Articles by

George Abbott

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    The Knight Cities Challenge was an initiative to surface new ideas to advance the success of the cities where the Knight brothers once owned newspapers. From 2014-2017 the challenge awarded nearly $15 million to 99 winners. Although many projects are just getting underway, we’ve already been able to glean many lessons from the ideas and innovators that it surfaced, which will help to shape Knight’s work in communities into the future.The winners represent a huge variety of projects from musical swings in public spaces to simultaneous shared meals in hundreds of homes, from new zoning overlays to pop-up bike lanes. They are united in that they are all pursuing innovative projects that take them outside their comfort zones in the quest for successful cities.What can we learn from them? What are the lessons for practitioners that we can take from the winning projects?
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    Congratulations to the 33 winners of the 2017 Knight Cities Challenge. This is Knight Foundation’s third year running the challenge in our 26 communities. Each year we have posed a simple question: “What’s your best idea to make cities more successful?” The rules are simple and so is the application process. We want to encourage ideas from anyone with a good idea and the ability to execute it.
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    We didn’t know what to expect when we launched our third Knight Cities Challenge last fall. The response in the first two years was phenomenal; from a total pool of more than 12,000 applications we have named fewer than 70 winning projects. We wondered if civic innovators would bring that same enthusiasm to this round. There is no question that they did that—and more.
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    After more than 25 community events, countless brainstorming sessions, three online office hours and one Facebook Live event the Knight Cities Challenge is now closed. We received more than X applications responding to Knight Foundation’s call for the best ideas to make cities more successful with a focus on talent, opportunity and engagement.I’ve been reading through some of the applications, and I am surprised and delighted with the breadth and depth of the proposals. We have received a huge range of powerful ideas from a diverse group of civic innovators from the 26 Knight communities and beyond.
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    Knight Cities Challenge winners from 2015 and 2016 convene in Philadelphia.  During this contentious election season one theme has remained constant across party lines: an unshakeable belief in the American power to innovate. We at Knight Foundation also believe that good ideas can come from anywhere, and anyone. It’s why we launched the Knight Cities Challenge two years ago, and it’s why we’re bringing back the challenge for its third iteration this fall. Jonathan Morschl, an architect from Akron, Ohio, entered his big idea into the challenge last October. He saw the closure of an underused section of downtown highway as an opportunity to create a new public space for residents and visitors by planning and building a mountain bike park. The Knight Cities Challenge reviewers agreed, and Morschl, who doesn’t even bike, ended up winning $120,000 to make his idea a reality. Suddenly Akron was abuzz and local leaders were pledging their support. After the idea was featured in Fast Company Morschl received tweets, calls and e-mails from strangers offering to donate supplies, money, time and expertise.  That’s the power of good ideas. They pick up momentum quickly, especially if they have a bit of cash and publicity behind them. Since the first challenge opened in 2014, almost 70 projects have shared in $10 million. We’re looking forward to the next round. This fall we’re opening the next Knight Cities Challenge to offer $5 million in grant funding for your best ideas to make the 26 Knight communities more successful. The challenge will open Monday, Oct. 10, and close Thursday, Nov. 3, at knightcities.org. We will announce the winners in spring 2017. 
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    Above: The Pop-up Pools project in Philadelphia was a 2015 Knight Cities Challenge winner. Photo Courtesy The Pop-Up Pool Project. We opened the second round of the Knight Cities Challenge in October with a little trepidation. We had been impressed by the enthusiasm for the first round of the challenge, which attracted more than 7,000 applications. We wondered if there would be the same interest the second time around. We had to turn down so many good projects—there were just 32 winners—we wondered if we would attract the same level of quality ideas. The answer was a resounding yes. While we received “only” 4,500 applications this year, they were of a consistent high quality. We were thrilled with the number of innovative, creative and interesting applications that sought to advance talent, opportunity and engagement, what we see as the three prime drivers of city success. We’re tremendously grateful to everyone who took the time to share their ideas with us. The quality and strategic focus of the pool of applicants shows. After our readers read more than 500 applications each, we named 158 finalists, 32 more than last year. Today we’re proud to announce the 37 winning projects that will share $5 million in funding. The winning projects are located in 19 of the 26 communities where Knight invests. This is a 58 percent increase from the 11 communities that had winning projects last year. We’re particularly excited to see the challenge provoke innovation and new thinking in Knight’s small and midsize markets. The Swings, an interactive musical installation by Daily tous les jours, was a 2015 winner that is touring multiple Knight communities.  The challenge seeks to provide risk capital for new ideas. If projects are successful, we hope other risk-averse investors will provide the winners with access to more funds. A good example of this is the Pop-Up Pool Project in Philadelphia, winner of $297,000 in support from the 2015 Knight Cities Challenge. The Pop-Up Pool Project sought to remake Philadelphia’s public pools as places that brought people together across economic divides. After the pilot site proved successful in summer 2015, the city is considering expanding elements of the project across the entire pool system. Some neighborhoods are even trying to crowd-fund their own pop-ups. This year the average grant size is $134,757, down about $20,000 from last year. Detroit has the highest number of winners with six winning projects ranging from neighborhood story tours by bike, to an engagement project that equips Detroiters with sensors to measure their urban surroundings. Philadelphia will receive the largest share of the funding with four projects for a total of about $875,000.
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    Photo: The Swings, a first-year Knight Cities Challenge winner. For more than a week readers have been taking a first look at the more than 4,500 applications that we received for the Knight Cities Challenge this year. We chose the readers from among Knight community leaders and local and national experts in talent, opportunity and engagement, three factors we believe are vital to the success of cities. The reviewers are reading through the applications and making recommendations on which ideas deserve more exploration as finalists. They are looking for unique, new and innovative projects that can teach us something about making impact in the 26 Knight communities. We value their opinions, expertise and community knowledge; their input is invaluable in helping us make very difficult decisions. Some broad themes are beginning to emerge in this year’s application pool: · Great ideas: Conversations with reviewers, and my own scan of 800 or so applications, has made it clear that there are some fantastic ideas in the Knight cities. Even though there are applications that don’t fit into the criteria of the challenge, bad ideas are rare. · Passionate people: It’s hard to get much across in just 300 words; that’s part of the challenge. One of the things that does come through, however, is the passion of civic innovators to make a difference in their communities. The Knight communities are teeming with passionate, excited civic innovators. · Variety: We received a broad range of applications, with many different approaches to accelerating talent, opportunity and engagement. We’re particularly excited to see applications of all sizes from many communities.
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    Photo by Mycatkins on Flickr. This year’s Knight Cities Challenge is now closed. We received more than 4,400 applications for our call for the best ideas to make cities more successful, with a focus on talent, opportunity and engagement in the 26 Knight communities. Thanks to everyone who applied and who participated in one of the Q&A sessions around the country. An initial scan of the applications reveals many great ideas from a committed and diverse group of civic innovators. Now our team of reviewers will get to work. Every application will be read by at least four people from the review board, which consists of about 50 people from Knight communities, along with experts on cities too. They offer a range of diverse and unique perspectives, and they will use their expertise to make recommendations to Knight staff on potential finalists. If your project is selected as a finalist, you’ll hear from us around the end of the year and you’ll have the month of January to pull together the details for your final application. At that point you’ll need to submit a more detailed application that will include a budget, timeline and specific deliverables. If you applied to the Knight Cities Challenge, again thank you. We appreciate your dedication to making the city you care about more successful. If our cities are to succeed we need civic innovators of all stripes to continue working every day on the projects that they’re passionate about. At Knight we’re lucky enough to meet extraordinary people every day, and sometimes we can even provide funding to support transformational work. I encourage all of you to stay connected with Knight Foundation. We seek to make resources and learning widely available so that you’re able to do your work better. If you see something you’re interested in don’t hesitate to reach out and ask. Look for a follow-up email from us that let’s you know what’s happening in your city. One way to stay up to date with what we’re thinking is to listen to the “Knight Cities” podcast. Every week Carol Coletta, our vice president of community and national initiatives, interviews a civic innovator on their work and how it may be relevant to communities everywhere. We will stay in touch as the review process moves forward. For other updates, please follow @knightfdn and #knightcities on Twitter. We look forward to sharing the group of finalists in January. If you’d like more information, please reach out to me and ask. George Abbott is special assistant to the vice president for community and national initiatives and interim program director for St. Paul at Knight Foundation. He can be reached via email at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @garthurabbott.