Local startup Civinomics aims to fundamentally change the way we participate civically
Last weekend, it appears that the landscape of political and civic engagement—an activity for which many citizens of this country have developed a healthy sense of cynicism—just took one big bounding leap into the 21st century.
A three-day community event, called “Civinomicon,” brought more than 100 people to Cruzio downtown, where the young startup called Civinomics aims to make civic action, organization and, eventually, crowd funding, as intuitive as networking online with friends.
The Civinomics website is like a cross between Facebook and Twitter. The interface is designed for users to post initiatives, share ideas, vote on and challenge the viability of the content, the end goal of which is to produce actionable ideas with solid foundations of community support.
Civic enthusiasts are invited to sign up for free and engage with ease and immediacy on their computers, smartphones, or tablets.
“Civinomics is founded on two core principals: equity and transparency, in terms of how the civic process should work,” says Robert Singleton, the 23-year-old UC Santa Cruz alumnus who co-founded Civinomics alongside Manu Koenig, a Stanford University alumnus. “The aim is to try to get more people involved with the civic process with better information, mainly by leveraging digital information technology to overcome the barriers of space and time. We can't all be in a room together, but we can all share an online community and use that space to get ideas out there and crowd source them.”
Civinomics began two years ago, and in that timeframe, Koenig and Singleton have conducted an intensive outreach campaign locally and around the Bay Area activating communities to get involved. Now operating with a small team out of the Cruzio offices (Cruzio cofounder Chris Neklason is a key investor in the operation), Singleton calls the platform a “one-stop shop civic portal.”
Neklason hailed Civinomicon, which took place on Nov. 15-17, as “a demonstration, celebration and exploration of democracy.” The first day was an opportunity to wine, dine and rally the crowd; day two invited attendees to join brainstorming workshops, which included public safety, economy, water, homelessness, transportation, environmental sustainability, education, and the arts; and on day three, people presented various ideas and initiatives.
On Saturday, as groups conversed on local issues, led by volunteer facilitators, participants with laptops and iPads published their ideas on Civinomics, populating the website with a surge in membership and content.
A variety of community leaders participated, including Mayor Hilary Bryant and councilmembers Don Lane, Micah Posner and Pamela Comstock.
On Civinomics, the content is divided into pages, including “Initiatives,” “Workshops,” “Ideas,” and “Resources,” and has subject tags such as transportation, economy and water.
One initiative that has received 13 affirmative votes is to “Develop and promote an integrated ecotourism campaign in support of making Santa Cruz an ecotourism destination,” authored by sustainability group facilitator Tiffany Wise-West.
The idea emerged on Saturday as a result of the “cross-pollination dialogue” between the Economic Development and Environmental Sustainability workshops.
“With its unique attitude toward all things green and an unparalleled landscape to appreciate, Santa Cruz has the potential to be a prime ecotourism destination,” Wise-West writes. “A broad and integrated public-private partnership campaign to promote EcoTourism in Santa Cruz would yield multiple benefits for our community and visitors to it.”
The estimated funding for the initiative, including a promotional campaign and bike share pilot program: $33,000.
Under a workshop posting titled “How Can We Grow The Santa Cruz Tech Economy?” a variety of ideas has been posted. One is to “Bring UCSC's PIE (Program in Innovation and Entrepreneurship) into an office downtown,” authored by Koenig. Another, by Daniel Chamberlin, is to “Create a program to get students internships in local tech companies.”
Under a workshop titled “Reducing Property Crime in Santa Cruz,” Singleton posted the idea that the Santa Cruz Police Department do a series of stakeouts to pursue bike thieves and gather information about larger bike-stealing rings. His posting has 20 votes, 86 percent of which are affirmative, and has garnered a comment feed.
On Sunday, during the initiative proposals, Bryant pitched to the crowd an idea to invite a group of CEOs from Silicon Valley for a day of surfing—an event she would model after a golf tournament—to promote Santa Cruz for closer partnerships within the tech industry.
Fred Keeley, the Santa Cruz County Treasurer, former Assemblymember, and board member of the bipartisan organization California Forward, addressed the audience on Friday as the keynote speaker. In summary, he said it was about time something like Civinomics happened.
“I think that what Civinomics is doing is right in the wheel house of how people function in all other aspects of their life—in the same way that people used to have a checkbook but now make most of their payments online, or the way they used to have a landline in their home, and now have a [smartphone] device in their pockets, that's more powerful than all of the computing power the United States army had in Vietnam,” Keeley says. “The advantage of Civinomics is it allows people—who are now functioning in matters of seconds to do things that used to take minutes, or hours, or days—to operate that way also in civic engagement.”
Singleton hopes that Civinomics will allow communities to reclaim politics as being for the people, and
“Politics is such a dirty word in this country and it's so divisive and so contrarian,” he says. “Most people don't want to be associated with the political system. It's not that people don't care about issues, it's just that people are apathetic because they hate the way the system is set up. It's oppositional. You can't go and cast an opinion without someone viewing it through an ideological lens rather than a pragmatic one.”
Civinomics, Singleton says, should serve as a civil space, regulated by a code of conduct, that allows users to present ideas that address issues and goals by sticking to empirical, data-driven evidence. And on the output end, serve as a launch pad for initiatives.
During Saturday’s group discussions, about a dozen people deliberated over the county's water shortage problems. The facilitator was Donna Meyers, a local water management consultant and member of the City Water Commission.
She says that, while the discussions were informative, it was hard to drive the dialogue toward solutions because the subject of the county's water problems is so complex and rooted in a variety of scientific information.
“The factual information is so incredibly important, so if the conversation isn't rooted in the facts, then we're just talking,” she says. “If Civinomics' goal is to get to solutions in a more proactive way, then we need to make sure that there's a factual base for those solutions to be built out of.”
The Civinomics online platform does have “Resources” pages that provide a foundation of factual information and allow users to educate themselves with objective sources.
However, Meyers says, some topics are so complex, the most effective method is to compartmentalize and not open the door to wide community input.
“We can end up inundating ourselves with so many different ideas, opinions and facts, that we do ourselves a disservice,” she says. “That's the power of the Internet—anyone can interact. But then the downside is—anyone can interact. It will be interesting to see if this model opens the door to chaos, or if it's constructive.”
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