A rickshaw driver waits in Karachi for potential customers. - Stephan Andrew / White Star

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, concerned citizens can change the world. Indeed it is the only thing that ever has” - Margaret Mead

1969 - A city with an eroding infrastructure, racial tensions, violent crimes, a divided society, no industry to speak of, high unemployment and an exodus of residents. The city was labeled ‘the filthiest’ in the country by the most trusted broadcast journalist in the country.

2012 - #25 on NYT’s best places to visit alongside Morocco, London & Tokyo. #1 in economic growth potential. One of the ‘nation’s strongest economies’ according the WSJ. Unemployment well below the national average, the fastest broadband internet in the country, a massive influx of artists and I.T professionals, a bustling local culture and rising demand / prices for housing which also bucked the national trend.

Chattanooga, Tennessee has become somewhat of a poster child for city revitalization, but more importantly because the initiative was largely fueled by ‘bottom-up’ development. That is not to infer that it’s transformation was solely led by it’s inhabitants. The purpose here is to examine social enterprise to see how it can radically transform a city, and how the use of crowd technology can exponentially increase it’s effectiveness.

The term ‘Crowdsourcing’ is sometimes confused with Social Media. There is an tremendous interdependence but there are fundamental differences between the two. Crowdsourcing or crowd technology is the act of distributing a function to reach a large number of people on a unified, public forum for participation. This could be anything from decision-making to content contribution.

Social media plays an integral part in propagation in that the people who partake in crowdsourcing act as advocates, and increase levels of awareness. Think about the role Twitter and Facebook played in the Egyptian revolution.

Governments make the mistake of focusing on products and ignoring the processes that make their success sustainable. There is no sense in building something and expecting it to work just because it was built. Plans need to have an intelligible purpose. Typically citizens are excluded from major government matters like planning, policy development and projects.

If the government and leadership is doing a stellar job, this shouldn’t really warrant a mention.

More often than not, citizens are relegated to being helpless spectators of a city disintegrating around them. The choice shouldn’t only be between protests, or polls once every four to five years. Citizens should have the ability to initiate programs which will eventually influence policy-making and gain the support of local governments, but in the interim will beautify the city, create businesses, increase employment, improve demand for housing and products and stimulate the micro-economy.

When polled, most people say they would if they could, but don’t think a single individual can make a difference. With the right tools, as a collective whole, they can.

Crowd technologies have existed for decades in a very rudimentary form. In recent times, their efficacy has multiplied with the use of technology. The following covers three segments which could be leveraged as apparatus by citizens, to plan, promote, fund and execute projects which could inject new life into a city.

 1. Crowd-mapping 

In the developed world, crowd-mapping is primarily used to find, identify and document decrepit properties and assets which are ripe for renewal. This relies on users using smartphone apps which allow a user to photograph a physical area / building and automatically geo-tags it’s location before uploading to a communal database. This repository is then used and cross-referenced when a suitable match is being sought for a particular development idea, and a similar database of ideas is referenced when a particular property/facility is being repurposed or gentrified.

Though I have not seen it in person, I hear that Port Grand in Karachi is a successful example of redevelopment.

Violent crime is rampant. Given that posting snipers at public places / intersections and vigilante justice isn’t really feasible, crowd-mapping can be used to make cities more secure by reporting - in real-time - incidents and areas warranting concentration of security measures. Organizations like the CPLC would stand a better chance to assist citizens with timely and accurate information. I’d venture to say this database would be more comprehensive than the data that is available to the authorities today.

Additionally, it would also serve as a source of information dissemination by providing knowledge of suspicious areas / activities / cars. People are already doing this sporadically in private circles on Facebook. This would bring the information to a time-stamped, public forum.

Crowd-mapping is also used in emergency hit areas for damage control. It could prove useful considering the abnormal amount of strikes, public riots and days of unrest the city undergoes.

 2. Crowd-funding - for equity or reward

Crowd-funding relies on the long-tail model which looks to raise minute amounts of money from a large number of people. Crowd-funding raises billions of dollars a year for everything from micro-financing for empowerment in third world countries, to developing underground parks in first world countries, to funding private businesses like the wildly successful Pebble Watch which turned to online crowd-funding site Kickstarter, to try to raise $150,000 and ended up with close to 10 million dollars within 30 days.

Funds are usually requested in exchange for a reward but in certain countries - like the UK where legislative hurdles do not exist- it is perfectly legal to fund in exchange for equity in the business. This not only opens up access to capital for aspiring entrepreneurs, but also unlocks deeper levels of innovation as it allows farfetched ideas to come to life; projects which might not have seen the light of day since conventional financial institutions and venture-capital firms act as the judge, jury and executioner in deciding whether a project/product is worth funding or not.

More successes attract more funders which draws more projects to the platform thereby creating an upward spiral.

There could be hundreds of development and redevelopment projects in progress concurrently if this technology was leveraged. Profitable and useful culinary and vocational training institutes for the lower class, Art & Music Workshops, skating parks, sports facilities, car-sharing programs, scientific research centers; virtually every conceivable interest could find life and leave a lasting impact on the culture, economy and state of the city.

3. Crowdsourcing

Crowdsourcing is different from outsourcing. With outsourcing you have multiple entities bidding for the same work and after selection, you’re limited to that one person or organization. Using crowdsourcing, multiple users democratically contribute on singular issues – for example, the case of deciding which crowd-mapped project to proceed with, or multiple users submitting photographs for use in an online publication.

The citizens could contribute ideas, knowledge, content, expertise and collaboratively vote on projects at a more granular level. Amazon’s Mechanical Turk is an example of a crowdsourced marketplace whereas Elance is an example of an outsourcing platform.

Crowd technologies continue to cause disruption in industries like finance, technology, services and retail and more recently, in governments. The leaders will have to follow because the followers have decided to lead.

What, if any, is the correlation between unemployment and crime?

How can we increase exports? How can we lower crime? Why is the lower class, kept poor? (think, about the last time you gave a significant raise to your domestic help) There are hundreds of questions to sit and debate over, but none of the answers conclude with quantifiable action.

There is no guarantee that any of this will work, but then again, there is no guarantee that any of this will not work. If a different result is desired, the approach must be different. When I was a child, we used to raise money for weeks to walk-for-a-cause.

Perhaps it is time to join our hands, minds and wallets to collectively strive for a cause near and dear to all our hearts: Karachi.


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