What’s “civic tech” got to do with a cheap Buddha statue that managed to stop people from dumping trash on a city street? Civic tech, after all, is technology used for civic benefits that usually entails data and software.
I thought of civic tech while I listened to the Buddha story on an episode of the Criminal podcast. “He’s Still Neutral” told a series of stories about what I suppose could be called “city hacks” — which sounds to me like the soul of civic tech.
Civic tech usually comes from the ground up. Unlike top-down, enterprise-scale smart cities laid upon cities by the likes of Google, Siemens, and Cisco, most civic tech is the work of lone coders and small ad hoc groups. These loners and groups see a problem and do what they can do fix it. Compared with the big guys, they work fast and loose, with little money.
The Buddha was done in the same spirit by homeowner Dan Stevenson. Even before placing the Buddha, Stevenson didn’t call the cops but instead negotiated one-to-one. He said, “I would probably trust a drug dealer more than I’d trust a cop.” The cops, he says, don’t seem able to deal with problems with common sense. “They have to come in with an army over someone selling drugs.”
The Buddha did it
The Buddha did have a good effect. The garbage stopped at the traffic diverter close to Stevenson’s house. Before, one pile of trash seemed to prompt more. So Dan Stevenson and his wife bought a Buddha at a local Ace Hardware. After about four months, someone painted it white. Soon after, someone placed an orange, then two, then gifts, then it was put on a pedestal, then given a house. Today, Stevenson calls “him” a “really top-drawer, cool looking Buddha.” Then Vietnamese Buddhists started gathering at the Buddha to pray. Dan has counted 70. Meanwhile, the drug dealing and prostitution disappeared completely.
Interviewer Phoebe Judge asked him, “Are you allowed to do this?” Stevenson chuckled. “It’s best not to ask before you do things because [the answer] is always no.”
A more under-the-radar project is by Guerrilla Grafters, a group across the bay in San Francisco. They graft fruit-bearing cuttings onto non-bearing, city-planted ornamental trees. The cuttings take hold and in time they bear fruit that’s free for picking and eating.
Parklets and fruit bearing limbs
Then there were the people who started parklets, a tiny public park made by extending the sidewalk into a parking place. The first one was in San Francisco, just sod rolled out and the parking meter fed every day, all day.
Most city hacks, and civic tech projects, get no permission. And many are discouraged. Many of the great discoveries throughout history never got permission to begin. The visionaries, the creative ones, the crazy ones go at it anyway. Many times they’re on to something, and then we’re all better off for it.
I heard these stories on an excellent podcast called Criminal, the episode “He’s Still Neutral.” Every podcast fan should try Criminal.