Stepa Mitaki shows off a crosswalk that was made safer through his My City app. (Photo: Emma Jarratt)
Civic engagement is moving online as My City takes hold outside its native Russia. Tromsø is the most recent city to get the interactive map, using it to decide what the city will look like in 30 years.
There are 16 cities in four countries using My City: Russia, Finland, Poland and Ukraine
My City reaches more than 10 million people
So far 6,268 ideas have been collected in total
Ninety-seven per cent of all submissions are constructive suggestions
Every 15th visitor shares an idea
The crosswalk on the corner of Kolskiy promenade and Koshevogo street is easy to pass through without a second glance. It’s busy and loud with Murmansk traffic flooding through in both directions and dirty snow packed into slippery patches. The neon sign of the supermarket casts an orange glow on the ground.
It looks unremarkable, but this is Stepa Mitaki’s favourite intersection.
“I feel proud,” Stepa says. “It’s such a minor thing, but I love crossing the road there now.”
This crosswalk is a victory for what Stepa calls “electronic democracy”, a concept his company, My City, is hoping to export to the rest of the world.
My City is an online platform that promotes communication between citizens and municipalities. Using an interactive map, residents with an idea can share, discuss, and vote on plans they have for improving their city.
“[It] empowers people with the tools to participate, to change the mindset of citizens and of the municipality. [The government] would think ‘Oh, we have to ask the people first’.”
My City is putting into practice what scholar Sherry Arnstein called the “ladder of citizen participation.” The more opportunities citizens are given to participate, she argued, the more power they have. At the bottom of the ladder is manipulation, where governments “educate” citizens on why the top-down plan is good for them; at the top is citizen control, in which citizens are given the tools to put their own ideas into practice.
The crosswalk is the first time citizen comments on My City’s My Murmansk page have actually paid off.
When the supermarket went in four years ago and neighbourhood traffic increased the owners promised the city they would raise the crosswalk to make the intersection safer. Three years later, after a deluge of comments on the My Murmansk page commenting the crossing was dangerous and the store hadn’t done what they said, the city road works department forced them to follow through.
“We’ve found the only department that doesn’t require official approval is road safety,” Stepa says citing a list of other My Murmansk ideas that haven’t been given municipal support from installing telescopes at the local war monument Alyosha to park beautification. “[The government] politely ditched us.”
So far the platform has had only modest success in terms of its ideas being translated into concrete action despite over 6,200 ideas having been submitted. In Murmansk, a city with 10,000 users, the crosswalk has been its only definitive victory. Small parks have been built that both My City and the local government takes credit for, though, Stepa admits, My Murmansk was not directly involved in those projects. Rather, they had posted sample ideas on their website, some of which the government, perhaps coincidentally, followed through on.
New lighting in parks was suggested in My City, and later implemented, although the local government denied getting the idea from My City. (Photo: Emma Jarratt)
“The future should belong to everyone”
My City has plans bigger than crosswalks. So far they have a presence in 16 cities in Russia, Ukraine, Poland and Finland, and are expanding fast.
Tromsø, Norway, the self-styled “Capital of the Arctic”, is planning to launch a My City page in January.
The Norwegian Planning and Building Act requires public participation in urban planning, but until now that participation often took the form of a letter in the mail informing residents what the government planned to do rather than involving them. When it came time for Tromsø to plan for the next 30 years, a period in which the city aims to almost double in size, municipal architect Tandi Dahl thought public participation should be a reciprocal process.
“We thought it would be strange if only the municipality would dictate what the future would be about,” says Dahl. “The future should belong to everyone.”
The original plan to canvas the city for public opinion on the new plan included buying a caravan and hosting town hall-style sessions. It was both an expensive and time consuming strategy. Then Dahl heard about My City.
After a few months of fine-tuning, starting in January municipality of Tromsø will host a My City map with elements of the new city plan built in. Residents will be able to comment on the proposed changes, and suggest their own ideas too - a radical departure from letters in mailboxes.
Dahl hopes the model will catch on elsewhere, and “change the practice of how you do public planning.” Already, funding is pending for a transborder My City page that would extend between Kirkenes, and Vardø, in Norway, and Nikel, in Russia. The site is launching its 2.0 version at the same time as the Tromsø page goes online.
The service operates by subscription: smaller municipalities or local private organizations like universities pay My City around $2,000 USD annually to host a custom Google-based map, and reap the rewards of unfiltered feedback from the public. It’s far cheaper than a caravan, but even at a price that is low by government standards it has not been an easy sell so far.
“The most difficult thing is not getting them to buy it, it’s getting them to see the value in it,” says Stepa who is frustrated by the Russian red tape and mystified at the reluctant European market.
So far participation within Russia has been good, with over 6,200 ideas submitted so far, but the team has had trouble breaking into the European market. (Photo: Emma Jarratt)
From the wall to the web
Stepa and co-founder Dennis Kreminsky recently traveled to San Francisco to meet with other technology startups and start to make inroads into the American market. What they found on the other side of the Atlantic still has Stepa raving.
San Francisco, they discovered, actually has a government branch called the Department of Civic Online Engagement.
“I didn’t even know that type of government existed,” Stepa says. “That is the real name of the department.”
Numerous cities across the United States and Canada, such as Toronto, New York, Boston and Vancouver have similar offices.
Stepa’s glee at this institutional support for civic engagement is clear. The concept for My City was born in a country where activism and grassroot movements are not encouraged and often stifled. It actually began, in 2001, in a now defunct creative youth centre: Mr. Pink. The beloved and well-known institution had its funding pulled this year, having suffered long at the hands of indifferent and sometimes even hostile local officials.
“Democracy is not popular in Russia,” he says. “We do think some officials are afraid of giving My City power.”
But even though the program folded, Stepa remembers when he first saw citizen voices in action.
A student working on a project at Mr. Pink tacked a large map of Murmansk to the wall. He invited anyone who came in to post a sticky note on the map with a suggestion for the city.
Stepa lost contact with the student, who doesn’t know he sparked the idea for My City. “It was a huge attraction,” Stepa remembers.
But the map on the wall had limited accessibility. Moving online scaled the concept up to the world stage, where Stepa and the My City team are keen test their service.
“I’m really sure that 99% of the problems in this world, from ruined marriages to wars, is because of a lack of communication.”
The My Murmansk map is riddled with suggestions for improvements to the city. (Photo: My City)