Amidst local government budget cuts and a severe crisis of legitimacy, cross-sector partnerships involving an ‘eclectic mix of agents drawn from the public, private, voluntary and community sectors’ (Ball & Magin, 2005:16) have been at the forefront of municipal strategies. Recently, one approach was given particular prominence : civic crowdfunding. My master’s dissertation aimed to explore the challenges and opportunities of civic crowdfunding initiatives in local governance and evaluate the degree to which they enable a long-term shift towards cross-partnerships, collaborative network governance and participatory planning in a context of ongoing digitalisation. Taking the case of the Our Tower Hamlets campaign, launched by the London borough of Tower Hamlets, it set out to assess whether civic crowdfunding initiatives can enable the pursuit of authentic and inclusive local partnerships involving local governments, private platforms and civil society, so-called “Public-Private-People” Partnerships (4Ps).
Choosing #OurTowerHamlets : civic crowdfunding, a key opportunity for local governments ?
Following the success of the pioneering #CrowdfundLondon campaign in 2014, similar initiatives have blossomed within London and the UK. Indeed, strengthening citizens’ sense of ownership and long-term commitment to their communities, civic crowdfunding was seen as having a ‘huge potential for citizen participation and practical democracy’ (Future Cities Catapult, 2017:2). A subtype of crowdfunding, it can be defined as a donation-based mechanism for citizens to fund public assets in partnership with municipalities (Davies, 2014). Leveraging online platforms, its digital dimension enhances the scalability and interactivity of campaigns, allowing them to reach wider and more diverse audiences.
In 2018, the borough of Tower Hamlets decided to launch its own programme, #OurTowerHamlets, in partnership with Spacehive, UK’s leading civic crowdfunding platform. Tower Hamlets proved to be a particularly interesting setting in which to explore such initiatives: located immediately east of central London but still ranked as the fifth most deprived borough in London, it embodies ‘the paradoxes of London’s ‘world city’ economy with its concentration of social problems adjacent to the world-class real estate of the City of London and Dockland’ (Hall, 2007:252).
3 key challenges to investigate #OurTowerHamlets
Across this dissertation, my intention was to build on the three key challenges of ‘Public-Private-People” (4Ps) partnerships highlighted by Perjo et al. (2016:11), using them as a lens through which to study new collaborative agendas in Tower Hamlets.
Challenge 1: Balancing efficiency and economic considerations with legitimacy, public input and liveability
Growing reliance on civic crowdfunding partly emerged from the austerity context of fiscally constrained public sectors, as budgetary pressures were urging local authorities to open up to funding from the crowd. It was pitched as a lever to fund small-scale, localised projects in the built environment – from physical structures to community spaces (Davies, 2014a; Logue & Grimes, 2019), with residents pledging locally for projects that matter to them. Yet Tower Hamlets’ decision to launch a civic crowdfunding programme came primarily from a political impetus towards participation and partnership working. Indeed, the local government envisioned civic crowdfunding as a tool to enhance participation, civic ownership and reduce public distrust (Amos et al., 2011; Boyle, 2016). With the revived appreciation of the local and digital in the wake of Covid-19, Tower Hamlets also aimed at engaging more with communities, starting to ‘think digitally’ and prioritising online methods of engagement. As such, civic crowdfunding contributed to disrupting ‘conventional, often obscure, government-managed city planning’ (Boyle, 2016:11), progressively shifting local authorities’ modus operandi towards shared leadership and collaborative governance.
Challenge 2: Combining formal partnerships and informal collaboration, and the general challenges stemming from the different levels of power and influence between actors
Despite these positive developments, concerns about civic crowdfunding campaigns’ ‘transformative potential, the type of participatory processes they enact and their relationship with traditional planning frameworks’ (Gullino et al., 2019:264) were also expressed. Indeed, by bringing new stakeholders to the table, civic crowdfunding campaigns like #OTH radically changed the rules at the local level and paying attention to the resulting power asymmetries was critical. While local governments have defined themselves in civic crowdfunding initiatives as ‘one of a broader crowd alongside citizens, business, and foundations’ (Parkinson, 2020:202), it seems that they retain a dominant role in the process and are reluctant to share power for fear of losing their prerogatives. The relationship between boroughs and platforms also appears to be more of an outsourcing than a true ‘partnership’, with the latter seen primarily as service providers. And while online participation creates new opportunities for stakeholders to interact and exchange information, it may also reinforce ‘digital inequalities and existing power balances’ (Baccarne et al., 2020). At #OTH, the priority has therefore been to provide both online and offline opportunities to avoid widening the existing digital divide.
Challenge 3: Managing conflicting goals and creating common visions
Finally, collaborating was not always easy, with stakeholders’ different motives calling into question the legitimacy and transparency of these campaigns. Questions about the democratic consequences of partnering with private actors were raised, linked to the paternalistic attitude of local authorities and the entrepreneurial spirit of platforms. Indeed, programmes such as #OTH have been characterised by fundamental disagreements between stakeholders over their definition and implementation, highlighting how ‘partnerships are good in theory but incredibly difficult in practice’ (Jupp, 2020:24). Even when working in tandem with local authorities, “digitally-enabled platforms” (Logue & Grimes, 2019:3) still play by their own rules (Davies, 2014) and their agendas do not always coincide with the borough’s stated goals. However, long-term partnerships such as civic crowdfunding campaigns require genuine collaboration, where partners truly commit to each other. In the future, it will be fundamental for platforms to see themselves as true ‘collaborators’ in city-making (Parkinson, 2020:205) and ensure that they accommodate the complexities of local governance.
Civic crowdfunding, an opportunity to be “taken with a pinch of salt” (Gullino et al., 2019:256)?
As we have seen, while civic crowdfunding initiatives appear to be effective levers towards more collaborative processes and participatory planning at the local level, they can so far only partially be acknowledged as ‘genuine’ 4P partnerships. However, ‘it cannot happen in a vacuum when it comes to civic improvement’ (Parkinson, 2020:204) and, moving forward, the borough will need to find new ways to involve all stakeholders meaningfully, increase dialogue and collaboration and continue to lower the barriers to entry to enable greater participation.
Further readings on civic crowdfunding :
- Baccarne, B., Evens, T. & De Marez, L. (2020) Understanding Civic Crowdfunding as a Mechanism for Leveraging Civic Engagement and Urban Innovation. Technology Innovation Management Review, 10 (5), 51- 66.
- Boyle, T. M. (2016) The city and the crowd: an exploration of civic crowdfunding disruption to local government led city planning and the quest to co-create liveability. [Master’s Thesis, University of New England]. ResearchGate.
- Future Cities Catapult, FCC (2017) Civic Crowdfunding – A guidebook for local authorities. https://about.spacehive.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/Civic-Crowdfunding_A-Guide-for-Local- Authorities.pdf
- Gullino, S., Seetzen, H., Pacchi, C., Cerulli, C. (2019) Interpreting Patterns of Interaction between Civic Activism and Government Agency in Civic Crowdfunding Campaigns. Built Environment, 45(2), 248-267.
- Logue, D., Grimes, M. (2019) Platforms for the people: Enabling civic crowdfunding through the cultivation of institutional infrastructure, Strategic Management Journal, Unpublished article. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/smj.3110
- Parkinson, J. (2020) Crowdfund London: Civic Crowdfunding as a Tool for Collaborative Urban Regeneration in London. In: Gajda, O., Marom, D. and Wright, T. (eds.), CrowdAsset: Crowdfunding for Policymakers, Singapore:World Scientific Publishing Company.
Other key sources :
- Amos, J.; Berner, M.; Morse, R. S. (2011) What constitutes effective citizen participation in local government? Views from city stakeholders. Public Administration Quarterly, 35(1), 128-163.
- Ball, M.; Magin. P.J. (2005) Urban Change and Conflict: Evaluating the Role of Partnerships in Urban Regeneration in the UK. Housing Studies, 20(1), 9-28.
- Davies, R. (2014) Civic Crowdfunding: Participatory Communities, Entrepreneurs and the Political Economy of Place. [Doctoral Thesis, MIT].
- Hall, S. (2007) ‘Housing, Regeneration and Change in the UK: Estate Regeneration in Tower Hamlets, East London’, Chapter 11, 249-270. In: Beider, H. (ed.) Neighbourhood Renewal and Housing Markets: Community Engagement in the US and the UK, Blackwell Publishing: Oxford.
- Jupp, B. (2000) Working Together. Creating a better environment for cross-sector partnerships. A demos paper. London: Demos.
- Perjo, L.; Fredricsson, C. & Oliveira e Costa, S. (2016) Public-Private-People Partnerships in Urban Planning, Working Paper (Deliverable 2.3.1. Potential and challenges of applying Public-Private-People partnership approach in urban planning), Baltic Urban Lab Project.
Illustration : Ackroyd Drive Greenlink’s Mural, a community project crowdfunded by the Trapped in Zone One Collective (Image courtesy of Trapped in Zone One)