Alexandra Lange | Essays

Against Kickstarter Urbanism

The Pebble (via Kickstarter)

When Kickstarter launched in 2009 as the “funding platform for creative projects” most of the projects were small in scale and consumer in intention. Need the studio time to record your next album? Need the printing costs to produce your first book? Need to make prototypes for the next big X, Y or Z? The big design success story was the TikTok band, which turned your iPod Nano into a wristwatch, and raised almost one million dollars on the site. This year’s version, an e-paper watch named Pebble, raised $7 million. (Watch the numbers grow on this nifty New York Times graphic.) Two thousand five hundred people contributed to the TikTok in its first three days on Kickstarter and, as Michael McGregor wrote on the Kickstarter blog in November 2010,

For as long as we can remember products just appeared. We knew nothing of the production process, or who the device’s authors might be. Not anymore. As Scott Wilson professes in his first project update, “I believe this is a significant milestone in product development history. And you are part of it. Part of what I consider will eventually be a common way for individuals, DIYers, small groups and aspiring entrepreneurs to realize their dreams. And you were there at the beginning.”

McGregor’s post was titled “A New Era for Design.” It made sense to ask the people of the internet for money, because they were not only your investors, they wanted to be your customers. Kickstarter combined fundraising with opinion polling, marketing with grant-writing. And if you were lucky, one of the reward system built into the fundraising meant you would be the first to hear, see, read or use the production in question.

TikTok+LunaTik (via Kickstarter)

The process required to be a Kickstarter success, now summarized and codified on many other websites, reflects this consumer focus. A video, not too slick, but not too amateur. Relentless working of social media and casual contacts. Rewards. In the future, Kickstarter seemed to me to suggest, the socially awkward and untelegenic need not apply. But on the flipside, if Kickstarter could make industrial designers’ dreams come true, who was I to question it?

But then it mushroomed. Stories late last year (later debunked) suggested that Kickstarter would soon fund more creative activity than the National Endowment for the Arts. And more types of projects, design not just for the wrist, started to try to get in on the action. Which made me very nervous. Kickstarter is not a popularity contest, or a democracy. Kickstarter’s editorial teams selects which projects go on the blog. Their declaration of a glorious new era for design suggests that projects that aren’t Kickstarter worthy aren’t worthy. (Here’s Rob Walker’s New York Times Magazine story on the site, “The Trivialities and Transcendence of Kickstarter,” which goes into all the details.) A suitable funding platform for a watch is not a suitable funding platform for a city. The expectations, the timeline, the relevant community are all wildly different.

The Uni (via Kickstarter)

Most of the Kickstarter projects under the Design tab congregate around the themes of bikes, cheese, typography and iAnything, yet there is now a subset of urban interventions. A plastic tent for a livability conference in Prague. Uni, a portable open-air reading room for New York. A rooftop farm in Mumbai. The filtration system for +Pool.

What do these projects have in common? First, they are in famous cities. Second, they access hot-button urban topics: rooftop farms, reclaimed railroads, (self-reflexively) urban conversation itself. And third, they are gizmos. Critic Reyner Banham, in the oft-quoted essay “The Great Gizmo” posited that it wasn’t massive infrastructure projects that changed our world, but devices. Urbanism would lose out to industrial design. And that’s just what’s happening on Kickstarter. You wouldn’t Kickstart a replacement bus line for Brooklyn, but you might Kickstart an app to tell you when the bus on another, less convenient line might come. You can’t Kickstart affordable housing, but the really cool tent for the discussion thereof. Gizmo is close to gimmick, and worthy goals have to be dressed up in complex geometries for Kickstarter.

The LowLine (via New York Magazine)

The example of Kickstarter urbanism par excellence is Delancey Underground, aka the LowLine, which raised $155,000 on Kickstarter earlier this year. (Pocket change, yes, in comparison to the Pebble.) The idea for the LowLine is to take a 1.5 acre abandoned trolley terminal on the Lower East Side and to turn it into what co-founders Dan Barasch and James Ramsey were, at least initially, calling a park. The renderings show multi-racial families enjoying the indoor sunlight, an accordionist, cooing couples, poured concrete benches. It looks a bit like Cobble Hill Park, with a psychedelic ceiling instead of the sky. The founders raised those funds with little more than those renderings and a nickname, as the images, first shown in New York Magazine in September 2011, swiftly made the rounds of New York City publications and techy blogs. (The rounds now seem almost pre-ordained, from Co.Design to WIRED, TechCrunch to Gizmodo, Bits blog to think piece.) When the LowLine launched on Kickstarter in February 2012, the audience of urban-dwelling, tech-savvy patrons was pre-sold on the park as gizmo, and seemed to expect it to pop right up like a watch. But what they were actually paying toward was a sub-gizmo, a test run of the skylights that would filter daylight underground. The consumable dream was years and bureaucracies away. The original appeal of Kickstarter was a one-to-one relationship with the artist, without layers of grant. Who was the artist here? And weren't donors just a precursor to grants?

Look at the differences between the LowLine and the unsuccessful $4200 effort to fund a new ping-pong table for Gulick Park, also on the Lower East Side. The first is physical, practical, and achievable. If you are part of the physical community, you would be able to see the fruits of your donation within months. The second is seed money for seed money. If the designers build a better skylight, then they might be able to attract more backers, then they might be able to make a deal with the city, and then they might be able to create whatever it is. True, the Gulick Park Kickstarter page is somewhat depressing and pedestrian, but that’s what most urban intervention is. Small steps. Sometimes dirty. The High Line didn’t get Von Furstenberg money until a lot of unphotogenic, person-to-person tasks had been completed. The timeline for urban projects, the real-life approvals and the massive construction costs, are ill-suited for the Kickstarter approach. All the format can handle is a little, gizmo-like piece of the puzzle.

+Pool (via Kickstarter)

I’m hardly the first to have noticed this disconnect. Brickstarter, a still-evolving platform developed by a project team at Sitra including Dan Hill and Bryan Boyer, seems like an attempt to right some of the wrongs and frustrations Kickstarter urbanism could create. A recent post by Boyer asked,

As the interest in crowdfunding for local projects continues to grow, we’re digging into the nitty gritty of what this actually implies. What is really being funded and what’s the extent of the community participating?

In the Brickstarter mission statement, the creators describe Kickstarter’s strengths: “aggregating attention,” “story-telling,” “community fundraising” (though how the physical rather than just the social media community will be accessed remains unclear) and add the element of time. A “dashboard” would chart desire versus institutions and legislation. In a more recent post, on post-earthquake rebuilding projects in Chile, the creators start to narrow the bullet points for participatory success and add physicality to the mix. “Build a focal point”: have a space in which people can see progress and participate. This is not a gallery, which suggests mere display, and also something more results-focused than, say, the BMW Guggenheim Lab. “Start with a proposal”: not renderings, but a malleable first draft. Rather than the storytelling emphasized by all successful Kickstarter pitchmen and –women, this model asks the community on the ground to help write the story. It puts the platform back in its place as a service rather than a molder of culture.

So, save your money. If you want to fund urbanism on Kickstarter, think small. For the big picture, a park, a pool or a playing field, maybe a new social media platform will emerge, ready to walk you through the meetings and legislative hiccups, with fundraising for photocopying as well as fiber-optics. If that's not satisfying enough, maybe you should go offline and to your community board meeting. Participate in participatory budgeting. Stop starting at that gizmo and look at what your local park needs. Maybe it is a plastic bubble. Maybe it is a ping pong table. The park is going to require a lot more doing than $5 and "Great idea!"

Posted in: Architecture, Social Good, Technology

Comments [9]

What a timely article! I'd love to hear more thoughts about Kickstarting the purchase of buildings for long term community use. I am part of a team facilitating the restoration of a theater in San Francisco & we are looking at IndieGoGo as one (of many) means to fund the purchase of a community-owned property.

Anyone have any thoughts?


see more about our 501c3 incorporation under NDDivis Updates.

Your article is very interesting. It is valuable as it helps to put crowdfunding within the wider perspective and our own crowdfunding project within the phenomenon it has become.

The main appeal of crowdfunding for us as a micro company with a developing product is having a platform to project greater awareness about what we do into the US market as we're based in Scotland and have no other way we can afford. It is a chicken and egg situation. It is also more problematic to use Kickstarter if outside the US whereas no problem with IndieGoGo.

We see crowdfunding as a way to help us to globally find hard-to-reach niche groups (such as, for our product, non-CAD users) plus raise capital to optimise our product (haptic software for 3D modelling for studio artists) that, although very usable now for professional use, is limited. 'Contributors' getting the product through our IndieGoGo campaign can work with it now, get all the updates plus the upgrade to V3 when this is done. This method and offering we see as a 'pre-sales' strategy to aid product development.

For your information, we launched our Indiegogo/Anarkik3d (Creative Anarky) project 3 weeks ago!
Ann Marie Shillito

Colleen, it is fact that it is family, friends and colleagues who create the initial buzz and and funds. If they can then help you to reach beyond your circle and you have an offering that appeals to people who are not geographically able to visit your restored theatre, by all means consider crowdfunding and look carefully at their constraints for what fits best. What is the position for doing this yourselves? IndieGoGo take 4% if you successfully raise your target amount but 9% if you don't. With Kickstarter, if you don't raise your target amount you don't get any. There are pros and cons to both systems. Good luck, however you proceed.
Ann Marie Shillito

A very good post. People contributing to the watch expected to see something. Did they know they were getting just a trial skylight for the park?

The sub-theme here is "tactical urbanism", small, easy-to-do projects that do not require a lot of money or bureaucratic permission. There's power in those projects, if they are done in sufficient number, for they create momentum for bigger things. To be successful, though, they have to create immediate benefits, like the ping pong table. (one question is why the ping pong table had to cost so much?) People and communities learn by doing. As communities, we are learning that we can do it ourselves, if we keep the projects small enough.
Rod Stevens

The trap of Kickstarter is always about selling your story and being sensational to get the crowd's attention. Regarding the ugly simple (or in the case of the pingpong table - nothing newly designed) public interventions, there is an interesting kickstarting project for the Rotterdam Archi Biennale which i find really interesting and beautiful. It is a simple, straight-forward bridge structure to connect the center of the city and the north, over the Hofplein (an old overheard rail track).

Project link below :
f zohri

Nice to see Brickstarter mentioned here as we've started the project to address some of the concerns that you bring up, Alexandra. Brickstarter is attempting to work through a set of inter-related issues: dark matter, collaboration, and shared value decision-making.

*Dark Matter*

There is often no obvious path for individuals or small groups to propose ideas about the world around them, particularly in the advanced economies of the developed world that have well defined regulatory and legal frameworks that are more or less adhered to. When someone does finally decide to muster up the gumption to propose a new park bench (for example) it tends to be unclear who they need to propose it to, who will fund it, who will OK it, and how these may be appealed or contested. That's enough to quell the entrepreneurial spirit right there! Wouter Vanstiphout, from Crimson architectural historians in Rotterdam, calls this stuff the "dark matter" and it's incredibly opaque to most of us.

One of the reasons it's dark is because the kinds of things that people are interested in doing today are not necessarily the same things that our governance structures we established to support. This leaves many of the twists and turns that a project like the High Line must navigate to be discovered and muddled through. Much of the knowledge is tacit. From the outside it can be hard to distinguish why one project works and the next fails. And this is frustrating, not just for individuals for but us as a society. The reason we build cities (and societies!) is to do things together, so when the structures we established to keep it all humming along are not able keep up, it's time to shine a flashlight into the dark matter.

Mind you, this sort of approach does not lend itself to quick results. In contrast to pop-ups, interventions, and other small-scale efforts, Brickstarter is interested in creating a safe place for the dark matter questions of permits, regulations, liability, financing, maintenance, and more to be sorted through together. Pop-ups are nice... until they pop-down. Personally, I think we owe it to ourselves to be more systematic than that.


During our ongoing research for Brickstarter, one of the things we've heard again and again from groups who successfully pull off projects (community or otherwise) is that they had to make it up as they went along. And part of this is making up, adjusting and recalibrating, the project team itself. We're starting to learn some of the more general qualities of successful projects and will use these on Brickstarter to encourage participants who use the platform to embed that intelligence into their own work.

One important aspect of this is pitching. There are some comments above which are a touch derisive of the "glossy" video pitches on Kickstarter. I'd like to ask what's wrong with being convincing? Bear in mind that convincing does not necessarily mean misleading or frivolous. Those are valid concerns, but separate from the effectiveness of a pitch.

The Gulick park example is a good one: how do I, as a private citizen, become convinced that the project team have the passion necessary to stick with the project through to the end? How do I even know who is behind it, since there are no names mentioned on the project page? How do I know that my money is being put to good use, since there's no indication of the costs involved? Compared to the LowLine or +Pool, the Gulick park ping pong table proposal is miserable!

With Brickstarter we recognize that not everyone will have the same ability to put together a nice video (or have a friend do it), but we also strongly believe in the necessity of face to face meetings when dealing with community issues. When your platform is being used to create things in the built environment, there's always a community who can come together. And so we don't see a necessary divide between online and offline. Rather, the question is how an online platform may facilitate offline meetings and how representation of those offline meetings can easily find their way back into the online platform. This too is something that very good organizers do naturally (c.f. Obama campaign).

*Shared value decision-making*

Perhaps the hardest part of all of this is making it easier to debate ideas from a shared-value perspective: keeping in mind financial, ecological, and social capital as the source of both costs and income. At Sitra, our specific interests here are to encourage longer-term thinking which we think tends to enable decisions to more easily open up to ecological and social questions. Or put another way, we want Brickstarter to encourage people to see projects as investments in the future of the community, rather than short term costs. Our hypothesis is that the arduous and lengthy development process of, say, a wind farm is one that can maintain community interest/support if there is a strong project narrative. Again, this is something that the best organizers (and business people [and politicians]) are good at. With Brickstarter we're looking at ways in which the platform encourages the ongoing construction of a project narrative.

These decisions happen within the project itself (should the park bench be on Main st. or Park st.?) but also external to the project when it comes to funding and permitting. We're interested in these moments because they are where the project comes to life.

Having a good idea is important, of course, and there are sites like Neighborland (http://neighborland.com/) which are doing good stuff to collect the desires of a community. With Brickstarter we're primarily interested in what's next. After you have a good idea, what's the infrastructure that helps you bring it into the world?

Thank you for your thoughtful response, Bryan.

The impetus for my post was not anti-online or Gladwellian, but born out of a feeling that Kickstarter was becoming a model, even an evaluation system, for creative projects without being looked at critically. 'Kickstarter urbanism' seemed like a place I could start to critique it.

On the Brickstarter blog you say you don't think 'Kickstarter urbanism' exists, but I think Kickstarter [fill-in-the-blank] exists in many creative fields, because the site has become shorthand for crowd-funding. I thought Brickstarter (the name) was a clever turning of Kickstarter to more architecturally-scaled purposes. I dwelt more on the shortcomings of Kickstarter because I think most people haven't dwelled on its limits yet. You obviously have, and have now gone further. Nate Berg, on the Atlantic Cities blog, also mentioned ioby and Spacehive as tweaked crowd-funding alternatives.

I just wanted to comment on a few things in your response:

It isn't the glossiness of the videos that disturbs me so much as the apparent necessity for such glossiness. (I have to admit I thought about my own recent book on criticism as a Kickstarter pitch and doubted I could have made a go of it, despite the fact that I think I can craft a convincing narrative -- on paper.) I had a line in my first draft about how depressing the Gulick Park proposal was, and then decided that was piling on. The LowLine and +Pool are indeed more fleshed out, but the latter does a much better job than the former at telling you what part of those visual riches you are addressing.

It seems to me that part of what you are attempting to create is a collective memory for urban proposals, one that can be analyzed and accessed by others. The High Line is indeed a perfect example of a small group proposal, and Joshua David and Robert Hammond's book, while it details what they went through, doesn't really break that process out into larger systemic lessons. But that's exactly what people are looking for, and why those two are so popular on the lecture circuit. People want to believe, but they are tripped up by your "dark matter."

I'm also intrigued by the way you describe the back-and-forth between the online and offline worlds. By questioning the community for the LowLine, I did not intend to make a Gladwell-esque argument against social media as an organizing tool. I just meant online can't be the only tool, and in the absence of a proven platform, returning to established offline systems seemed like a better investment. The High Line did come up through the community boards and mayoral races and rezonings that that don't usually support interesting ideas. It's possible, but I hope online + offline can make it more comprehensible, if not faster.
Alexandra Lange

I like the way you describe a "collective memory for urban proposals" and I would go further to say that we want to create a kind of scaffold or armature for the same.

If someone comes to Brickstarter with only part of an idea about how or what they want to change their community, the platform should help them learn how to do it and fill in the missing details about what they want to do, as much as it helps them publicly tell the story while it unfolds.

This is something that I think of as 'legible practice': one which is not just open, but readable and inviting. As you put it, comprehensible. And yes, the gambit is that the more we make things legible or comprehensible, the easier it is for others to build on the what has been done before.

On the Helsinki Design Lab blog we are in the habit of regularly (or at least every now and then) doing "how-to" posts which take one aspect of our strategic design work and step back for a moment to reflect on the hows and whys. We do this because we feel that there needs to be a stronger discourse within the design community of how to work in a strategic capacity. What does that look like? What's the craft of it?

And the same could be said for shaping one's local community. We have heroes, but they're too busy speaking at events, as you mention, to really tell their own story in all of the detail that one would need to replicate their success elsewhere. There are piles of books written in the 60s and 70s, but we live in a world that's different in key ways. As in, we have a global system of pipes that connects us all and we need to learn more about balancing online and offline activities in organizing a community, in making decisions together, and in investing in the built environment and infrastructure. Our culture of decision making is changing, and not always in good ways. In some parts of the world this culture is naturally lending itself to NIMBYism.

When we think about Brickstarter as a platform which is primarily online, or where the online coordinates the offline, we're bumping up against one of the hard limits of the world: context are unique and they all have their own process or way of getting things done. Our project will be open source, but that doesn't mean it can necessarily be copied to another context so easily.

Here in Finland, for instance, there is very little role for NGOs and few of them capitalize themselves with donations the way you would find in the US. So if we make a platform that works perfectly for Finland, it may work in Sweden or Norway where things are similar, but it's not going to be a single codebase that can be effortlessly copied to any context. Can you imagine a Brickstarter sort of site in the US that instructs you to "now use this form to apply for state funding for your community allotments project?"! Feasible, somehow, but probably not the most expedient path.

Nevertheless, even if successful Brickstarters in different parts of the world require unique tweaks to be really effective, the existence of them online, in the open, filled with examples of successful and unsuccessful attempts of individuals and groups to alter the world around them promises to be a valuable resource.

My glossy video comments should have been marked as a response to @fzohri above. To pick up @Alexandra's point, I don't think that it's a problem to 'pile it on' when there's such a lazy proposal as the Gulick Park. If our goal is to ultimately become better, as a society, about building the world we want, we need to create more venues to learn how to do it. We need to be able to see successes and understand what factors enabled them, as well as deal with failures respectfully and try to ferret out what might have saved them.

Ping Pong in the park could be a great idea. I'm not judging the idea, I'm judging the way it's presented... it reminds me of the first few crits of architecture school a bit too much! "Keep the comments about the work, let's not get personal." In the Brickstarter research one of the things we've enjoyed is really combing over the way various sites help or hurt their users in terms of naturally lending themselves towards compelling pitches.

I stress that it's not the video alone. The Guilick park pitch would be immediately more convincing if they had a cost breakdown and a real name attached to it. Ultimately, video or not, it's about communication. And that's why I'm sure that you, @Alexandra, would have been more successful than you might imagine should you have sought a crowdfunded approach to your book rather than working with a publisher. Because you're an able communicator who is invested in your pursuits.

Do we want to make it easier for people to put forward half-hearted proposals? I'd personally be happy with a platform which helps weed out the proposals which are not quite there yet.

From the point of view of a city government, this does something very important: it removes the cost of due diligence from their ledger by shifting all or most of it to the citizens. Any institution that gives out funds, be it a bank, granting organization, VC, or what have you, spends a lot of time on due diligence to select the most trustworthy candidates who they feel are likely to adhere to the terms of the deal. We're exploring the possibility of whether Brickstarter could, in some instances, be used in an official capacity like this by municipalities. The political and ethical implications here are very present, yes. It's not a territory to tread into lightly. Note that for this to work in a fair and balanced way, the main currency of the site may not be monetary.

The reason I suggested that "kickstarter urbanism" is not a thing, is that I don't think we're at a place culturally (and I hope we don't get to one) where Kickstarter is *the* test of the validity of an idea. It's one option among many. Kickstarter has its own natural community, just like NGO-led donation-powered projects have theirs (NPR!), VC-backed startups have theirs, work-all-day-and-scrape-up-funds projects have theirs, etc.

For the moment at least, we still judge projects by the goodness of their promise and eventually, with the lucky ones, that of their reality. I hope this never changes.

"A suitable funding platform for a watch is not a suitable funding platform for a city. The expectations, the timeline, the relevant community are all wildly different."

Would it help to consider it in terms of an equation?

T = Timeline
E = Expectations
RC = Relevant community

watch's T, E, RC +
book's T, E, RC +
album's T, E, RC +
video game's T, E, RC +
play's T, E, RC +
movie's T, E, RC +
edible spoon's T, E, RC +
N + 1 = private sector

park's T, E, RC +
museum's T, E, RC +
school's T, E, RC +
pool's T, E, RC +
zoo's T, E, RC +
library's T, E, RC +
sewer's T, E, RC +
road repair's T, E, RC +
N + 1 = a city (public sector)

Civic crowdfunding gives each and every RC the opportunity to use their hard-earned dollars to guide the development and maintenance of the public projects that concern them the most.

Will there be too many projects and too little funding? Of course...that's life. There's always too much to do and too little time. Are you going to take the time to read this? Are you going to take the time to reply? Doing so will sacrifice all the other things that you could be doing with your time.

In economics this is known as "opportunity cost". Your spending decisions input your values and "partial knowledge" into the impossibly complex formula which ensures that society's limited resources are used for society's maximum benefit.

In other words...freedom allows us to dollar vote for the people who discover new and better ways of using society's limited resources.

Jobs | July 20