The Atlanta Regional Commission’s Millennial Advisory Panel: An Innovative Approach to Civic Engagement

By Sarah Carnes and Mackenzie Wood

Civic engagement is at the core of shaping smart, sustainable cities, and urban governments across the US are employing innovative models to reach out to and hear from their citizens. The Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC) recently introduced a new component to The Atlanta Region’s Plan by inviting Metro-Atlanta Millennials to the regional planning table as part of its New Voices Campaign. Looking forward, ARC leaders acknowledge that Metro-Atlanta Millennials, comprising  25% of the region’s population, will lead and guide the region over the next three to four decades, so including them in long-range planning is a critical step in building a stronger Atlanta.

The ARC New Voices Campaign reached out to Millennials in the 11 county metro region, receiving 300 applications for 150 spots on the Millennial Advisory Panel. The participants selected represent all 11 counties and most major cities in the region as well as a variety of professions and interests. Georgia Tech Master of City and Regional Planning Student and Center for Urban Innovation Graduate Research Assistant Sarah Carnes was chosen to represent Cherokee County. Below, Sarah shares her experience and opinion of this innovative visioning process.

The People.

A lesson learned in my History and Theory of Planning class this semester was further substantiated after a recent conversation with a planning professional from my hometown: public meeting attendance is largely fueled by the so-called “NIMBY syndrome.” Yet, this is the fundamental distinguishing piece of the Millennial Advisory Panel. The panel was comprised of young people who wanted to participate in a year-long civic engagement process because of a genuine desire to advance the region and a genuine belief in the power of collaborative regionalism.

I joined inspiring and empowering young leaders like Bee Nguyen, founder of Athena’s Warehouse, “a non-profit dedicated to educating and empowering underserved teen girls in the Atlanta community,” and Ana Maria Martinez, a mom, attorney, and President of the Georgia Latino Law Foundation, which aims “to increase diversity in the profession by supporting the Latino legal community pipeline.” I joined a team of young leaders who have purposefully dedicated their personal and professional lives to making this community even greater.

The Process.

ARC favored a strategic civic engagement model accentuating authentic conversations. The model was particularly designed with Millennials in mind in order to “identify the unique needs of [my] generation and to develop a citizen‐engagement process that [we] could relate to.”

First, we gathered for an opening event and structured brainstorming session designed to identify “the important questions.” Mackenzie Wood, Georgia Tech PhD Candidate in Public Policy and Center for Urban Innovation Graduate Research Assistant helped curate. During this round table process, members of the Millennial Advisory Panel  posed 435 questions and challenges centered on four broad themes “central to the Atlanta Region’s plan:”

  1. World Class Infrastructure
  2. Healthy and Livable Communities
  3. Competitive Economy
  4. Regional Vision  
Millennial Advisory Panel membersPhoto Source: New Voices Campaign website

The next step was to consider our “vision for a healthy, livable, equitable, and competitive future that all metro Atlantans throughout the region can share,” within the frame of ARC’s four broad themes.   Over the course of 3 months, members of the Millennial Advisory Panel returned to their specific communities and hosted 35 informal Civic Dinner parties with more than 300 participants to discuss the themes and hear directly from friends, neighbors, and colleagues.  Dinner Party conversations were reported back to ARC using #designyourATL, allowing the ARC team to identify the following eight actionable strategies:

  1. Champion a unified regional transit system
  2. Encourage healthy transit habits
  3. Ensure access to healthy food across all zip codes
  4. Foster new incentives for affordable and livable centers
  5. Encourage mentorships at every life stage
  6. Champion world-class education for all
  7. Unite the region with a shared vision and story
  8. Champion smart regional cooperation
Dinner partiesPhoto Source: New Voices Campaign website

This list represents what my generation is thinking about, working towards, and is looking to accomplish in the years to come. From my perspective, what makes this civic engagement model work is its inherent emphasis on authentic conversations.

Finally, Action Teams of 8 to 12 Millennial Advisory Panel members were then tasked with developing potential solutions to address one of these eight regional challenges. Our multi-faceted approach to these issues, and their possible solutions (i.e videos, op-eds, and other action steps), were delivered at a community meeting in September. Presenting solutions to regional leaders like Alicia Philipp from The Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta, Bill Boling from the Atlanta Community Food Bank, and elected officials from regional municipalities was one of the most exciting aspects of the process. Our presentations not only informed ARC’s new long range strategic plan, but our presentations also served to invigorate community leaders and the next generation of leaders.

PresentationsPhoto Source: New Voices Campaign website

It is the tangible output like CivicConvo and the Coalition to Advance Atlanta as well as the support received from local governments like the Atlanta City Council that further demonstrates how our generation is contributing to a better Atlanta – and how in a few short months a group of more than one hundred 18 to 30-somethings can not only propose new paths forward but begin to pave them.

Moving Forward.

The Atlanta Regional Commission’s Millennial Advisory Panel got a lot of things right, namely the people, the process, and the power of communicating over food! The panel effectively illustrates an innovative and invigorating take on civic engagement. Because of the intentional methods to create a public participation process that is more enjoyable and informal, there was more interest in involvement and greater levels of commitment from participants.

As other cities consider how best to engage Millennials, they should abandon antiquated participatory strategies in exchange for more lively processes like mixers and dinners that are at “cool and hip” places (One of our meetings was held at Google’s Atlanta office and another at the Center for Civic Innovation. We also had “Pop-Up Happy Hours” at various pubs throughout the city.). Cities should similarly consider how to harness the energy and interests of Millennials in the planning process. What’s the “cool” new thing to do or visit in your city? Perhaps a new restaurant, park, start-up, or maker-space. In short, based on my personal experience, one of the best ways to engage Millennials is through conversations over dinner and drinks.


The City in Question podcast

As part of his postdoctoral position in the Center for Urban Innovation, Thomas Lodato has been conducting interviews about CUI’s past and ongoing research. Rather than simply report on this research, Lodato wanted to give voice to the researchers and perspectives in a new way. The result is a podcast series called “City in Question.”

The City in Question podcast focuses on emerging work about urban form, policymaking, civic technology, and the many other topics that fall under the banner of urban innovation. With a background in digital media and design studies, Lodato leans toward discussions of the human experience of contemporary urban settings and the work that goes into making and mediating cities. The podcast takes the form of unedited interviews with researchers and will be released monthly.

Below are the first two episodes released together to kick off the series.

Episode 1: What Data Tells Us & What We Tell Data

CycleAtlanta is an application for submitting bicycle routes to Atlanta city and regional planners to aid in the creation of cycling infrastructure. The app marks a shift in how planners, as much as people, can participate in local government. This week, Thomas Lodato talks to Georgia Tech assistant professor Dr. Chris LeDantec and Ph.D. student Mariam Asad about the project, and what it tells us about the city as a landscape of data.

Episode 2: Drones for Foraging and Post-Digital Cities

In this episode, Thomas Lodato speaks with Dr. Carl DiSalvo, an associate professor of Digital Media at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Carl explains his project Drones for Foraging, “a design project that explores the use of DIY and hobbyist drones in support of urban foraging”. With his project as a starting point, Carl and Thomas discuss how this particular use of hobbyist drones reveals issues for how we imagine computation in the future and the role of designers in shaping our imagined urban landscape.

Mapping the Uneven Geographies of the Smart City

By Taylor Shelton

As we continue to ramp up our research efforts here at the Center for Urban Innovation, one of the topics we’re beginning to investigate is the growth of so-called ‘smart cities’ initiatives around the globe. One of the key ways that cities, especially in the United States, have done this is through their participation in technical assistance programs offered by a range of philanthropic organizations, corporations, and non-profits. Though the tangible outcomes of these programs vary, they all represent an important material engagement — in the form of exchanges of knowledge and expertise — between and amongst localities and trans-local organizations, oriented towards realizing some vision of the smart city.

Starting from a list of seven prominent technical assistance programs operating in the US and globally – the IBM Smarter Cities Challenge, the Code for America fellowship program, Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Innovation Delivery Teams and WhatWorksCities programs, the City Energy Project, the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities program, and the recently announced MetroLab Network supported by the White House’s smart cities initiative (of which CUI is a part) – we’ve mapped which cities have seen the greatest participation in these networks. It’s important to note that greater or lesser participation in these programs isn’t meant to imply a ranking of which cities are the ‘smartest,’ but rather to focus on how these programs are engaging more closely with some places rather than others, and how some cities have been more proactive in attempting to leverage their participation in these networks towards greater visibility.


As the map above shows, the geographic concentrations of these technical assistance programs in the US diverges in some meaningful ways from the dominant imaginary that ‘smartness’ only resides in cities like New York and San Francisco. While no US city has participated in all seven of the programs in question, Chicago has participated in six, with Atlanta, Boston and New Orleans having participated in five, and Louisville, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Seattle having participated in four. While each of these cities shares some demonstrable connection to the kinds of technology-oriented businesses and governmental initiatives at the core of the smart cities project, they also represent quite different types of cities with quite different histories and development trajectories. Given that one of the primary functions of these technical assistance programs is inter-city learning and policy transfer, it’s important to recognize the role that cities like Louisville, New Orleans, Atlanta, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia are playing in this process, as ‘smartness’ looks substantially different in, and coming from, these cities as opposed to more conventional technology hubs like Boston or Seattle, or even Chicago as one of the country’s largest cities.

The Bay Area’s absence is notable because of the significant jurisdictional fragmentation in the region – seven distinct municipal governments in the area were recipients of technical assistance grants from these organizations, but only San Francisco and Oakland participated in more than one program. Obviously, if aggregated to a regional level, the Bay Area as a whole would see the greatest levels of engagement with these initiatives nationwide. Similarly, the Denver metro area has had three separate municipalities participate in technical assistance programs, but none more than twice. This city/region divide is important because, as CUI Director Jennifer Clark argues in a forthcoming paper, these kinds of “third sector strategies bypass the metropolitan regionalism discourse of the past forty years and focus again on the city as the priority space for political and economic engagement.” What these kinds of initiatives might look like if operating on a broader regional scale remains an open question, as, with only a couple of exceptions where states and territories have been the recipients of these grants, municipal governments have been the exclusive conduit for these programs.

Though a few of the seven programs we surveyed are international in scope [1], outside of the US, only a handful of cities have participated in more than one of these programs, with none having participated in more than two, so the distribution is substantially less interesting at this scale. When aggregating up to the country level, Australia and Japan have had the greatest number of cities participate in these programs with seven each, while Canada and India had six cities represented, and China, Mexico and South Africa with five each. As geographer Don McNeill has written elsewhere, one noticeable trend in the global data is that “IBM has inarguably been active in far more localities, over a far wider geographical spread, than any of its competitors and is clearly focused on emerging markets.” Despite this considerable global spread of investments, these international programs still tend to be focused on some of the most industrialized and fastest growing countries outside of North America and Europe, while also focusing on those countries in closest proximity to the US where these organizations are headquartered.

Ultimately, there are a number of possible explanations for why these concentrations are where they are. Whether it’s because cities like New York and San Francisco simply aren’t trying to participate in these programs, or they aren’t being included due to a conscious effort on the part of these organizations to steer investments to other cities where the grants might make a more substantive impact, the fact remains that the geography of these programs represents an interesting opportunity to refocus our attention on how the smart city is being produced in more ‘ordinary’ cities around the United States.


[1] Only the IBM Smarter Cities Challenge and Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities program are truly international in scope, though the Bloomberg Philanthropies Innovation Delivery Teams have recently set up shop in two Israeli cities.