Knight Foundation

The Knight Foundation has launched a new competition to fund innovation in cities. All you need to enter is a concept.

From now through November 14, the Knight Foundation is accepting ideas for the Knight Cities Challenge, a competition that will award grants from a purse of $5 million to proposals for improving life in cities. It's a competition along the lines of the Knight News Challenge or the Knight Arts Challenge, with the goal of spurring civic innovation at the block, neighborhood, or city level—in one or several of 26 different Knight communities.

"Proposal" is almost too strong a word for the first stage of the Knight Cities Challenge: Ideas don't need to come with a budget, or even necessarily a city in mind. In fact, the Knight Foundation is soliciting only short answers to two questions—as well as a summary of the idea that takes the form of a 140-character tweet.

No map, no code, no mockup, no model: The application is so simple that it almost sounds daunting. That's why CityLab spoke with Carol Coletta, Knight Foundation vice president for community and national initiatives, to get a better sense of what exactly the Knight Foundation means to accomplish. Visit the Knight Cities Challenge website to start, then read the lightly edited Q&A that follows here.

CityLab: You narrowed down the entry form to two questions. Why did the Knight Foundation decide to strip it down that way?

Carol Coletta: We wanted to make the challenge accessible to as many people as possible with ideas. We decided specifically we wouldn’t require a lot of grant-speak. We wouldn’t require applicants to have development directors. We wanted to make it really easy to apply, so we boiled it down to the two essentials. One, what’s your idea to accelerate talent, opportunity, and engagement in your city? Two, what is it you want to learn? We include that question because we want to learn, and we want to find the people who are trying to learn the same things we want to learn and see if we can piggyback on their efforts.

There’s no budget you’re asking for. There’s no budget you’re targeting. There’s not even a limit on the number of ideas someone can submit. How do you plan to winnow through all the ideas you may receive?

We’ve got a good set of readers. We’ve got enough readers identified now that each will not be completely overburdened with applications. Keep in mind, this is the first round. If you make it to the second round, you will have to submit a budget. You’ll have a few more questions to answer. But we don’t want to make [the first round] onerous because we’re trying to do two things. One, we’re trying to surface ideas for things that we know are important but that we really don’t know how to do. And second, we’re trying to identify people with good ideas, so we get them in our network and open up a conversation with them that we can maintain in an ongoing way. Typically, people we’ve found in other work at the Knight Foundation, people with ambitious ideas—even if the first or second or third idea doesn’t work, they’re people we ought to keep up with.

What’s the thread that connects the 26 different Knight communities?

The Knight communities are places where the Knight Foundation makes investments. They are the communities where Jim and Jack Knight had newspapers. This is their legacy that we steward.

Say that an architecture firm submits an idea. They’re thinking about Columbia, South Carolina, but it might also work for Boulder, Colorado. Is that something you’re trying to do in the first round, to help make those connections?

We are indeed, and I hope that happens. We’re evaluating ideas in the first round without regard to place. In other words, if someone submits an idea and says, "We have this idea and we’re not sure where we want to do it"—if that makes it to the finalist round, we will then run a pairing process, where we have people in each of the Knight communities actually listen to the pitches and say, "That’s an idea we think would fit in Detroit." "That’s an idea we think would fit in Charlotte. We can pair them up with an organization in our city." It may be that there is no one ready to take up the idea in a Knight city, in which case they would not go forward in the challenge. But—we fund in many ways other than this challenge grant. It’s a good way to get an idea in front of Knight, even if you don’t work in a Knight city.

Winners are required to release their software as open source code and their content under a Creative Commons license. Are you expecting lots of software elements?

The requirements there are things that we’ve learned from the Knight News Challenge and the Knight Arts Challenge. Obviously, Knight works a lot in journalism and media innovation, in the digital space. We have lots of people in the Knight network who work in that world, and we’re delighted to get proposals from them. But I think by no means will that constitute the majority of proposals we get. In no way are we limiting our proposals to digital tools, but we hope we get them and others.

Given that this project is open to anyone, how do you put together a jury that’s capable of sorting through the range of ideas you may receive?

It’s not unusual for a Knight News Challenge or a Knight Arts Challenge to get 700, 800, 900 entries. We’re used to sorting through a large number of entries. What we find—and it’s one of the reasons we’re asking applicants to summarize their ideas in a tweet—what people really have a hard time doing is summarizing their ideas.

How should applicants address the Knight Community they have in mind? What if they don't have a Knight city in mind?

You can say: "I’m in Detroit and I want to do this idea in Detroit." You can also say: "I have an idea and I don’t know where to do it." You can also say: "I want to do this idea in Detroit and Philadelphia and San Jose." One thing I want to emphasize: We have no preconceived notions about either the size of the grants or dividing money among our communities. We’re not starting planning to spend 10 percent here, 15 percent here.... It’s the power of the idea that will prevail here.

What if someone has an idea that requires the participation of the city, or some level of approval?

In the first round, we’re not going to ask you to show us that you have partners, or show us that the partners you name are on board. In the second round, we’ll look at your capacity to execute the idea. Frankly, getting into the finalist round could very well help you get the attention of the people you need or get the partnerships made that you hope you can make. That’s one thing that we’ve found about challenge winners across the foundation. Even getting to finalist stage helps people advance their idea.

Do you have any advice for someone who has an idea but is struggling to come up with ways to frame it?

I would say three things. One, it’s only two questions. Two, start with the tweet: That’s the thing that will discipline you. Three, even the two questions are word limited. It’s only 150 words. Just begin.

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