their professional endeavors. Then we went out and worked with more than 30,000 citizens who are non-experts in these specific categories. And what was really interesting was the feedback from the experts and the community meet-ups were very similar.

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DnA: To what extent are you trying to perhaps fill a void through philanthropy in city-making because the traditional city agencies might be strapped for cash or strapped for staff or in some ways limited?

TR: We feel that we can take some risks that perhaps elected officials can’t take or that perhaps that were running major municipal agencies cannot take. What I want to underscore is that we’re working with government, we have a Fellow who actually is in Mayor Garcetti’s office who is working on innovation and technology solutions for the city of Los Angeles. We’re working with the White House on legislation for crowd funding and immigration reform for entrepreneurship which we really see as the future for Los Angeles as well. And we’re bringing all these different groups together to talk to share ideas among government non-profit private sector, so we’re not the ones out there doing the heavy lifting. We’re supporting the groups who are out there doing that.

DnA: When non-profits apply for foundation support, they’re obviously competing with other non-profits that are seeking foundation money. But this open process does sort of rachet up the competitiveness. It’s also quite costly for a non-profit to put in an application, and make a pitch for funding. Does the 2050 process drain the resources of non-profits that don’t get to win the $100,000?

TR: Well, we’ve talked to a lot of the different groups who have submitted applications and we’ve altered some of our challenge in different ways. One thing is that this year we really emphasized collaboration and we gave extra points when we saw groups were collaborating with each other and where they had real community collective buy in. Another thing is that when an organization submits a proposal to a foundation, the proposal goes to the staff and the board and no-one else sees that. So by putting this on a crowd-sourced platform where people can showcase their best efforts, a lot of other groups are exposed to the good works that they didn’t even know were out there before. So for instance, since last year, based on the amazing array of projects we had in last years’ grants challenge, the Annenberg Foundation came in and gave almost a half a million dollars to groups that hadn’t won. Now that wouldn’t have happened unless they had seen those organizations surface via the crowd-sourced challenge. So we’ve also heard a lot of people say that just by virtue of doing this application and engaging their constituent base in their community differently was very helpful for them in learning how to market and communicate about their projects.

DnA: To most of us, $100,000 would be a great amount of money, but realistically say one wanted to put six parks into Los Angeles schools as part of Enrich LA, $100,000 doesn’t really go very far. How are you expecting that $100,00 be used? And would that really be more like a seed grant, excuse the pun)? 

TR: Yes exactly. We really see our role as the seed investor. We can take some risks where a lot of other groups are not necessarily willing or able to take those risks. Another thing that we really see is that we provide significant capital beyond our grants and beyond our financial investment. We provide human and social capital. We’re giving strategic counsel to our grantees, we’re helping them out with operational challenges, we make introductions to other funders on their behalf, as well as different community activists. We really are partners with these organizations every step of the way.

DnA: What about follow-through? In the first 2050 challenge one particular project that we checked out was Westwood Village where a Hammer initiative put art in the storefront windows in Westwood. It was interesting, a temporary pop-up which was great while it lasted and a nice venue for the artists. But the pitch promised to make some kind of fundamental or longterm change to Westwood Village. Do you check back on how these projects have done? Do you look for results? Are you wary of supporting projects that may promise more than they can deliver ultimately?

TR: Well it’s been less than a year since the Westwood Village pop-up occurred, and we are very, very enthusiastic about what may happen in the future. For instance, the Great Streets Initiative with Mayor Garcetti’s administration is looking at the Hammer Arts ReStore LA as a demonstration project for something that might be able to be scaled into different regions. So whether or not it has lasting impact in Westwood, which I would hope will continue on and is still to be determined, we see that this can be replicated other places. And that’s something we’ve seen with Trust South LA, which was a winner last year as well, in addressing density in neighborhoods that are being gentrified very quickly and displacing lower income populations. Different city council members have come to Trust South LA and said, look at what you’re doing in South Los Angeles and let’s see what we might be able to do in our districts. We want to share their learning and the resources, and then if it doesn’t go anywhere, then we gave a good experimental try.

DnA: So what we’re seeing here is this fascinating collective engagement with cities. Cities used to be run by the likes of Robert Moses and politicians and we’re seeing this sort of evolution, I guess, of ideas making. 

TR: I think it’s absolutely fascinating and what is happening is that we’re seeing in many ways that technology has the ability to renegotiate the relationship between governments and cities and citizens. So I think that what we’re doing is sort of engaging one tool in this sort of engagement, and what we’re doing is bringing collective enthusiasm and solutions and problem-solving to some of the problems that some cities have. I think it’s what’s so exciting about having the (Goldhirsch Foundation) Fellow in Mayor Garcetti’s office, working for the first ever Chief Innovation and Technology Officer. Then you had the CityLab conference, brought here last week by The Atlantic, the Aspen Institute and Bloomberg Philanthropy, bringing mayors from all over the world to talk about urban innovation and how governments and citizens can rework together and think together and have more of a bi-directional conversation so that we are all going to have our views represented and enacted. So I think there’s a lot of hope there. But no one entity, be it the government, or the private sector, or the non-profit sector, philanthropic sector could do it alone. We all really have to do this together.

DnA: Do you think that foundations themselves are changing the way they do business in response to the growth of crowdsourcing?

TR: We’ve had a lot of interest, especially from the local Los Angeles foundation community to talk about what we’re doing and how it’s different, what the pros are, what the cons are. I don’t know that this will ever completely overtake anyone’s philanthropy and we in fact do make other grants outside of the My LA2050 Grants Challenge although that’s our most highly marketed initiative and where the majority of our grant funding goes. Also, we’re certainly not the first ones to do this. The Knight Foundation has been doing this for years, so has the Case Foundation, which is a great colleague of the Goldhirsh Foundation. I don’t know that this will ever completely overtake, but it is one tool in a philanthropic tool chest.

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 This interview was edited for length and clarity.