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Solving Problems with Civic Tech Likely to Double in 2016: Conversation with Conteneo CEO

By January 25, 2016Article

Editor’s note: Software companies are investing billions of dollars in the civic tech market, says Luke Hohmann, CEO of Conteneo. And the local, state and federal governments adopting these collaborative software solutions to solve problems for citizens is likely to double in 2016, partly due to these governments lacking funding for innovation. Civic tech solutions are a catalyst for not only amazing collaborative results but also fundamental change in the way citizens perceive and engage with their governments. 

Participatory budgeting events, with thousands of citizens collaborating in real time to voice their opinions on budget decisions, are only one of the proven, highly successful examples of civic tech. SandHill has followed Conteneo’s successes in civic tech with participatory budgeting events in San José, Calif. since 2013. A United Nations report endorses urban participatory budgeting events, thus indicating civic tech is a huge global opportunity for innovation. But this is only one example of civic tech. I spoke with Hohmann about civic tech trends and opportunities for software companies. This article shares his insights as an early leader in this space.     

Let’s start with your definition of civic tech. 

Luke HohmannLuke Hohmann: I don’t think anyone has created a good taxonomy of civic tech yet, but I would say there are currently four areas or classes of civic tech:

  • Some civic tech is designed to educate citizens, such as apps that mobilize people to vote or apps such as OpenGov, which makes government spending more visible.
  • Tech designed to improve the efficiency of a government’s delivery of services is another growing category. Examples are apps that identify potholes in roads in Boston or apps that help identify graffiti locations.
  • Some civic tech uses apps to better utilize shared resources. An example is communities using Conteneo’s Decision Engine to mobilize citizens to come together as a community to clean a park, donating their time as opposed to money to get the job done. Another example is an app that helps you find a parking space in downtown San Francisco. That’s part of civic tech because cities are a shared physical space, and the efficient utilization of that space – and achieving fewer pollutants and less gridlock – is part of what makes a city successful for its citizens.
  • The fourth form of civic tech that I’m aware of helps citizens identify improvement opportunities. Communities are using one of Conteneo’s collaboration frameworks called “Prune the Product Tree,” aka “Grow the Tree,” in this effort; and there is an open source platform called Shareabout that integrates a map with ideas from citizens. Several cities, including San José, leverage Shareabout. 

I think the definition of civic tech should remain fairly broad and inclusive because the lines between communities and places that we live, work and play continue to blur. 

What does this mean for the software vendors? 

Luke Hohmann: Billions of dollars are being bet on civic tech. Consider, for instance, IBM’s Smarter Cities movement focusing on understanding traffic flows, water and power and putting in smart lights that shut down on a street until a car is coming and then light up the street as the car arrives. Or Cisco’s experiment in Barcelona that uses IoT technology to manage resources such as water and power. Big software companies such as Cisco, IBM, SAP and Siemens are looking at the technological infrastructure and build-up of cities as trillions of dollars of business. This is going to be enormous, especially in things such as wastewater treatment and how to recycle our water supply, so-called “toilet to tap” recycling. 

In some ways, we’re seeing innovation that I think is beyond what may be capable from traditional venture capital funding. I think the only companies that can pull off some of the needed investments are for-profit entities that have not only massive cash but also the ability to generate and fund things that will take decades to build. 

It seems to me that the ability to automate a process and the growth of sensors in the Internet of Things are both significant enablers of growth in the civic tech market. What are the drivers? 

Luke Hohmann: The primary driver is the need to more efficiently utilize scarce resources – whether these resources be tax dollars, water or city streets. As cities become the dominant way to live, secondary drivers will be quality of life and different (innovative) government services. A third driver is the influence of millennials in the workforce; they demand to get involved in their work and their environment, and this naturally carries over into cities.

Enabling infrastructure includes collaboration techniques that unite, rather than divide.  What’s important here is that people are starting to realize the difference between the broadcast model and true collaboration. Getting 8,000 people together in an online town hall is not a recipe for dialog and action. Taking those 8,000 people and organizing them into 1,000 groups of eight people tackling an issue generates the insights and conversations that lead to action. This is collaboration at scale – large numbers of small groups of people working together to solve a problem.    

That’s where the participatory budgeting events come into the picture. Are there other software players in this space yet? 

Luke Hohmann: Yes. Participatory budgeting has actually been around for years, having started originally in South America. It has proven success and is probably the biggest example of growth in civic tech. Josh Lerner runs the nonprofit Participatory Budgeting Project, and he’s doing a lot of good work. Conteneo has produced participatory budgeting events in San José since 2011, even before San José was committed to civic engagement. So, we’ve been doing this longer than anyone else that we know of in the U.S. This history often surprises people. I think that many people really need to know that it has been done for a while before they get excited about it. 

There is a tremendous amount of excitement building around participatory budgeting. We’re in conversations with the governor’s budget office for Alaska. They’re talking about doing a participatory budget event for the entire state of Alaska, which is $3.5 billion in the hole. We’re also talking with San Antonio, Texas, and other cities about civic engagement and budgeting. And, of course, we’re producing the participatory budget project for the city of San José again in February 2016. The target is 1,000 people in in-person sessions and 50,000 people participating online with our Decision Engine to prioritize how San José should invest the portion of its budget devoted to programs and services that affect San José’s neighborhoods. This is a “zero-based” budgeting opportunity in which the budget allocation from the prior fiscal year will stay the same, but the set of programs and services will change based on resident feedback. 

Are there examples of successful civic tech that occurred before participatory budgeting? 

Luke Hohmann: Yes, in early examples of crowdsourcing. Mothers collecting baby teeth to show radiation in their enamel led to the U.S. government changing its nuclear testing policy. Another example is citizens getting engaged through Amber Alerts to locate abducted children.  

Do you think we’ll see a lot more use of civic tech in 2016 than in 2014-2015, or will it take a few more years for it to really be big? 

Luke Hohmann: I think it will take a little bit longer. I think it will double again in 2016, but I don’t think it will grow faster until probably a year into the next U.S. presidency because of the natural uncertainty that is associated with elections. 

More importantly, we need time to demonstrate the trust needed for citizens to engage with civic tech at the level of core infrastructure and services. What builds trust among a government and its citizens is that the citizens feel the government is meeting their needs. The cycle includes asking citizens, processing feedback and making changes that the citizens can see. The challenge is that when you’re dealing with a city’s infrastructure you’re dealing with issues that have a very long time horizon – much longer than the time horizon associated with a simple software solution. So, for example, we see faster innovation cycles in managing traffic (parking apps, Uber, Lyft) and slower innovation cycles in city pavement (funding). In San José’s participatory budgeting event in 2011, citizens voted to stop the police helicopter program; but it wasn’t stopped until midway in the 2012-2013 budget. 

So, the reality is that we’ll see a lot more civic tech growth and different innovation growth rates. 

So that makes state and federal governments even slower because their budgets for some programs are not annual and they may not implement a program for years. 

Luke Hohmann: Yes, state and federal governments often have slower feedback cycles for these reasons. And it may take years to implement a program. 

But in my experience, when people are given the chance to understand time horizons and implications of choice, they rise to that conceptual level and understand that certain results will take longer. 

When you software-enable things, a process tends to move faster, so the expectation is speed. But civic tech is different, and I don’t think the speed in growth will be exponential. 

I think this is one of those things where you’re not going to see a massive spike in growth, but you’ll see a societal-level change that is going to stick and be around forever. I don’t think it’s much different than recycling our trash. It started slowly, but now most large cities recycle more trash than they put into landfills. It may be slower growing than certain consumer or business innovations, but civic tech is an extremely powerful movement that will last because it holds many benefits for citizens, governments and software companies. 

Luke Hohmann is the founder and CEO of Conteneo, Inc. Conteneo’s multidimensional collaborative frameworks and data analytics help enterprises scale decision making in strategy, innovation, business agility and market research. Luke is also co-founder of Every Voice Engaged Foundation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that helps citizens and governments tackle technical and wicked social problems. Contact him at






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