Collaborating to reimagine civic assets

Helping 8 city teams prototype at the urban scale to heal trauma

Collaborating to reimagine civic assets

Helping 8 city teams prototype at the urban scale to heal trauma

Reimagining the Civic Commons is an emerging initiative of Knight, Kresge, JPB, and Rockefeller to increase collaboration across civic assets. Its goals include increased economic integration, robust civic engagement, increased sustainability of civic assets, and the creation of greater neighborhood value. In 2015, an initial pilot to transform aging urban infrastructure in Philadelphia with the Fairmount Park Conservancy and the William Penn Foundation demonstrated the value of bringing traditionally disparate civic commons together into a collaborative collective.

Subsequently, the Knight Foundation invited a number of city teams, lead by a local non-profit convener, to join the program. Ultimately seven additional city teams were invited to compete for four grants of $10 million over three years. To develop a stronger, user-inspired approach and vision, IDEO, a design and innovation firm, joined as a co-designer and thought partner to take all eight cities through a design thinking process. The partnership was supported by a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation.

Over eleven weeks from January to March of 2016, IDEO customized its design thinking process for the city teams, creating a unique set of tools, exercises and assets to use in conjunction with remote facilitation, in-person convenings, and field visits to each city.


New behaviors

Collaboration was the cornerstone of reimagining civic assets, and we quickly learned that fostering effective collaboration required much more than facilitation. We had a hunch that both remote communication and in-person collaboration would be required, and we learned that remote collaboration through Slack and weekly calls created less value for participants than in-person visits. The most valuable ways to collaborate were in-person, highly intentional, and closely facilitated. The on-the-ground Design Boosts and the Design Bootcamp created space for us to model strong behaviors, codesign with each city team, and act as team members as well as facilitators. High-touch collaboration like this supports knowledge sharing, inspiration, and impactful design, although the effort and resources required to provide such collaborative foundations raises questions about scalability in the future.



The Foundations began by setting loose guidelines for the outcomes they wanted to see from each city. The grant-making process was flexible, with metrics and outcomes evolving as the process unfolded. For example, the deadline for the grant proposal was pushed back to ensure that teams had more time to prototype, and each team was given additional funding for building and testing out their prototypes to maximize learning. An emergent part of the process was the interaction between the city teams, the IDEO facilitators, and the grant-makers. Unlike grant processes in which the participants apply through written applications, give written status updates, and then write the final report, this process was highly interactive and tangible. Teams moved quickly through the design process, iterating on the form and focus of their proposal.


Through this iterative process, the teams sought frequent in-person feedback from IDEO and the Foundations’ staff to gauge their progress. We encouraged Rockefeller Foundation and Knight Foundation to continue to support the emergent elements of designing a grant disbursement process, and to shape the metrics and proposal format according to the needs of the teams who are in line to receive support.

Both of these key practices highlight an important theme: co-design. The Foundations, along with IDEO and the city teams, co-designed both the collaboration and grant-making processes. Instead of a rigid, pre-determined set of methods and metrics, the process was flexible, responsive, and personalized.

For future iterations, build on these attributes to continually push the idea of reimagining the civic commons. Imagine a future in which the processes by which cities apply for grants reflect the needs of the communities they serve and support collaborative methods of design. With a sustained, intentional commitment to supporting emergent processes such as these, we believe that the Foundations are well on their way to achieving this goal.


City Innovation

As part of this project, we created a free, and sharable, toolkit called Incubating City Innovation. It's composed of two volumes:


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