Civic Innovation Challenge: Civic Research Collaboratives Making Real Local Impact

As the world grapples with infrastructure and development gaps that the COVID-19 pandemic has made more apparent, it has become important for academics and local communities to form strategic alliances. Now more than ever, we need stakeholders cut from different strata of society working together to find multi-pronged, actionable solutions to the challenges threatening lives and livelihoods across local communities in the U.S. and beyond.

At its core, the Civic Innovation Challenge (CIVIC) is a long-overdue multi-sectoral partnership opportunity for academics, community groups, and local civic organizations to pool ideas and resources that tackle the wicked problems facing local communities across the United States of America. 52 of these partnerships were funded in Stage 1 of CIVIC, and 17 of those teams now continue into Stage 2 with $1 million each to implement their proposals.

MetroLab Network values the National Science Foundation’s community-centered approach to funding innovative, research-based projects through CIVIC. Novel for federal government research procurement, NSF has not only provided a pathway for meaningful civic research projects to take seed, but it models its own values by engaging its peer federal agencies in collaborating and iterating on the program. In the first CIVIC cohort, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Department of Energy both stood alongside the NSF to demonstrate the equal value placed on both the practical and academic merits of the projects.

The announcement of these 17 awardees furthers MetroLab Network’s vision of cultivating long-standing civic-university collaborations to drive innovative, research-based, policies and projects that support our residents and neighbors in our local communities. These projects stand out from the typical “town-gown” relationship that researchers often have with their local communities because they all ensure that community values and priorities are not merely “woven into” research, data, technology, or design solutions, but are instead the primary drivers at every point of the civic research process. Each of the awardee teams has spent significant time cultivating their collaborative, instilling trust in one another as both research partners and as local community support networks.

Centering communities at the development, planning, and implementation of a project avoids the lapse of combatting complex problems with surface-level fixes. Doing the work of ensuring that solutions are meaningful to all collaborating stakeholders — from the researcher to the local government implementer to the community member alike — is the key to bringing civic-university collaborations from transactional to transformative.

Dr. Kimberly D. Lucas, the Interim Executive Director of MetroLab Network, shares that MetroLab “is excited to be a part of the Stage 2 awardees’ journey because their projects amplify our organization’s unique strategy of nurturing relationships between civic partners, researchers, and governments to gain diverse perspectives about civic challenges and design best-in-class, research- and data-informed solutions that will tackle those problems from social, structural, and political angles.” They note further that “the awardees, by achieving this phenomenal feat, have positioned themselves as pacesetters within the civic research space, and their work will continue to form the basis upon which subsequent community-driven and civic-minded projects are built.”

As we celebrate the 17 $1m awardees, we simultaneously celebrate the fact that this is just the beginning of a new wave of civic research projects that will have a direct impact on our local residents and neighbors. We are currently running a program that will determine the funding priorities for the next wave of CIVIC, called the CIVIC Ideas Festival. This three week festival seeks to source and understand the broad and narrow issues that communities from across the U.S. are experiencing now. We know it takes all kinds to address our thorniest issues — and we are excited that the Civic Innovation Challenge has launched this second Ideas Fest to create the time, space, and funding for collaborative teams to do this incredibly important work.

We’re excited to see the great things that our 17 awardee teams are doing with their $1m. Now, we want to know: from transportation to housing to child care to small business needs and more, what would your community do if it had $1m? Let us know before submissions close on Friday, 10/29: https://nsfcivicinnovation.org/ideas-festival/.

To learn more about the Civic Innovation Challenge and read all about the Stage 2 awardees, visit www.nsfcivicinnovation.org. To submit an idea to the Ideas Festival, visit https://nsfcivicinnovation.org/ideas-festival/. Submissions are due on October 29th! For more information about MetroLab Network and to stay abreast of civic innovation updates, connect online at www.metrolabnetwork.org.

Elias Gbadamosi is civic research communications manager for Metrolab Network, responsible for the organization’s communication, outreach and engagement programs. His work and interests converge at the intersection of civic communication, civic engagement and policy research.

Josh Schacht is the director of technology and strategy at MetroLab Network. He works to support MetroLab members and the civic research community as a whole in promoting evidence-based policy and local community engagement. Prior to his role at MetroLab, Josh was a solutions architect on the Master Data Management team at Katerra, working to leverage sustainable building materials to create efficient and affordable housing.

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