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The real estate industry has become amazing as more people are collaborating their technology and industries into it to make it work better for the people. Neil Takemoto, the Cofounder of CSPM Group, recounts how he came up with the breakthrough that is crowdsourced placemaking, which is the act of outsourcing tasks, traditionally performed by a real estate development entity, to a community of people with shared values to create a place they’re enthusiastic about. He shares his point of view on the benefits of democratization of real estate development, and also discusses revitalization and community wealth-being which are two promising concepts in community real estate. Learn more about how crowdsourcing can be applied to placemaking in this interesting episode.

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Managing A Crowdsourced Placemaking Program with Neil Takemoto

I’m here with Neil Takemoto, the Founder of Crowdsourced Placemaking. Neil, thanks so much for joining us.

Thanks for having me on.

Full disclosure, we actually met a couple of years ago at a Social Impact, SOCAP-type of event and we started talking about real estate and impact a long time ago. We haven’t worked together formally yet, but we actually have been crossing paths and crisscrossing in this space for a while. It’s nice to have you on the show. Thanks for making the time.

I appreciate it. Thanks.

You’re doing some cool work in terms of Crowdsourced Placemaking, which is its own term to unpack a little bit. Tell me a little bit about what Crowdsource Placemaking is and how you got involved in it. I know there’s something to do with architecture and urban planning, but it’s way more robust than that. Can you talk a little bit about how you founded this company?

Architecture is my degree in school and then I had an interest in architecture, but it was about placemaking, about trading places, creating neighborhoods. I always felt like I wanted to do something more impactful and something on a neighborhood scale which was something that appealed to me. That’s where placemaking comes in. The crowdsourcing part of it came in when the more I learned about placemaking, the built environment that we live in is predominantly created institutionally. A lot of the places we have, our shopping mall, subdivisions, large office buildings. It’s not since the 1920s and 1930s that we had this walkable human scale of neighborhoods that a lot of people actually want to live in and are the highest value per square foot places in the world. A way to accelerate getting places built that people actually wanted, this is where the crowdsourcing part of it came in. I started to spend more time on understanding how can we apply crowdsourcing to placemaking and that’s where I’m at right now.

It makes me think of a friend of mine who I’ve got to introduce you to. His name is Ivan Shumkov and he is doing crowdsourced architectural designs. He runs these contests for different companies and organizations, including the United Nations. When they say, “We want to do a planned community of this size or this way,” he puts it out and he says, “It needs to be presented to us and get with these specs, but the best one’s going to win and we’re going to implement it.” Anybody who knows how to draft and wants to take a stab at it can submit their designs. They’ll often get 2,000 different designs for a building or for a community all from people who hear about it and they want to, “This is my vision for it.” All the way from architecture to how people exist in those spaces is becoming more and more decentralized.

It’s all about democratizing development for people. If you walk down your neighborhood, you can identify each building as what developer built it. There’s only a handful of developers that build about everything in your neighborhood. We’re moving to a system eventually where we’re shifting towards that with hospitality, with Airbnb and transportation with Uber and scooters and Bikeshare. We’re going to see that more in real estate development where neighborhoods, residents and people of interest can actually get together and develop collectively, co-invest in their own developments and buildings. Developers are going to become more like contractors that we see now.

They’re like vendors in a way. Its like, “We need you to execute on this thing, but we actually are the ones driving the vision of it and the mission of it.”

There’s no reason why a handful of business people should be developing the majority of the places that we live in and play in. That’s what is self-evident and it’s great that we’re not having systems such as Rise Markets that are actually coming to beta. It is going to allow people to actually seriously have a play in co-developing their own places.

That’s where we overlap. When you say co-invest, the easiest thing I can do is make the money part of that work because every community is going to want to steward their own community differently. They’re giving them the tools and putting the pipes in place so they can decide how they want the occupancy, rents, ownership and those structures to go. They’re at least empowered with the ability to determine that. You actually get to know what do these communities want because otherwise it’s the assumptions of a handful of developers like you said. It would be nice to see them render it as more vendors then visionaries.

The other major benefit of the democratization of real estate development is that you hear a lot of talk about gentrification. The main negative about gentrification is that a few developers will come into the neighborhood and develop most of what is new. Any profit that’s made over the appreciation of those buildings goes back to that handful of developers and that’s the problem with gentrification. Whereas if the community had actually co-developed these buildings together and those buildings increased in desirability and that’s property value, they benefit and increase their net worth. That’s no longer to gentrification. That’s revitalization in community wealth-building.

Those are two great terms, but that’s what you’re going for with Crowdsourced Placemaking. It’s to see things become reflective and regenerative to the communities that they‘re operating at. Things have to be reflecting themselves rather than reflecting the interests of very few. I guess that’s where our overlap came with blockchain. I see that with blockchain, we have the opportunity to create these very powerful financial tools that can truly benefit all in an equal way that can’t be messed with. They can’t be like, “If you can’t afford a lawyer to enforce your contract, then too bad for you but this developer can, and they’re going to win in court.” A smart contract takes care of some of that stuff. That’s where you and I got together where I was like, I love what you’re doing in terms of application. I’ve got this tool over here that could expedite some of that for you.” You keep talking to people and I’m going to give them tools for this stuff. You were talking a little bit about some other tools that have a lot to do with community formation and governance. You used a term called community flow.

When I’m interfacing with the people who are building these crowdfunding, crowd investment platforms, the one thing they kept saying is, “We have this beautiful, amazing project. It’s very community-serving. We’d find conscious development groups that perhaps will pull together and go and put this together.” Once they put it on the platform to be invested in, they have a hard time getting people to trust or to invest or to contribute. They kept saying, “We wish we had a component beforehand where the committee was able to coalesce and co-create and be part of the shaping of it. By the time it came to investment, there was a global trust involved. They weren’t part of the process. What I do is actually is creating that process where I’ve helped 10,000 people register across seven different communities to actually help develop the master plan for a neighborhood revitalization with conscious developers.

Where was this project?

These were in Long Island. We had a couple of efforts in New Hampshire.

It’s all in the northeast.

Also Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Part of what was needed is understanding where people were at before we even actually started saying, “Here’s what we’re building, let’s invest in it.” We need to understand where they’re at because there was a lack of trust in anyone coming in to invest in anything in their neighborhood thinking that, “Yes, we know what’s going to happen. You’re going to invest in our neighborhood, take all the profits and then we’re going to be displaced. We’re not helping you to shape our destiny.” There’s a new movement around something called sense-making, which is around understanding where people are at, giving them the information about where they’re at and where their interests and priorities are. Letting them make sense of that, identifying who the leaders are, say for measuring belonging. Who are the people in the neighborhood at the forefront of belonging and understanding belonging or really creating belonging in the community?

We support those groups in terms of, “How do we create further belonging? Is it a community center? Is it a recreation center for kids? Are there more events? Do we need places for people that they’re gathering together to eat? Do we need certain kinds of services? Do we need more affordable housing that have certain amenities? These are the things that we help the communities become developers for. When people understand whether they’re psychologically and emotionally apt and what kinds of things they’re willing to invest in, and then we help shape the kinds of buildings and services that they want to invest in. The question then becomes, “How do we actually invest? How do I get my friends and family and people?”

Because now I’ve actually had a voice in what I want now and where I want to be involved.

Rather than the platform or the group saying, “Would you please invest in this idea we created?” The people are then asking, “Now that we have this idea that we created, how can we capitalize it?” That’s where these platforms come in.

In terms of next steps in what you’re doing at Crowdsourced Placemaking, I know you’ve been involved with several different groups. You’re always doing projects mostly northeast, but also around the country. Are there any exciting projects that have been capturing your attention lately, that you’ve been highly involved in and some of the milestones that you’ve been reaching with a lot of these tools?

It is going to be involved in creating pilots and prototypes or examples of actually applying fractional ownership and tokenization and democratize ownership into a building. We’ve had a conversation with our next generation developer who was actually an attorney who was never developed. That’s a good thing. She understands the legal behind what it takes to actually create democratize ownership and investment, which in many ways has not been illegal or allowed up until lately. That’s all shifting. There’s a development in Michigan. It’s a 50,000 square foot building.

I love this development. I’m so glad you brought it up. It’s in Traverse City.

It’s a 500-member co-op with tenant owners, including nonprofits and affordable housing. That’s one example. Then another example was understanding where people are emotionally and psychologically at and allowing them to self–organize. We’ve been talking to them about pioneering this “sense-making” or emergence tool. We’re also pioneering this because it does not exist in the US yet. We’re also looking to pioneer this in a Montessori school where the students on a daily basis already have this self–organizing mindset. We’re going to pioneer this technology with the kids, teach them how to use it and then they were actually going to teach the adults in their neighborhood how to use that. Then we actually create a training program out of that. What’s exciting about that is a lot of this self–organizing, emerging thinking isn’t something we grew up in. We grew up in environments where we’re taught things in a rote.

It’s 25 of us in the classroom, sometimes 30 with one teacher talking to us with a board and that was supposed to do it.

We’re so not used to that. We’ve felt like we need to actually pioneer this with kids and especially kids that are pioneering education. For example, our Montessori program. This is where we’re pioneering that. And then,

Where’s the Montessori program located?

It’s in Washington, DC. One group I’m working with I’m going to go on and limb and say is that there is an organization that has organized or inspired a crowdsourced city of 70,000 people from scratch in the middle of nowhere. That’s known as Burning Man and there’s a lot of academic practitioners, people pioneering new technologies in terms of co-creation and democratized participation. We actually go to Burning Man to actually study how the science of it. I’m working with the people behind that whole initiative in thinking and mindset to actually further this movement.

I wonder what’s going to fall out of something that’s already been able to crowdsource at a place of 70,000 people. That’s the blowing the numbers up to be much bigger than what they’ve been on projects that you’ve worked on before. That’s exciting to see. I would love to actually bring you back on the show after you have some more updates along the way how these projects are coming to fruition. It sounds like as much as you’ve been at this for a while, it’s early days when it comes to this taking hold and becoming a real model for how communities get formed and communities are able to steward themselves. Your environment is the suburban environment.

There’s a word we use a lot called the emergence. It’s higher order complexity arising out of chaos and simple interactions. It’s basically how we as humans just group ourselves. How does that happen? It just emerges by if you have the right structure involved that you can actually encourage emergence. What we’re trying to do is create the structures to allow that to happen and this is where we’re going to see communities revitalize themselves. We give them the framework for a lot of them to emerge. This is why the tools for democratized capital is so important, is that if those tools are not available, then the fantastic ideas and brilliance that they have inherent in their themselves are not going to be allowed to emerge. They much less emerge collectively in a group in a self–organized way.

It’s putting the structure up, putting up the walls or at least the beams so people can go, “This is what we’re going to build and emerge within it.” Without those structures there, they don’t even necessarily know how much agency they could take on.

One thing I do want to say is that as far as next steps, and this is something you’re aware of, is there’s a gathering of people that are at the forefront of this emergent thought and we’re meeting in an event organized by the folks who organize Burning Man. These are for people who are actually heavily invested in creating these systems, from developers to tools to platforms, to thinkers, to impact investors. That is open to people who actually share that investment mentality and vision. I want to put that out there.

There’s going to be time for people to hear this and potentially learn more about it. People can hopefully see more about it if they want to be involved. If Placemaking is a big thing to them or if they want to see the opportunities that blockchain can bring to communities. This is actually real life. You’re not like running a blockchain company at all. I’ve interviewed so many blockchain companies, CEOs they’ve done this or that and they understand all those smart contracts and they get deep into technology. I’m like, “Can we tell another story maybe so people can relate to you?” With you, it’s the opposite. You’re doing community work and you’re picking the best tools and you happen to see the tool of blockchain has got a great application. It’s so nice to showcase the work you’re doing and what we’re going to be able to enable with technology.

Our work is dependent on blockchain technology. We’re not a blockchain company, but in order to do the things we’re doing, we need the blockchain technology to actually advance to the point of actually being applicable in day–to–day transactions such as community investment.

I’m so excited about what the future is going to bring for you and I can’t wait to watch what happens with your various projects. We’ll bring you back on and once you’ve hit some milestones you say, I’m ready to tell you about this or that and pull the curtain back. I’d love to hear more about your projects. I’m so appreciative that you could take the time. Thank you for being on the show and for talking about the communities that you’re helping to steward. I want to make sure that everybody knows, if you want to learn more about what Neil’s doing, please find him on social. He’s all over the place. In my experience, he has always been an open door to connecting people and helping communities and people grow their vision for a better future. Thank you so much, Neil. I appreciate your time.

Thank you so much, Monika. It has been great. Thanks.

This is Monika Proffitt and Neil Takemoto signing off on the New Trust Economy. We’ll catch you in the next episode. Thank you.

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About Neil Takemoto

Neil Takemoto is a co-founder of CSPM Group, a consulting firm that applies crowdsourcing to planning and real estate development (crowdsourced placemaking). CSPM Group manages crowdsourced placemaking programs in multiple downtown revitalization projects including: urban redevelopment and revitalization in Hempstead, Huntington Station and Riverside, Long Island, NY, and New Rochelle, NY and a comprehensive plan in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. You can watch his presentation on crowdsourced placemaking here, and an early TEDx presentation here.

Previously, he is the founder and CEO of Cooltown Beta Communities, a firm that pioneered the field of crowdsourced placemaking, encompassing his work over the last 19 years that has been committed to developing destinations with significant economic, environmental and social benefit.

He is the founder of Cooltown Studios, a crowdsourced placemaking blog/news site that attracts 40,000 unique visitors a month. It has been featured in Architect Magazine and the ULI’s annual developers conference. He is also the co-founder of Bubbly, a crowdsourcing web application.

With Andres Duany, Neil co-founded the National Town Builders Association in 1997, the only business trade group of Smart Growth/New Urbanism real estate developers. Prior to that, he founded a national nonprofit educational clearinghouse for the New Urbanism field.