GOOD Ideas for Cities: How CityPulse Plans to Put St. Louis On the Map

Less than 5% of social impact concepts are ever implemented. One St. Louis collective shows how they're fighting those odds.

When GOOD Ideas for Cities headed to St. Louis, it met with a city in the midst of rebuilding its identity. Once one of the biggest cities in the world, St. Louis now fights a reputation as a dangerous urban area, hinting at its past glamour through the remaining infrastructure left over from the 1904 World's Fair. Fortunately, many of its citizens are incredibly driven to change that perception. "So many people see it as a fly-over city past its hey day, but St. Louis has this incredible creative scene," says Tara Pham, one of the recent college graduates who comprise Brain Drain, a local collective whose name is inspired by the propensity of recent college grads to flee the city in favor of the coast, taking their talent and enthusiasm with them. As one of the seven teams who presented at GOOD Ideas for Cities St Louis, Brain Drain has blown everyone away with not only an ingenious idea for the city, but a plan to get it implanted in two years.

Brain Drain presented their concept at the St. Louis event in March

"We were given the challenge of addressing how to attract and retain human capital for the St. Louis region, all while harnessing the skills and passion already within the population to improve the quality of life," explains Pham. Brain Drain introduced CityPulse, a citywide network of beacons that serve as pedestrian lighting while detecting and reporting street-level activity. Located in areas of high foot traffic, the beacons glow brighter as they are approached. The resulting pedestrian motion data is displayed on the CityPulse Map, accessed by your digital device. With this information, the local community can find popular events in their area by clicking on the brightest glowing nodes. Such information could lead to the discovery of a new coffee shop or concert venue.

"You could spend an entire week in Chicago and never leave the downtown area," says Patrick Brown, an assistant in the St. Louis Mayor's office where he manages a program that engages young people in city-wide decision making. "St. Louis isn't like that. But in the past ten years, its had a major resurgence. CityPulse could help people who are not sure where activity is happening. It could be immediately utilized and a game changer for how people perceive St. Louis."

Brain Drain presents their concept to Washington University president Hank Webber and Mayor Francis Slay. Photo by Joel Conner

"I believe CityPulse could put St. Louis on maps it hasn't been on before," remarked Mayor Francis G. Slay after the presentation. With a website, branding and business cards, Brain Drain made themselves easily identifiable and approachable at the event, drumming up support long after their presentation.

Where so many other initiative-driven groups lose steam, Brain Drain didn't even come up for air. After the GOOD Ideas for Cities event, Brain Drain set to creating the CityPulse website and sent out a press statements to every blog and publication concerned with urban life and walkability. They reached out to local press and beyond, soon finding that they were receiving interest from cities around the country. The collective's breakneck speed and utter commitment was so impressive that global architecture firm and co-host HOK as well as local partners the Regional Arts Commission, and AIGA St Louis selected the idea to receive implementation support. Brain Drain will give a follow-up presentation discussing all of their progress as part of a St. Louis Design Week event on September 26.

Pham recognizes that the enthusiasm exhibited by the members of Brain Drain partially comes from youth; the average age of the collective is 23.3. "Often these types of solutions are developed by teams of people who are already very busy and committed to other things. Our advantage is that we're all single, young 20-somethings with no other commitments." When it came to maintaining momentum after their presentation of CityPulse, Brain Drain's young energy kept them going. "We're lucky in that we are young and inexperienced. Our naiveté keeps us going and endears us to a lot of locals that might've doubted us at first. We're all friends so we know how to support each other." Brown also recognizes that Brain Drain might be the city's greatest cheerleaders: "They are fully dedicated to [CityPulse]. They made it their number one priority for the four weeks leading up to their presentation. They were having multiple meetings in a single day."

Though Brain Drain makes it look easy, implementing a solution is where so many change makers get bogged down. Coming up with the idea is no sweat compared to the reality of following through. "There is no shortage of great social impact concepts generated from the creative community, but less than 5% ever get implemented because they lack an entrepreneurial plan," says Andréa Pellegrino, a New York City-based consultant who was engaged by the Regional Arts Commission, HOK and AIGA St. Louis to help Brain Drain transform CityPulse from concept to reality. Though providing assistance with research, budget development and communications, Pellegrino recognizes Brain Drain's unrelenting drive.

"You have a group of incredibly smart and creative young professionals with diverse talents who are unencumbered by how things are, and have a clear vision and enthusiasm for how things can be better," remarks Pellegrino. "They've conceived a project that's all about human interaction and engages civic leaders, businesses, educational institutions and diverse local communities and has potential positive economic, cultural and health outcomes."

Above all, the city of St. Louis is hungry for change. At the GOOD Ideas for Cities event, nearly 850 people showed up, despite only 300 available seats. As recently proven by the likes of Detroit, out of urban hardship comes an enthusiasm for creativity that can eclipse even that of the most popular, buzzworthy hubs. "The mayor actually came up on stage immediately after I presented our idea and said it was fantastic," says Pham. "For me, as a 22 year old, to speak for four minutes and impress the mayor? I doubt I would've ever had that opportunity in San Francisco where I'm from."

For now, Brain Drain continues to research and cultivate relationships. They've recently decided to incorporate, a step that shows their commitment not just to CityPulse, but to the creative growth of St. Louis. In the meantime, the Brain Drain collective will march forward, even when faced with criticism. "No matter what you do, someone will always be opposed to it, for one reason or another. It may not be many people, but it is often the loudest person," says Brown. "St. Louis is a bit parochial—the same families have been in the government since I've been alive. It can be tough to convince people to do something new, but it's growing pains and it's part of the process."

"The potential of City Pulse is unlimited," says Pham. "We have no idea what the best use will be, and that's what's truly exciting. Brain Drain would love to see a project like CityPulse become the standard for urban environments, a goal that could very likely be reached, due to the project's scalability. "I had a meeting with some folks connected to New York City's public space recently," says Pellegrino. "Prior to the meeting they had looked at my website and the first thing they asked me about was the CityPulse project."

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