Is there an empty lot near your house that would make a good playground or community garden? A corner in your neighborhood that has yet to fulfill its potential?
At the southern tip of South America, two young entrepreneurs are setting up a company that aims to support and inspire people who want to improve their neighborhoods from the bottom up.
“Seeing how many good projects aren’t happening for reasons of finance or bureaucracy motivated us to create an easy way for people to pitch their projects, pitch their ideas and really change spaces in the city,” said Marisol García in an interview with ThisisChile.cl.
Originally from Chile but living abroad, García was drawn back to Santiago by the Start-Up Chile program, a government-funded program that is quickly turning Chile into a world-class entrepreneurial hub.
When she heard about the US$40,000 grant, office space in the heart of the capital, and the mentoring, networking and venture capital connections that the program offers entrepreneurs around the world, García contacted long-time friend Krista Canellakis in San Francisco.
“We were living on different continents, and then we heard about Start-Up Chile through a friend of Marisol’s, and she just said: ‘Hey Krista, why don’t we apply for this program?’” Canellakis remembers. “We worked like crazy on Skype for a couple of months to get our proposal together.”
With the Start-Up Chile resources the pair are creating Crowdplaces, a web platform on which people can pitch their ideas for community development and try to raise money to see the projects through to fruition.
Canellakis used the example of a resident seeking to transform an open lot into a community garden. “You can put that idea on our platform and say, ‘I have three neighbors that have said they want to help me with this project, it’s going to cost this much money. This is my plan for taking care of the garden.’” Crowdplaces “will then drive people to the website to fund these projects.”
It’s a financial model called crowdfunding which has gained traction in the United States and Europe in recent years, but is just emerging in Latin America.
“We want crowdfunding to reach people that it hasn’t reached before: people without regular access to the internet and people in lower-income communities that may not be aware of these funding models, but can really benefit from them,” Canellakis says.
However it’s not just their geographic location that makes Crowdplaces unique from other crowdfunding sites. The group’s mission statement places it in the grey area between a commercial operation and social project.
“We are really focusing on urban improvements,” says García. “Many of the [other] platforms are for any type of project or for start-up businesses, but they aren’t really focused on community development or urban development projects.”
“The way it works is that it’s an all-or-nothing model,” Canellakis explained. “You have your project idea and you say it’s going to cost a million pesos – if you don’t raise all of that money then you don’t get any of it. So basically we are only getting paid if projects are successful and are getting all the money to go all the way.”
For every project that is successfully funded Crowdplaces gets 5 percent of the money, and thus, the success of Crowdplaces and the projects it supports are intimately intertwined.
Global scale, local impact
Speaking in the large sunlit foyer of a remodelled heritage building in downtown Santiago, the founders of Crowdplaces are surrounded by successful Start-up Chile applicants. International groups gather at the surrounding coffee tables, discussing business ideas in a multitude of accents, while others sit alone tapping away at laptops or pouring over papers.
“These guys are all entrepreneurs with really different businesses from all over the world,” says Canellakis, “so there is this really amazing and dynamic environment of sharing and learning.
“Being in this environment has really helped us make progress and create a clear vision of what we want. Literally every day we face some huge challenge,” she says, “but being in this environment helps you overcome those issues… it’s a really valuable group of people to be networked with now and I’m sure, into the future.”
The international environment is fitting for a company like Crowdplaces, which has drawn its inspiration from places and people all over the world. It began to take shape when Canellakis and García met at a graduate program for urban design and development at the University College London.
The course got the pair talking about how they could combine their different backgrounds – García’s in architecture and design, Canellakis’s in international relations and communications – toward creating “sustainable, inclusive and participatory cities.”
“Basically we don’t want to reinvent community development,” Canellakis says, “we want to partner with people locally who already know about the local circumstances – people who have ideas and have contacts – we just want to provide them with funds.”
Put simply, the idea is to generate ideas and money on a global scale and apply them to local conditions through local initiatives.
García describes an example of a South African artist who learned how to make paint from moths on the internet.
“I would like to share that idea, which can be applied everywhere,” she says. “But there are some local things that you need to know. How permits work here is totally different from how they work in Cape Town.”
And though the company is based in Santiago for now, and is focusing on generating projects in cities throughout the country, its founders have international ambitions – ambitions that Crowdplaces is accomplishing before the website has even been launched.
In late February, just over a month after they came to Santiago, García and Canellakis were selected as one of 10 entrepreneur teams to attend the “Party to Fix the World,” in Cape Town, South Africa, one of the world’s leading design events.
“The idea is to start in Chile, but we are thinking global, about how we can fund projects from anywhere in the world and how we can raise money from all over the world,” says García.
Crowdplaces will be launched in June. To see the website in progress click here.
By Joe Hinchliffe