Online companion to PBS series shines spotlight on civic innovation

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How We Got to Now, a fall PBS series charting the history of innovation, will accompany a stand-alone news and commentary website funded by the Knight Foundation.

The grant will fund what the foundation is referring to as an online “innovation hub,” a news and forum site covering what cities and communities are doing to foster ideas. Knight’s grant, which goes to the show’s production company Nutopia, will fund the first 12-18 months of the site’s operations. The website’s interface and functions are still a work in progress.

Steven Johnson


Developed by Nutopia in collaboration with PBS, How We Got to Now is a six-part documentary series based on the writings of popular science author Steven Johnson, who also hosts. Johnson is publishing a companion book of the same title in conjunction with the series. An online component to the series was always part of the plan, Johnson told Current.

“This is a show about innovation,” he said. “We should have something more [online] than just behind-the-scenes clips and airtimes.” Those features will still be online but on a separate PBS page for the program.

Johnson is involved with development of the new site, which may launch earlier than the program’s Oct. 15 PBS premiere. He will also contribute essays and blog posts once it’s up and running. Johnson envisions that the site will be mostly “curation and commentary” and would like to hire a curator to share news of urban innovation from across the Web. He cites The Atlantic’s urbanism news site The Atlantic Cities as an influence, as well as technology news sites The Verge and TechCrunch and the liberal politics site Talking Points Memo.

“Right now we’re at this amazing stage of urban innovation,” he said. “I think if you present it the right way, it would actually be really addictive.”

Knight is “trying to host an active discussion on how communities can enable the acceleration of ideas and the sharing of ideas,” said Carol Coletta, v.p. of community and national initiatives at the foundation. The foundation was attracted to the project by Johnson’s reputation and by its overlap with their interests in urban innovation. Work on the site began two months ago, Johnson said.

One of the site’s main goals is to connect ideas among civic leaders. “In general, the idea is to let the people in Austin know what the people are doing in Brooklyn,” Johnson said. “And also slightly less hipster places.”

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