Sean Ansanelli, Founder of MakeItHappen.City.
“I don’t want small policy changes, I want a completely new political and economic system. At the same time, I want to build things.”
Meet Sean Ansanelli. Sean is a deep thinker and a doer. He’s an urban planner, theorist, and developer. He is the Founder/Director of Makeithappen.city — a platform and a process enabling the pursuit of both individual and collective goals. MakeItHappen aspires to make it possible for citizens to co-create create cities from the ground up and be more self-sufficient.
Sean earned his B.A. in Political Theory and Information Economics from NYU and has a Master’s in Urban Planning from Columbia University. He has worked at the Center for Urban Pedagogy, New Jersey Community Capital, and Greenworks Community Development Corporation. He has been a Senior Project Manager at Technological Change Lab and the founder of a consultancy for early-stage technology startups.
Sean surveying land for an eco-resort creative retreat Upstate New York.
What Does He Do?
After working in the community development field for nearly a decade, Sean realized that he wanted to build completely new types of institutions to respond to — and shape — our modern world. The pursuit of this idea, in theory, quickly led to learning how to code/create prototypes and an immersion in the tech startup world.
For several years Sean helped entrepreneurs launching new ideas and organizations seeking digital innovations, but his intention was always to learn the ins-and-outs of the tech industry in order to create this new type of institution/platform.
Sean now works with cities to create “living” comprehensive plans on the platform and is quickly rolling out new tools and campaigns to expand the reach of this approach to everyday people. The launch of MakeItHappen.city is the culmination of this work.
How Did He Get Into This Work?
While Sean’s family wasn’t formally “civic,” they were always active in their community, out on Amityville’s south shore: “My mom was always an organizer, but socially. She was part of a church choir and threw the parties after. My dad was in a band and had concerts at the house. At the dinner table, we talked about foreign affairs — not sports. They were always about doing something.”
Sean comes from a fiercely independent family, with entrepreneurial DNA: “Almost everyone has started their own business or did something ridiculous. My father started his own law firm. I’ve lived on sailboats and lived off the land.”
As early as high school Sean was animated by urban planning. While his college essay on strip malls was pulled on the recommendation of his guidance counselor — who thought it would be too outré — it later became the subject of his grad school application.
After undergrad, Sean was highly motivated to make a positive change in the world but quickly found it hard to know where to start. “I realized that such a roadmap does not yet exist and that I would need to build one. Given the tremendous scale of such an endeavor, this model would need to leverage widespread and continuous input from as broad of a community as possible, and could potentially be based off of other successful open-source and commons-based peer production models.”
Sean chose Columbia’s School of Architecture for graduate work largely because of Prof. Smita Srinivas and her work around the intersection of economics, technology, and institutional change. The founder of Technological Change Lab would later become his mentor.
Sean studied the theory of open source during graduate school and also picked upcoding. His fluency in theory and practice was attractive to both faculty at Columbia and those in the startup space – who started hiring him as a consultant to help them build MVPs.
The key challenges to systemic change, as Sean saw it, were maximizing participation and sustaining alternative development projects. For these two challenges, he studied a range of approaches – from personal development tools to alternative currency models) to working hands-on in a community development financial institution. This led to the development of the first prototype in coordination with community groups in Tijuana, Mexico, to map projects throughout the region and find ways to involve the broader community in these efforts — including a reward system for those who help with local problems. Through these experiences — and continued on-the-ground testing — Sean has developed an approach that he is currently scaling throughout North America with MakeItHappen.City.
What project is he working on?
“In Make It Happen.City, I’m building a platform that functions as a kind of digital community development organization. The model is both hyperlocal in focus as well as global. The platform covers the full range of development issues — from helping individuals find direction; to incubating new business/projects; to matching skills and resources; to developing full comprehensive plans for neighborhoods. The model is both hyperlocal in focus (encouraging and fostering local-based initiatives) as well as global (allowing communities to learn from one another’s “experiments” and strategically coordinate for collective action).”
“I’m just trying to synthesize fields and tie them together.”
A few points of Sean’s inspiration:
- The Open Source Ecology Project, a set of blueprints for fifty farming tools. (Context: Physicist Marcin Jakubowski tried to repair his John Deere tractor and discovered doing so was basically a felony. In response, he decided not only to figure out how to hack the tractor but in the interest of resilience – to open-source said blueprints. Here’s his TED Talk.)
- BioRegionalism – a political and ecological movement dating back to the sixties that sought to define territory according to ecological carrying capacity, rather than boundless growth.
- ParEcon, or Participatory Economics – defined as a model for a new economy based on democracy, justice, and ecological sustainability as an alternative to our current economic system.
Sean is informed by alternative currencies such as Ithaca Hours and timebanking, which reward contributions that not only solve short-term needs but provide last benefits to the overall economy. To that end, Sean has been pondering the concept of a “Co-op for basic stuff. For needs, not food,” and hopes to write an essay or paper this summer sketching out his proposal.
How Did He Come To Civic Hall?
“I was at a conference about the emerging “Platform Cooperativism” movement when I met [Civic Hall co-founder] Andrew Rasiej at the coffee table. We quickly talked about a range of topics (our thoughts on/experiences with cooperatives; what got us into this work; the potential of pirate radio, etc.) and I told him about my platform idea as well.
Andrew told me I had to come to Civic Hall and had me send him an email with the subject line “You Idiot” as a reminder. As soon as I moved back to NYC after living abroad, I made sure to join Civic Hall.”
What is he reading/ watching/ listening to?
Sean is a voracious reader who has been inspired by dozens of books, including:
- The Whole Earth Catalogue – which Wired’s Kevin Kelly described as “a paper-based database offering thousands of hacks, tips, tools, suggestions, and possibilities for optimizing your life.”
- “Seeing Like a State” by James C. Scott tracks well-intentioned plans for improving the human condition which has gone tragically awry.
- Beautiful Solutions by Naomi Klein.
Beyond his print and digital intake, he has this observation:
“I have been watching (way too much of) the news these days, and it seems increasingly clear that many of our institutions/assumptions are stretched to their limit and that the core mission of our system (“growth”) is at odds with many aspects of societal well-being. This always motivates me to work harder on true alternatives.”
What is his ask for Civic Hall?
Ask: “If anyone is aware of local governments and/or organizations that need a robust community engagement and organizing tool, please let me know. Whether you want to share ideas/support or build momentum for your projects, this platform is the place to go.”
Offer: This Wednesday, February 29th, MakeItHappen.City will host a live civic engagement event in Amityville. Here are the details.
Sean hopes to host a Lunch and Learn at Civic Hall later this spring to demo the MakeItHappen.City platform