Bostonians are going to redesign a major feature of the downtown area. City of Boston

The city has made a habit of soliciting insight on municipal projects from its well-educated residents—but with strict guidelines.

There may not be a bigger waste of Boston real estate than City Hall Plaza. The large public square sits a mere 400 feet from Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market. It's just south of the city's vibrant North End. And a half mile to the west is picturesque Boston Common. Nearly every notable attraction in downtown Boston is within walkable distance of the open-air promenade. But it's a total eyesore—20,000 square feet of vacant brick.

Vacant brick in the heart of downtown. (Flickr/City of Boston Archives)

Every now and then it comes alive with a music festival or a giant TV screen set up for a sporting event. Then, like moths to a flame, Bostonians meander to the square. Otherwise, it sits idle and bald. But that may finally change.

Mayor Marty Walsh has requested proposals for a dramatic remodeling of the plaza. Walsh's vision for the space isn't revolutionary: He's alluded to wanting a leisurely space made for recreation and relaxation, according to City Hall. In other words, he wants a new public park. Still, the project is noteworthy because of one detail: He wants Boston residents to help design it.

Using the hashtag #CityHallPlaza, the mayor's office has caused a stir by crowdsourcing ideas for the project. Applying this strategy to such a conspicuous area of downtown is a big risk. For one, it requires executable ideas by people with engineering skills rather than mere civic enthusiasm. Nevertheless, a few seemingly legitimate ideas have already been cast out there: One architect uploaded to Twitter a detailed rendering of a lush, green plaza. And if any municipality can turn a citywide competition into a real project, it's Boston. The city has a recent track record of doing just that.

In July of 2014, 70 submissions for a city-hosted competition called Public Space Invitational led to funding for nine small-scale civic projects. Shortly after that event, Boston organized a 36-hour hackathon. The winning hack turned into Permit Finder—a digital program that has streamlined the city's permitting process—which went live in the fall. And during this winter's massive snowfall, the mayor propositioned local entrepreneurs, academics, and innovators to come up with alternative ways to remove snow. Roughly one year into his first term as mayor, Marty Walsh has hosted at least four crowdsourcing competitions with the intention of turning the best ideas into action.

The success rate of these types of public engagement projects is difficult to asses. But Daren Brabham, an academic and expert on the topic, estimates a "majority" of government-led crowdsourcing initiatives flop. So why has Boston had so much success? Daniel Koh, the mayor's chief of staff, says its partly because of the types of minds living in Boston.

"We're such a young city and intellectually vibrant city that residents are equipped to use technology to solve public issues," Koh says.

Boston consistently ranks among the youngest major cities in the country. And its density of universities, including MIT and Harvard, make it a hub for STEM activity. So when Boston does crowdsource input for public projects, some recommendations are undoubtedly coming from tech-savvy young people and wildly smart engineers and scientists. That explains part of Boston's successful run with crowdsourcing. But what really gets these campaigns off the ground is a robust media campaign.

"Really good online campaigns, whether crowdsourcing or crowdfunding, they all require good online community management and good promotional principles," says Daren Brabham, an expert on the topic and author of the forthcoming book Crowdsourcing in the Public Sector. At its heart, #CityHallPlaza is a planning issue focused on beautifying underused public land. But getting there hinges first on a blitzkrieg of promotion. Wonky urban planning comes much later.

"[Proposals] that have struggled to get participants ... really don't have a coherent PR campaign in place," Brabham says. If Boston doesn't get the masses interested and excited about the initiative, the campaign will simply "disappear." And Boston seems to understand this possibly better than any other city.

The crowdsourcing initiative was announced Monday and has dominated the mayor's talking points ever since. His twitter and Facebook pages are filled with ads for the project. He's appeared on local TV to ask the public for their engagement. And the mayor has five full-time staff members, according to Koh, that collectively monitor the promotion of the city's civic-proposal projects.

There are a few issues with how effective this latest campaign can be, however. First, it's rather vague. Tweets from the mayor have asked Bostonians to "re-imagine" the public square and simply "send ideas" to city hall. Brabham says that the best blueprint for these initiatives is to have a well-defined project. "If you don't know what you need from your community, it's just going to wander." Second, if the mayor continues to hype it, won't city hall get bogged down by the volume of proposals? Already, according to the Boston Herald, recommendations have been "pouring in." Nevertheless, Boston is adept at getting the masses involved while simultaneously getting legitimate proposals onto the mayor's desk.

Dig deeper into #CityHallPlaza and you find a detailed set of requirements from the city regarding proposals. There's a formal Request for Information rubric, which lays out five strict requirements every proposal must meet to be considered. It must, "a discussion of the entity's business concept and its operating structure," for example. Its a rigorous strategy the city has used in the past—most notably during its successful July hackathon.

Before the hacking teams could start coding, the city issued them four direct problems it needed the software to solve. Any software that didn't address those needs, they were told, would be irrelevant—regardless of whether it was the next Facebook or not.

Boston's proven crowdsourcing approach depends on these two goals: Get the general public energized to participate, but acutely define what the city needs. It's not a completely inclusive approach: The latter inherently shuts the door on the ideas of most residents. It's one thing to tweet the mayor your suggestion for City Hall Plaza. It's another to draft a detailed proposal that adheres to all the regulations set forth by the city. For this reason, it's almost guaranteed that the winning idea for #CityHallPlaza will come from an architect, engineer, or a professional from a similar field.

Boston proves that effective crowdsourcing isn't about building whatever the public wants. It's about getting the public to help City Hall get what works.

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