One Month In, Summer of Smart has Reimagined Democracy through Grassroots Innovation

Over 100 people kick off Summer of Smart at the first Urban Innovation Weekend around Community Development and Public Art, June 24-26, at Gray Area Foundation for the Arts.

Summer of Smart: Our Vision for Democracy 3.0

In 2008, the US experienced the first coming of Democracy 2.0 – a social phenomenon that used technology and social media as a way to reduce the barriers between citizens and government and rethink civic participation. Grassroots fundraising took on a new face, citizens could submit debate questions to presidential candidates via YouTube and other outlets, and throughout the election candidates often responded directly to specific comments by individual members of the public through videos for all to see.

Today in 2011, of course, things have progressed quite a bit in three short years – livestreamed town halls, Twitter and Facebook forums, and crowdsourced questions have become just as common as fireside chats were nearly 80 years ago. But does all this technological advancement mean that government is actually working better for the average citizen? And more importantly, is there an effective way for government to source not just questions and concerns from the public, but also solutions, ideas, and support?

These are questions we set out to answer by launching Summer of Smart last month, a four-month experiment in urban innovation led by our team at San Francisco’s Gray Area Foundation for the Arts along with a wide array of partners.  Our work over the past several years at the intersection of technology, art, and civic issues revealed two interesting and relevant patterns that we hoped to leverage through this initiative. First, through our series of urban hackathons, we realized that incredible civic projects could take shape within a very short period time when individuals with ideas, talent, and passion came together to work. Secondly, our work with city departments and officials as a nonprofit organization helped us understand that the potential of technology to improve municipal services and the lives of citizens seemed at once intimidating and incredibly interesting to government employees.

As we discussed it more, Summer of Smart seemed like the perfect opportunity to bridge this gap – engaging mayoral candidates and city departments directly with the people with the skills, energy, and drive to create transformative projects from the ground up – in other words, a vision for what Democracy 3.0 could be.

Birth of the First “Hackathon for Everyone”

At the same time, there was another gap we wanted to continue to bridge – that between developers, designers, and the rest of the tech community, and artists, journalists, architects, urbanists, nutritionists, community organizers, political activists, building engineers, and other citizens with the talents and passion necessary to create real change. Being an arts organization based in the Tenderloin/Mid-Market area for the past several years, we have witnessed firsthand the diversity of people and backgrounds, working together, that is required to transform city life. When we launched Summer of Smart, we had held multidisciplinary hackathons in the past, but had never heard of one that was wide-open to anyone, from any background, who wanted to contribute their skills and ideas to a cause for a single intensive weekend and beyond. However, we did find through our past events that one of our core beliefs continued to hold true – that the best projects are those created when people from a wide range of disciplines come together to work toward a common purpose. In fact, our name itself – Gray Area Foundation for the Arts – is a nod toward this principle.

Thus, for all three of our Summer of Smart events, we decided to mash up:

  • the hackathon mentality (take an idea as far as you possibly can in 48 hours with people you probably have never met before)
  • with the multidisciplinary mindset (the more types of people the better)
  • and put it all in the context of participatory democracy (every citizen has the ability, and should have the opportunity, to make a meaningful contribution to governance).

We would ground ourselves in technology and rapid innovation, anyone could join, and we’d send our projects directly to mayoral candidates, city officials, and other civic leaders for their feedback and participation. Admittedly, this combination was to be a complete experiment – but one we couldn’t have been more excited to start testing out.

An Instant Success

Long story short, the experiment has worked – and has worked better than we could have ever anticipated. We kicked off the summer with nine candidates participating in the first-ever mayoral forum centered around innovation and open government, followed by exciting civic unconference sessions at CityCampSF that weekend. Then, over 100 developers, designers, planners, journalists, civic leaders, community activists, and more came together for 36 hours at our first Urban Innovation Weekend to create new and exciting projects around the theme of Community Development and Public Art. On Friday night the group split into seven teams; by Saturday night they had posted seven projects on the web. All their work can be seen at

The project teams were:

PUBLIC ART SPACES – Facilitating open and found spaces for creative culture.

PUBLIC ART MAPPER – Finding and cataloging San Francisco’s public art from the street.

BETWEEN THE STOPS – Exploring the hidden stories on San Francisco bus lines.

GET VOLUNTEERED – Making volunteering as simple as going to the movies.

THE POST – Bridging the online and street community with a “Bulletin Board 3.0” for democratized expression.

YAY TAXES! – Making taxpaying fun by visualizing connections between government finance and public services.

iART SAN FRANCISCO – Curating citizen-sourced personal tours of public art around the city.

In addition to long hours of active creation, we heard from three speakers to inspire us that weekend:

John Gage, Sun’s former Chief Scientist and founder of NetDay, who spoke on the blossoming role of citizens, artists, developers and data observers in creating a better civil society. [Video]

Next, Margarita Quihuis of Stanford’s Persuasive Technology Lab and Peace Innovation Lab talked of her pioneering work in the application of persuasive technologies for behavior change at urban scale. [Video]

Code for America’s Executive Director Jen Pahlka was our closing speaker on Saturday, where she shared lots of practical urban examples from CFA’s work in cities across the US.

An excellent first-hand account of the entire weekend can be found via Urban Innovation Requires a Hackathon for Everyone.

The project has brought together great partners and funders who are fascinated to explore citizen participation and digital democracy in an urban environment. We are very excited to have The San Francisco Foundation as our lead sponsor for the project, as they bring established connections with local community organizations and provide a natural bridge between our creative technology community and SF-based organizations. The San Francisco Department of Technology is the lead partner for Summer of Smart, joining the ranks of Code For America, The Bay Citizen,, Govfresh, SPUR, and many more in a near-unprecedented collaboration of civic, technology, artistic, nonprofit, and media organizations.

A Movement Has Started…And We’re Only One Month In

So far, our theory (and others’) that technology and openness can enable new forms of participatory democracy is being validated not just from our community, but by the candidates and city departments themselves. We have had direct participation from San Francisco’s Department of Technology, Department of Public Works, Mayor’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development, Arts Commission, and others. And much earlier than we anticipated, the mayoral candidates have become directly engaged with our experiment – sharing their thoughts at our events, presenting their own success stories, openly debating technology and innovation, livestreaming interviews about the project, and (of course) tweeting about Summer of Smart.

In the few weeks we’ve been at this we’ve come to realize that Government 2.0 is as much about citizens, engagement, and innovation as it is about the formal government itself. Certainly, there are great opportunities for government to modernize, automate, and open up. But the most exciting aspect of this is how much service and value can be created in a city by people and organizations that aren’t part of the government itself, but that come together to focus on civic problems, often using public data, to set leadership examples for the City’s leadership. In San Francisco no one understands this more than Jay Nath, the City’s Director of Innovation, who observes, “The city is a bureaucracy and a monopoly without competition, so it’s not going to innovate very fast on its own. Government 2.0 provides that innovation.” [Video]

One of the reasons we chose to do start this experiment in the summer run-up to the mayoral election is that a campaign is a perfect season for new ideas – we have well over a dozen candidates essentially battling each other over who has the best ideas for the city. Introduce into this mix passionate citizens coming up with ideas and prototyping them, then engaging candidates in the process, and there is a much greater likelihood that new ideas and innovation will become part of the campaign conversation and ultimately part of the new administration’s DNA.

A few months ago we spoke to one of the candidates who complained, “The problem with this race is the minute any of us has a good idea, another candidate steals that idea the next day.” That helped inspire Summer of Smart: If we can generate a lot of good ideas (and prototypes) the candidates can call their own, then the community helps set the political agenda, and improve our city at the same time. During our first Summer of Smart weekend former Mayor and current CA Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom, who oversaw the launch of many of San Francisco’s open data initiatives, dropped by and reinforced this, pointing out the citizen organizations driving this movement. [Video]

Summer of Smart continues on July 22-24 with a focus on sustainability, energy, and transportation [Register Now!]. We are working with many of the city’s green building, transit, and environmental groups and companies to prepare for this, and we’re sourcing citizen ideas for projects and initiatives through Twitter via #SoSidea.  On August 19-21 we’ll turn to public health, nutrition, and food issues, where Former US Secretary of Agriculture  and Former UNICEF Executive Director Ann Veneman and renowned journalist Esther Dyson will be keynote speakers. In September, the projects deemed most promising by the community itself will be presented and discussed with candidates in a pre-election forum.

Ultimately we aspire for three things to come out of all of this:

1) Great new ideas get prototyped and create new possibilities for San Francisco and beyond

2) The theme of Government 2.0 and bottoms-up innovation expands beyond a growing niche community to become part of the broader urban conversation

3) Two previously distant cultures – politicians/civic officials and grassroots innovators – come to understand one another better and learn the benefits of working in tandem.

Together, we hope these and other outcomes of this growing movement accelerate the potential for technology and innovation to serve as a medium for a new kind of participation and dialog.

It’s been a fascinating, steep, and incredibly exciting learning curve – and we’re only one month into Summer of Smart.

Summer of Smart Overview by Eric Wise.

This post was written by GAFFTA’s Research Director Jake Levitas (@levitasj) and Board Chairman Peter Hirshberg (@hirshberg).

Comments are closed.