Becoming a Local

For the past four years, I have been working as a researcher. Some people think they know what that means: a lot of reading, thinking, writing (and then repeat). But, you might not know that this actually means I get to (1) create and manage research projects (including budgets, schedules, workplans, and MOUs), (2) hire and mentor research assistants, (3) work with a wide variety of stakeholders to collect and analyze data, (4) apply for grants and fellowships to fund research expenses, and (5) communicate findings to lay and academic audiences. It’s a dynamic job where each day I get to find and create knowledge that helps others make sense of their work and relationships.

My research focuses on infrastructure delivery; specifically, on the stakeholder relationships, contracts, and financing/funding strategies that bring infrastructure projects from concept to construction. It is something that every community throughout the world must think about; and, I have been fortunate enough to work and research projects in Africa, Latin America, Asia, Europe, and North America. While I have written about large projects with lots of stakeholders and millions of dollars of investment, my favorite work has brought me to communities that are a little less recognized and projects that are a little less famous.

Every summer for the past three years, I have integrated myself in communities that have crowdfunded their own infrastructure projects. My dissertation is focusing on how local community leaders use crowdfunding platforms to deliver infrastructure projects. I go to these communities for at least two months to understand the impact of crowdfunding projects we generally believe should be delivered using tax dollars. To really understand the context and impact of using crowdfunding, I spend a lot of time interviewing people, both formally and informally. Most times, I email project stakeholders hoping they will spare an hour of their time. Other times, I meet community members at public meetings, art walks, pop-up restaurants, city-wide bike nights, local business nights, and community fairs. It’s a process that is all consuming. In just a couple months I must transition from being an outsider to a local resident. By comparing these experiences within and between communities, I get a better understanding of crowdfunding’s implication for infrastructure delivery.

This research requires me to learn about many different topics: multimodal transportation, equity in transportation, equitable development, public participation, community identity, race relations, economic development, partnership models, contract creation, community finance, equity shareholding, power dynamics, etc. These topics emerge from analyzing interview notes and transcriptions. I have heard about a business owner who sacrificed his own salary to make sure his employees got paid, a local oil company that invested in city-wide bike infrastructure, a previous convict who became a local entrepreneur and taught young men and women new skills, families that moved to underprivileged areas for the sole purpose of helping to build community instead of replace it, an architect who volunteered countless hours bringing community groups together to build public spaces. I could go on and on. Many of these stories sit in pages of research documents, oftentimes adding color to the papers I write. During the writing process, I feel obligated to do justice by these individuals who have entrusted me with their stories. And, if it all goes right, I get to paint a picture of how an idea of a project became much more than a new piece of infrastructure. I get to talk about how these projects serve and transform their communities by increasing connectivity, improving safety, and catalyzing the local economy.  

After two summers of doing this work in the United States, I decided to come to London where I am now living and conducting similar research. In 2013, the Mayor of London’s Office established Crowdfund London which sets money aside for projects that are being crowdfunded in London. This summer, the Mayor’s Office is holding it’s fifth round of Crowdfund London, where community leaders can launch crowdfunding campaigns and attract additional funding from the Mayor of London. As part of this work, I get to learn more about grassroots activism in London and the important role it is playing in shaping the built environment.