Santa Cruz’s Robert Singleton (left) and Manu Koenig will showcase their start-up’s attempt to find new solutions for problems across the political landscape at Civinomicon Nov. 15-17.
People were coughing swear words into their hands and yelling at one another outright. One city councilwoman referred to some of the public’s concerns as “idiotic.” And a homeless advocate with a penchant for Nazi salutes was roaming the city council chambers making side comments to anyone who would listen. It was just an especially bad Santa Cruz City Council meeting.
“That was very, very uncomfortable. That was the most uncomfortable public meeting I’ve ever sat through,” says Robert Singleton, co-founder of Civinomics, who later wrote a blog post “Bullshit and Bathrobes: The State of Our Civic Discourse” about the experience.
On the council agenda that night, Sept. 24, were an extension of the downtown no-smoking zone and proposed regulations for street vendors and performers, which passed 5-2, and Singleton thinks the anger level in the room may have affected the outcome.
“The crowd was incredibly rude and loud and booing at certain points,” 23-year-old Singleton says. “If that’s going to be the state of our civic discourse in order to gain attention and ultimately shoot yourselves in the foot, like what happened at the government level with government shutdown, it’s really depressing.”
Singleton and Civinomics CEO Manu Koenig are trying to take city discussions in a different direction. Their startup tech company is hosting an event they’re calling Civinomicon, which sold out early—Singleton and Koenig already raised the capacity three times to 125 people.
The free three-day weekend event kicks off Nov. 15 with Santa Cruz County treasurer Fred Keeley as a keynote speaker, followed by county supervisor Zach Friend on Saturday and Mayor Hilary Bryant on Sunday. Six out of seven city councilmembers—all except vice-mayor Lynn Robinson—will also attend.
Koenig and Singleton are splitting the conference, which will be held at Cruzioworks in downtown Santa Cruz, into a series of small group discussions led by city and county staff. Every comment and presentation from the event will be saved and posted online. People who aren’t at the event can comment on the ideas and vote on them on Civinomics.com. Then at the end, every attendee will have a chance to make a case for solutions to city problems.
“Say your solution to homelessness—this is an example—is affordable housing: basically tell me the who, what, where, when and how,” Singleton says. “Who’s going to sponsor it? How is it going to be paid for? Who’s going to govern it? Where’s it going to go? What groups are you going to be talking to? Why are you doing it in this way? What case studies are you building off? And you have five minutes to pitch this, live-streaming, to the entire community.”
The event reflects what Koenig and Singleton are trying to do every day on Civinomics.com—get new ideas from everyday people for fixing old problems. Visitors to their site can post suggestions for how to improve Highway 1 or prevent dire water shortages.
“If you drive on the same road every day going to and from work, you probably know that road pretty damn well—probably more so than the staff person designated to allocate transportation funding—and your perspective is valuable,” Singleton says. “If there’s not an outlet for you to give it, that information is lost. Right now, the way public meetings work is often times they’re hostile—very much so.”
If all goes according to plan, the two young techies from Santa Cruz will be making good things in the county happen very soon.
“What we really want to do is accelerate the process by which the good ideas are implemented, and we think the way to do that is to make discussion about them,” Koenig says. “Rather than making them happen behind closed doors with task forces, study groups. People are only going to be interested in us if we can have an effect on the real world.”