Murmansk, Russia. March 2012.
An architecture student from Oslo named Jan had just arrived to our remote Arctic city to gather material for his graduate thesis. The young man would eventually become a centerpiece for our story and the starting point of our company.
My friends, who’d been helping Jan get adjusted, asked him to host a short workshop on urbanism and architecture during his spare time in between work. Jan graciously agreed. He gave his talk at a local community center. At the end of the workshop, Jan had a final assignment prepared for his students. He pulled a poster out of his bag, unrolled it, and carefully attached what turned out to be a huge map of Murmansk to the wall.
Once the map was hung, he handed the audience some sticky notes and asked them to write down an idea, a wish, a request, anything at all, for what they wanted to see done in our city. Once they were done, he asked them to place their sticky notes on the map in the spot that their wish related to.
Jan in front of the map
Unfortunately, I missed that workshop. I arrived the next day to the community center and saw this big map filled with ideas:
Exploring those ideas was an unforgettable experience. Some of them were fun, some were weird, some were awesome but unrealistic, and others were pretty simple and feasible.
This is me showing the map on local television. Pretty weird, I know
For a good five or six months after Jan’s workshop, no one took the map off the wall. I watched as it became the center of attention every time a reasonably big audience was at the community center. Whether they were wandering around during a play’s intermission, waiting for a workshop to start, or hanging around after a film screening, everyone who walked past the map stopped to study it. They came to explore others’ ideas, but eventually they started leaving some of their own.
What struck me the most about the map is the quality of the ideas people shared. They were pretty damn good ideas. And the enthusiasm everyone expressed while interacting with the map was phenomenal. It was as though they all had something on their mind and they were finally getting the permission to speak out.
Witnessing the quality of people’s ideas and the positive vibe around the activity inspired us to carry it over to the web. That way we could simplify the process of collecting suggestions and, most importantly, allow way more people to participate.
We started working on the project in our spare time without any big expectations. Just a tiny civic tech project to experiment with.
On March 11, 2013 we launched mymurmansk.com.
MyMurmansk.com, the very first edition
The main goal of our experiment was to introduce a simple tool that would allow the people of our town to speak their minds. A tool for them to communicate what they wanted for the future of the city they were living in.
We wanted to see what would happen. How would people react to it? Would the quality of suggestions change when we changed the medium? Would it be inundated with trolls? These and many other questions troubled our minds at the beginning.
Fast forward two years and this tiny project has turned into a real company. The website we launched in our hometown has became a platform called MyCity which now runs in more than twenty cities, in four countries. Over time it evolved from a simple mapping tool into what we now call a communication platform for connecting residents with their local government. Now, MyCity can become much more than an online tool. Now, MyCity can tackle even bigger challenges.
A lot has happened since then, but our primary goals have remained the same. It’s the scale that has changed. We still want to empower residents with a simple tool that lets them speak their mind, lets their voices be heard, and, ultimately, allows them to influence the future of their cities.
Those are pretty ambitious goals. And there are a lot of challenges ahead of us. But we sure are excited to solve them. It’s going to be an amazing journey.
By the way, I never got a chance to thank Jan for his inspiration. Jan, if you’re reading this – thank you.