Dan Parham, Founder & CEO of Neighborland, on the future of community participation
In founding Neighborland, Dan Parham’s mission is to empower people to shape the development of their neighborhoods. By sharing ideas, votes, and resources, Neighborland gives users a tool specifically for civic engagement.
A communications platform and social enterprise that empowers civic organizations to collaborate with stakeholders in an “accessible, participatory, and equitable way,” Neighborland has worked with over 200 civic organizations including city agencies, universities, foundations, and local non-profits.
“If you think the world is perfect, then don’t worry about getting engaged,” said Parham. “But if you want to see things improve, the only thing to do besides work for the government is to get engaged. We want people to realize that this is really their space.”
Public space is difficult to design for, Parham explained, because creative control decides what you’re allowed to do: “Existing processes and institutions are tough to overcome; the city owns the space, and represents the residents.”
“Everyone feels like they have a stake in it — and they do. And that’s what makes it difficult, from a design perspective,” Parham said. “It’s hard designing for everyone. How are you going to be representative, qualitatively and quantitatively?”
He noted that the result is often “lowest common denominator design” borne of egalitarian ideals — but that the process could be more inclusive and creative.
“If you want to design a public space successfully, you need broad-based, diverse, and representative input from the community,” said Parham. “But how do you actually collect that data, now, in 2016? We have a theory: Meet people in public spaces, give them stickers, collect data, get it online, where you can reach 10–100x more people — and you do.”
Organizations using Neighborland services often reach 10–100x engagement on their projects compared to traditional outreach methods, like in-person meetings and surveys.
Projects on Neighborland, which hosts hundreds of public input processes, have yielded over $100m in social and economic impact to date. Over 1,000,000 U.S. residents having participated on Neighborland projects so far.
Neighborland tends not to work with already high-performing communities; rather, they aim to help residents in struggling neighborhoods to take control of where they live.
“We want to give them a voice in a process they are typically not invited to participate in,” Parham said. “We want to make the process equitable.”