Linda Poon is an assistant editor at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
Submit your best ideas by Thursday for the third installment of the Knight Foundation’s urban-focused competition.
To all the urban thinkers and problem solvers of the world—anyone, really, with an ambitious yet feasible plan to improve life in cities—the Knight Foundation is, once again, asking for your ideas in its third and possibly last Knight Cities Challenge. The deadline is Thursday, but even if you’ve just come up with an idea, it’s not too late to submit a winning proposal.
Since 2014, more than 10,000 people have taken part in the challenge for a chance to win part of the $5 million that the Knight Foundation doles out each year in grants. The last two challenges have resulted in dozens of creative projects, including one that brought an entire community together over a meal at the “longest table,” and several others that turned vacant lots into local markets, studios, and networking spaces.
George Abbott, special assistant to the vice president for community and national initiatives at the Knight Foundation, says his team will ask the board of trustees to renew the initiative in March. They’re currently evaluating the past competitions to determine how the future city-centric competitions might look. But for the time being, he’s urging as many people as possible to apply.
The first stage of the application is simple, yet seemingly daunting. It doesn’t ask for budget proposals or a project outline. Instead, there are three questions asking applicants to summarize their entire project in one sentence, describe how that project will advance the city it’s set in, and finally to explain the timeliness of it. Twenty to 100 words, max.
But don’t be deterred. “We want the application process to be open and understandable to as many people as possible,” Abbott says. “The more detail that you ask for, the more that may disadvantage someone who perhaps is not familiar with [how to] write grant applications.” What they’re looking for in the first round is a powerful idea that will stand out across all of the 26 Knight communities. So a project designed for, say, Miami should be able to inspire people all the way in Akron, Ohio.
With thousands of submissions expected—last year’s 37 winning projects were selected from a pool of over 6,000 applications—Abbot has a helpful tip for applicants: don’t forget the small details. “I’ve read over 6,000 applications and you would be surprised at the number of which I read and then I don’t understand what they want to do,” he says. “Everyone has good ideas that they've thought a lot about, and oftentimes people forget to include something that's obvious to them but not to a [judge] from a different city.” Before submitting, he adds, have someone else review it.
Looking back at the last two challenges, Abbot says the responses far exceeded their expectations. The foundation garnered over 7,000 applications in the first year, which signified that it had tapped into an eager community that spans all professions. The 30-some winning projects alone came from local governments, artists, universities, and individual residents.
Some of Abbott’s favorite projects spawned from very simple ideas, like using art to encourage people to vote in local elections in Philadelphia. As CityLab previously reported, fewer than 15 percent of voters cast a ballot for a mayor in most major cities. Philadelphia, according to the study, saw a 24 percent voter turnout in its last mayoral race.
To encourage residents there, an ad agency teamed up with local street artists to create eye-catching “vote here” signs that were placed near polling sites. And though the team’s own study showed little increase in voter turnout, Abbott says the campaign itself was successful in engaging an entire community of artists and designers who then used social media to increase voter awareness among their followers.
Then there were the projects that pushed the limits like the Miami Science Barge, which won a grant in 2015. It’s basically a floating marine biology laboratory that hosts hands-on field trips for kids and a series of packed events for adults. It’s a fitting project for Miami, a city struggling with sea level rise, says Abbott. But it also sets an example of how ambitious projects can be.
“We had a former city of Miami planner on our review committee and he said, ‘Do not fund this project, there is no way they are going to get the permits,’ “ Abbott recalls. “But there were enough people on the review board that said let's give it a try.” He adds that when they took the reviewers to the barge later, it emboldened them to take a closer look at submissions initially deemed unfeasible.
The common characteristics of winning groups, he says, “are a willingness to experiment, a vision for what's possible, and just being willing to take a risk.”