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Citizens 2.0

In the third installment of GT’s Civinomics coverage, we look at how online users’ civic initiatives are gaining traction

If the new online startup Civinomics, which is based in Downtown Santa Cruz, is making one distinct impact on the community’s civic dialogue so far, it is with organization.

As people become more active on the website, which is designed for users to post civic initiatives, share information, challenge or promote each other’s ideas, and vote on those ideas, one of the most notable results has been the platform’s capacity to chronicle—in an organized, navigable manner—an expanding landscape of citizenry attitude.

According Civinomics co-founder Robert Singleton, one of the main ways they were able to get many local elected officials to volunteer at Civinomicon—the startup’s launch event last month—was by explaining that Civinomics is a truly efficient way to get a quick “community pulse” on how people feel.

Eventually, the hope is that the most viable civic initiatives uploaded to the site will receive significant numbers of votes, serving as a quantifier for public opinion and helping local leaders choose which issues to tackle. But at its current beta stage, it is novel in itself to comb through the site’s content and read initiatives, comments, and the dialogue taking place under the “Workshops” section.

John Golder, a Felton resident and the author of an initiative titled, “got fields? Proposed Westside Community Recreation Center,” says that Civinomics has opened up worlds of possibilities for real change.

“Their process will quickly separate the wheat from the chaff,” he writes to Good Times in an email. “[The site] has the potential to re-engage millions of young people, currently drifting in the web’s vast digital desert of addictive leisure, pointless gaming accomplishments and endless gossip. Anyone and everyone who logs in has the choice to help it become the new game in town, shaping their future in a real and constructive way.”

Golder’s “got fields?” initiative aims to convert 20-to-30 acres of empty lots and buildings in the Westside Industrial Zone to active recreation facilities. Golder, a lifelong athlete, coach, club officer and public advocate, has been researching the city’s community parks and sports facilities, of which he says there is a deficit, since 1989.

“[The city’s] latest General Plan [for] 2030 admits to a recreation facility deficit more than 40 years old,” he says. “The last project to add new fields to the combined city [and] school inventory was in the 1960s at Harvey West. The city schools, which provide two thirds of city sports field inventory, have actually lost acreage and several once-usable fields.”

He thinks his initiative will receive attention from Civinomics users due to a variety of coincidences, including the closure of Depot Park field in October. The initiative had 18 votes as of press time, 72 percent of which are affirmative.

Golder says he is eager to see the Civinomics platform spread beyond Santa Cruz County.

“I hope it spreads everywhere,” he says. “Imagine the havoc when the concept reaches China, the Middle East and, hopefully in my lifetime, North Korea.”

The Civinomics initiative with the most votes so far (61 votes; 85 percent in favor) is titled “Outreach to Homeless Encampments,” which City Councilmember Don Lane authored in collaboration with his discussion group on homelessness at Civinomicon.

The group’s initiative suggests that professional outreach social workers “regularly visit homeless encampments with the intent of identifying resources for encampment residents and assisting their safe relocation prior to any campsite clearance actions.”

Its aim would be to eliminate unsafe and unhealthy campsites, help to decrease the number of people being displaced into new encampments following clean ups—“rather than simply moving people around and continuing the existing campsite problem”—and reduce the costs of ongoing camp cleanups, according to the post.

In a comment, Richelle Noroyan, a former candidate for the Santa Cruz City Council, responded to the initiative saying that the social workers should encourage encampment residents to seek housing with friends or family either locally or outside of the county, as well as connect them with the city’s Homeward Bound Project, which pays for bus tickets to send homeless people back to their previous residences.

With 25 initiatives posted on the topic, the workshop titled “Improve Downtown Watsonville” is one of the most active pages on the Civinomics site. The goals for the workshop are to lower the unemployment rate and restore the city’s downtown economic vitality.

Initiatives include fixing up the Fox Theatre and allowing Shakespeare Santa Cruz to put on performances (57 votes), showcasing and promoting Watsonville wineries to increase business activity (51 votes), and widening sidewalks and providing more areas for outdoor restaurant seating (51 votes).

Civinomics co-founder Manu Koenig says there has been so much activity by Watsonville residents that the Civinomics team is discussing holding a second Civinomicon event there early next year.

Joe Foster, executive director of the Santa Cruz County Business Council, has been an active contributor to the Watsonville workshop. He believes Civinomics is becoming an important tool for community members, especially for those who are interested but too busy to attend regular city council or county meetings.

“This is really engaging a wider audience of people who are interested in civic issues, giving them a platform that they can go to anytime and engage with other interested parties and officials,” he says. “It’s this tool that serves as a kind of clearing house for information, [where people can be a part of] public policy discussions, and get a kind of one-stop-shop experience to see what the burning issues are. There’s definitely a lot of value in what they’re doing.”

Koenig says that that is precisely what Civinomics is shooting for.

After Civinomicon, “even though we were no longer physically together, everyone who participated had helped to define a space where we can continue [the discussion] perpetually online,” he says. “From what I can see, the best thing that happened at the event was that participants realized Civinomics was a tool for them, not something happening to them.”

Koenig says that there has been some resistance to Civinomics by people who fear it has a political agenda, but he and Singleton emphasize that the platform is ultimately neutral and designed to be used by anybody for any cause.

“Our role as an organization is to be facilitators, not advocates,” Singleton says. “Our job is to help inform community dialogue and provide our members with more effective tools for building and managing communities.”

He says Civinomics is more than just software—it is a group of community facilitators geared toward driving action.

“But,” Singleton says, “we don’t dictate the substance of these ideas; only the process, because people can disagree on ideas, but everyone has to agree on the process for deciding on those ideas. And we are constantly refining that process to be more effective and open.”

Koenig adds, “I think [that] everyone who participated in the conference realized Civinomics is a tool to help bring the community’s greatest plans and aspirations to life. Those aspirations are shaped by everyone who participates—not by any individual or political leader, and certainly not by our organization.”  


Learn more or post and vote on ideas at civinomics.com.

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