Fixing stuff in cities may just take collaboration and some soup

Posted by Janice Scheckter on 19 May 2016 7:00 AM CAT

Those who have attended any of my talks or been subjected to my overly enthusiastic ranting on collaboration, know my passion for the topic of cities. I fervently believe that citizens can fix broken cities and citizen collaboration can create magic in any city.

My interest tends to lure me into blogs and sites on collaborative cities, which are growing and increasing by the day. I have come across some fabulous initiatives, some with city permissions and some without. While one may expect these to have aspects of vigilantism, surprisingly they don’t.

A project in Iran, which has spread across cities including Teheran, Shiraz and others, is based on the idea of sharing the clothing families no longer need. A painted wall with a simple wash line is prepared. Above the line the words translate to something like, ‘leave it if you don’t need it and take it if you do’ and citizens are invited to contribute clothing no longer required by the household.

In Raleigh, South Carolina, a citizen who calls his project the Guerrilla Wayfinder, has made and erected street pole posters that advise citizens of walking distance to key city places. He’s gone so far as to include information on the destination in a QR Code.

 But here’s the one that recently caught my attention and in part envy – Detroit Soup. The concept is so simple. Citizens are invited to a venue – donated. They pay a $5 entry for soup, bread and salad. They listen to 4 x 4 - minute presentations on a social initiative – presented with no technology. They eat, they discuss and they vote. The winning initiative takes home the collections from the door. The project must be within a defined radius of the soup event.

SOUP is a powerful tool to start conversations, practice democracy and fund new projects/people/ideas in our neighbourhood, community or city. There are many models on how to do it and Detroit SOUP has been able to create its own unique model for the redevelopment, reorganization, re-imagining of our city,’ says founder Amy Kaherl.

I share here an inspirational story of one of the early winners of Detroit Soup, The Empowerment Plan

Citywide SOUP Winner – November 2010

Climbing the stairs to the second floor of the Hernandez Bakery in Southwest Detroit, Veronika Scott had a nervous feeling. At the time, Scott was a student at the College for Creative Studies, where she had recently designed a waterproof coat/sleeping bag hybrid for a class project. Her creation was intended to serve the homeless during the cold Detroit winter. With the encouragement of a professor, Scott mustered the courage to pitch her idea to scale production of the coat to a group of strangers that night at a Detroit SOUP event.

Entering the space on the second floor, Scott was put at ease.

“It was this wonderful, open space. It was very scrapped together, but warm and beautiful. Myself and the other presenters were given capes so the people voting could identify us and ask questions,” she remembers as she sits in a workspace at Ponyride, where a dozen women work intently at humming sewing stations behind her. The scene is the realization of the pitch she made at Detroit SOUP that night just over four years earlier.

“The SOUP pitch was the first time I had ever talked publically about the idea that became the Empowerment Plan,” says Scott.

That idea was never really about developing a product – it was about developing people. Scott’s goal was to create a stepping-stone to financial sustainability for women battling homelessness. She would employ them to sew coats, which would help them develop life and practical skills along the way. At the same time, the women would be creating a product that would help homeless people sleeping on the streets keep warm during the coldest months of the year.

Today the Empowerment Plan employs 25 people, 18 of whom are women working on the sewing floor and producing jacket/sleeping bags, which are distributed to the homeless people in Detroit and around the United States.

But it all started with that Detroit SOUP pitch, for which she was selected by the audience to receive a grant of $720. Though it may not seem like much, the award had immense value, both symbolic and monetary. Scott used the money to invest in new coat prototypes and hire her first employee. It also helped her decide on a career path.

“It was the first vote of confidence that this was something viable,” says Scott. “After SOUP, about six months before I graduated, I had to decide if I would make a portfolio and search for jobs or to follow the momentum of the Empowerment Plan. Most of my classmates were going to New York and working for design firms. Everyone was taught that this was the path. Winning SOUP was a pretty big deal. Without it, I don’t know if I would have been confident enough to continue.”

The Empowerment Plan eventually became the first tenant at Corktown’s Ponyride, what has since become a community of small businesses and social entrepreneurs. It is here where Scott and her team are realizing the vision she set forth in her 2010 Detroit SOUP pitch.

“We wanted to prove that this would work,” says Scott. “It takes a lot of time, but we’re giving people the support network and the time they need to eventually pursue their own passions.”

For more information about The Empowerment Plan,

Matthew Lewis

For more insights into the collaborative era, subscribe to Collaboration Central. 

Janice Scheckter, collaboration activist and co-founder of Indigo New Media, spends at least 20% of every single day thinking about collaborative cities and what can be achieved.

Sources: Matthew Lewis,

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