Sitting on the porch inside MindMixer's Omaha headquarters.

Courtesy of MindMixer

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Ever Wonder Why Nobody Goes to Town Council Meetings? Meet the Folks Who Are Changing That.

How a tech start-up used a white picket fence as inspiration to upgrade civic engagement.

About the last thing you’d expect to find among the refurbished brick factories and warehouses that stretch north of downtown Omaha, Neb., is a picket-fenced front porch. Especially when it’s inside. And most especially when what it’s inside is the office of a tech startup.

The porch gets plenty of use. People who want to get away from their desks tote their laptops, plunk down in a rocking chair, and enjoy the added amusement of watching their colleagues at work around them. On Friday afternoons, as the workweek ends, they relax with Mason jars of beer before heading home.

It’s a cute addition to office life, but it’s not some ironic 20-something wink at a bygone era. It’s a very earnest wink. And in its own quiet, Midwestern way, it represents a game-changer.

The offices in which the porch sits belong to MindMixer, which creates online platforms for communities to solicit input from residents, give people a chance to bat ideas back and forth, gauge which responses get the most support, and in other ways broaden civic engagement. The company started in 2011 with just two founders and a handful of clients; it now has 35 employees and more than 400 towns, cities, school districts, universities and nonprofits across the country using its software. MindMixer’s immediate goal is practical—to help governments and organizations reach out to constituents. But it’s underpinned by an ideal. “We’re motivated by how to use this tool to rebuild trust and the social fabric that used to live on the front porch,” says co-founder and CEO Nick Bowden.

Starry-eyed as this sounds, it grew out of a frustrated conviction that something is amiss with American democracy. About six years ago, Bowden and his partner in the venture, Nathan Preheim, found themselves on a glum, seven-hour drive home to Omaha. At the time, the two were colleagues at a planning consulting firm, and they’d just led a series of public meetings on a community vision for a small city in rural Kansas. They were young, and had convinced themselves that a bit of cleverness would turn people out. So they spent weeks preparing, running ads in the newspaper and on the radio, coming up with games, walking tours, and other ways to avoid sticking citizens in a room for hour after boring hour. The result? Out of a city of 40,000, just 60 people showed up—spread out over four days.

“We were totally discouraged,” says Bowden. Yet during the long drive home, they decided that the problem wasn’t that people didn’t care—it was that for too many people, the traditional meetings used by towns and cities to gather citizens’ input were broken. People were too busy, too annoyed by having to trek downtown at 7 on a Thursday night for a chance at three minutes at a microphone, and too put off by the gadflies who haunt city council chambers. And in far too many places, governments went through the motions of listening without actually doing what it took to gather the thoughts and ideas of a wide range of people. As Preheim puts it, “If democracy is by the people, for the people, that just wasn’t happening.” There had to be a better way, they agreed, to get ordinary people involved in shaping the places they lived.

Bowden and Preheim were by no means the first people to recognize that civic engagement was desperate for an overhaul. “The whole public hearing, open-mike thing—it hasn’t worked for a long time,” says Karen Thoreson, who runs a project based at Arizona State University called the Alliance for Innovation, which aims to help local governments become more inventive. In fact, an entire cottage industry has grown up over the last few decades aimed at making public deliberation more effective, pushing “deliberative democracy” or study circles or participatory budgeting. What Bowden and Preheim recognized, though, was that by putting engagement efforts online, they could vastly expand their reach.

Bowden, who just turned 30, has been interested in how people shape their communities ever since his team won a Sim City contest when he was in middle school. He went into urban planning right out of college, joined a firm, quickly got tired of working for someone else, and started his own planning outfit, sold it—and then started MindMixer. He is the company’s entrepreneurial public face: outgoing, voluble, earnest, constantly searching for new ways to build online engagement’s reach. “He sold me MindMixer on paper—it didn’t even exist and I bought it from him,” says Stephen Hardy, who at the time ran a planning shop for a large architecture firm that was working on disaster recovery efforts in two communities—but went on to become one of MindMixer’s first employees. “He believes wholeheartedly in the importance of this, and is as skilled as anyone I’ve talked to at finding a way to convince you that you need it tomorrow.”

Preheim, 40, took a more roundabout path. “I’ve had three midlife crises already,” he jokes. He began with a degree in psychology, but was discouraged, he says, because “my outcome was tied to someone’s willingness to make positive change.” He moved on to information technology and several years in the Bay Area tech world, but found that it left him “a little hollow.” So he wound up getting a degree in urban planning. “I like how citizens have the capacity to take their collective thoughts and intelligence and apply them to the betterment of the community,” he says.

The two men are pragmatic. Unlike some other civic-tech startups like Neighborland, which helps ordinary citizens organize for change, MindMixer works through local governments and other formal groups. “We knew that if city leadership and staff were not on board, the likelihood of action was really low,” says Bowden. “Jen Pahlka [founder of Code for America] once said, ‘Government is essentially what we do together that we can’t do alone.’ Things that are oriented toward the broader community will require a partnership with government.” Their model is also good business: Their revenues come from the towns, school districts and organizations that hire them and pay a monthly fee for their services.

One of the company’s earliest clients was the city of Tuscaloosa, Ala., which in 2011 had the stuffing kicked out of it by a mile-wide tornado. The city saw the rebuilding effort as a chance “to reinvent and reinvigorate” its hardest-hit neighborhoods, says John McConnell, Tuscaloosa’s planning director, but to do this it needed to gather the public’s thoughts quickly. Some 4,300 people participated in the online discussion, and chipped in hundreds of ideas—including a notion that seized other Tuscaloosans’ imaginations and that the mayor has gone on to make a signature piece of the rebuilding plan: a greenway, known as City Walk, that follows the path the tornado took, and that ties the previously isolated neighborhoods together. “We were able to gain the input of far more people than we would have using traditional methods,” says McConnell.

MindMixer—and tools like it—is in its infancy. So far, communities are using it mostly to enlist the thoughts of a broader audience—especially people in their 20s, 30s and 40s—than they’ve traditionally reached. Slowly, some are starting to go a bit further afield: San Francisco crowdsourced ideas for improving access to fresh food in the Tenderloin; Los Angeles is gathering information about places its residents consider historically important around the city, from religious sites to restaurants to buildings that reflect the history of Asian-Americans there. “City governments are realizing that the public has the deepest knowledge about hyper-local assets,” says Stephen Hardy. “They can use that knowledge to inform higher-level policy.”

As communities and organizations get more experience with it, they’re finding that MindMixer imposes new ways of doing business that can, at times, prove a burden. “It opens up the audience and allows you to engage much more,” says Josh Hermias, the economic development director at the Georgetown Business Improvement District in Washington, D.C., which is using MindMixer to help plan the neighborhood’s future. “But it’s taxing on the organization to use. You have to have a marketing team around it or people don’t go to it. And then you have to have content constantly going up on it, or there’s a risk it’ll go stale.”

From Bowden and Preheim’s point of view, though, this isn’t a bad thing: Instead of thinking about creatively engaging the public from time to time, now governments and organizations find themselves doing it constantly. In fact, Preheim believes that as the technology evolves, it will drive more fundamental change. “Our aspirations are way beyond community ideation and crowdsourcing solutions to community problems,” he says. “Electing people every two years is really the extent of what’s in citizens’ power today. But we can expose and enlighten them to the idea that they can and should have a more frequent voice.”

It remains to be seen whether citizens take the hint. But they do seem to be responding to what MindMixer offers. “The good news, the best news, is that people care,” says Hardy. “In a world where we’re constantly being bombarded with partisan bickering or a general sense of communal apathy, after a year and a half we’d got a million people who’d been on our sites. That’s a big number. And we expect it to grow. A lot.”

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Rob Gurwitt is a Vermont-based freelance writer who covers state and local issues, public education and how communities deal with change.