Why some urbanists are skeptical of the conference innovator's plans to crowdsource the city of the future.

The minds behind the TED conference have decided to focus their tech-savvy and well-heeled efforts on improving the city. As we’ve previously written, the conference announced recently that its annual TED Prize would be dedicated to bringing about “the City 2.0.”

The $100,000 prize was formally announced last week at the annual TED conference in Long Beach, though the individuals who will take home the cash are still TBA. Instead, TED unveiled a new website that aims to crowdsource ideas on city-focused projects and award mini-grants to enable the best ones. As Anthony Flint reported for Cities:

“This has been designed as a big collaborative process – not us deciding who’s in and who’s out,” said TED curator Chris Anderson, who described the new platform, at this website, as a “big open tent” to collect and share successes, resources, and insights.

Crowdsourcing ideas on improving the city, awarding grants, connecting municipalities with one another – all seemingly good things. So why isn't everyone in the urbanism community jumping up and down about this project?

To start with, there's the perception that TED might have copied a project that already exists.

Shortly after last week's unveiling, Atlantic contributor and blogger Maria Popova posted this note through her @brainpicker Twitter account:

Is it just me, or is#TED's new City 2.0 site a near-replica of @localprojects' Change By Us? http://j.mp/yVf6ZP vs. http://t.co/XprKMTz8

Design writer Helen Walters agreed, posting a follow-up:

This struck me, too. Odd.

And in a critical piece from Next American City (“The City Two-Point-Ugh”), editor Diana Lind also recognized the overlap, and took a skeptical view of what TED's project will be able to do:

The question is: How is this project going to be different than other similar efforts, like Change by Us, that use the web to solve urban problems?

“It does seem to be a one-to-one reiteration of what Change By Us is,” says Jake Barton of Local Projects, which helps run Change By Us. The site allows citizens to share ideas for improving the city, join efforts in their neighborhoods, and connect with public and non-profit groups that are able to support or fund ideas.

Change By Us has been going strong in New York City since the Summer of 2011 (it’s a collaboration between the City of New York, CEOs for Cities and Local Projects, and is operated by the mayor’s office.) It also recently expanded to Philadelphia.

Barton says he met with TED representatives a few months ago, before the December announcement of “the City 2.0” as the 2012 TED Prize winner.

“You can imagine from our standpoint, I meet with them early on in their project, and show them both our project, which is public, but also talk with them about the intimate details of it, and I’ve chatted with them in a friendly way since then, but haven’t heard anything about their plans [until now],” Barton says.

TED officials declined to talk to us about Barton or Change By Us, instead emailing this statement through a spokesperson: “The City 2.0 platform was designed to complement the existing work of like-minded individuals and organizations also doing their part to reimagine cities.”

When it comes to generating and developing good ideas for improving cities, it’s not a bad thing to have more options. Barton agrees that more conversation in this sphere is a positive, and says he's hopeful that Change By Us and TED will be able to collaborate on their shared goals.

But Barton says he's the first to admit that building a crowdsourcing website alone won’t bring about “the City 2.0."

“Creating a website is not terribly difficult. But creating a project that actually has an impact on communities? That’s really hard,” Barton says. “From my experience, the website is a great way to gain attention and motivation and traction, but to actually make real change happen, it’s people.”

Building relationships with city officials and bureaucrats and working with small groups of composters and bike lane advocates and neighborhood economic development organizations is much different than picking “ideas worth sharing.” Curating those ideas into a conference is a TED specialty. Putting them into action at the community level, like Change By Us is doing, would seem to fall slightly outside the organization’s core competencies.

You can also see how TED has little incentive to collaborate directly with existing projects like Change By Us. With its internationally recognized brand, TED’s reach is much broader than Change By Us’s connections with smaller-scale players like community groups and city department heads. As Lind suggests, that wider scope could limit the project’s ability to enact measurable change. The airplane view of urban problems tends to be much simpler than what it’s like on the ground.

Though Barton is a little concerned about the overlapping methods and goals of Change By Us and TED’s initiative, he doesn’t see one making the other irrelevant. He’s hoping to talk with the TED team to figure out how and whether they can work together, and where each group’s efforts might best be directed.

“I certainly wish them the best and hope the initiative really helps people and does help to disseminate new innovations, but it would be naive to feel like TED can use what it’s really good at, which is amplifying ideas, to do that for people who are doing amazing work in the field,” Barton says.

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