April 19, 2012 By Indrajit Basu
It is known as the innovation hub of the planet, at least in the tech world. Thousands of the brightest minds live in San Francisco. Now, through an appealing website, the city and county of San Francisco wants to leverage the expertise of those locals to solve the city’s most challenging problems.
In the process, San Francisco is hoping to engage more citizens and save a lot of money.
The ImproveSF brainstorming platform is aiming is to generate opportunities for government and citizens to work together by connecting civic challenges to volunteers who are community problem-solvers.
At its core, though, the website is yet another social media platform with a twist: Instead of just hoping and waiting for residents to join on their own, ImproveSF provides an incentive for participation.
“Any city constitutes some who are naturally inclined to engage with governance. But a city also consists of many who are [too] busy to participate and need a little bit of incentive,” said Jay Nath, the San Francisco government’s chief innovation officer.
A reward system is that motivator. Each time a resident chips it with an idea or a comment, he or she earns a point that could be redeemed, not for monetary reward, but for more exciting things like lunch and a walk with Mayor Edwin M. Lee through the Japanese Tea Garden, or a ride in a vintage vehicle in an upcoming parade.
“This feature, of rewarding participants for working with the government, is a unique first,” Nath said. “And we engage them with a series of curated challenges that are open for anyone to submit ideas.”
According to Lee, ImproveSF was built out of the belief that the best way to tackle challenges that affect the community is to get help from the community. “We have learned that innovation is disruptive; solutions can come from anywhere and collaboration is the key,” he said.
ImproveSF combines those lessons and makes it easier for a resident to communicate and collaborate with city government from home, or from work, or from anywhere where there’s Internet access.
That way, said Nath, it engages a broader audience. More diverse participation should result in a broader range of ideas, solutions and participation.
“I think the need of the hour is to actively engage our constituencies and this is something that can’t be achieved by just putting out a website,” Nath said. “A city has to make sure that the website is engaging, relevant to them as well as something that is easy to do.”
“The other significant feature of this website is the amount of effort we have taken to make the website appealing and interactive. For instance, ImproveSF can be translated into more than 50 languages,” Nath addded.
The website was re-launched about two weeks ago on MindMixer, the IT solutions company that’s pioneering the virtual town-hall concept.
ImproveSF’s first challenge is asking the creative community to participate in San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s (SFMTA) centennial celebration.
For the second century of the San Francisco’s transportation agency, the city is asking San Francisco’s designers, art students and graphic artists to submit designs, a new logo and color schemes that represent the SFMTA.
It is not a simple assignment, says Nath, given that SFMTA manages and operates a multimodal surface transportation system that includes pedestrians, bicyclists, parking, traffic, streetscapes and taxi regulation.
“Transportation is a passionate area for most residents, so that was one reason we wanted to put the transportation challenge as the first challenge,” Nath said.
Nevertheless, Mayor Lee also hopes that “with shrinking budgets and increasing demand on City services”, ImproveSF will help save quite a bit of money.
But how much can a city really save by just engaging creative and entrepreneurial people?
“The value we are getting is tremendous; look at all the time that people are spending in engaging with the platform. That is very difficult to quantify,” Nath said.
He cited the instance of the “international orange” logo created to represent ImproveSF that evoked the city’s close ties to the Golden Gate Bridge. The logo was created by inviting volunteers to submit ideas.
“Imagine what they city would have had to pay if it had to pay a commercial designer for that logo,” Nath said. “So ImproveSF helps us save hundreds of thousands of dollars in costs.”
However, another important aspect of ImproveSF is that it’s designed to improve civic engagement.
“It is hard to put a number to that,” Nath said.
More challenges are lined up. Upcoming challenges on ImproveSF will focus on topics such as food justice, the environment and neighborhood resiliency.