Written by Vibhu Gairola
Luisa Ji and Lee-Michael Pronko, co-founders
What does Milieu do, and why did you start it?
LM: Milieu is a vision to better engage citizens in the development and planning of their cities. At the same time, it’s a tool that enables planners, developers, and decision-makers to access civic intelligence about the way people want their cities built.
L: I had studied architecture, and I met Lee-Michael when he was doing his thesis on government policy and urbanism. That was about the same time the province passed Bill 73. So, that concept of engaging citizens with urban planning really resonated with us. That’s when we started working on this as a business.
LM: Luisa and I noticed that citizens had a tough time creating dialogue with the city, so we begin to investigate that, thinking, ‘how can we solve that problem?’
What kind of responses have you seen?
L: At the beginning, it was a new concept and there was a lot of resistance. But when we got selected for the Guelph Civic Accelerator, we saw that municipal governments were willing to improve service delivery and make information more accessible to citizens.
LM: There are many companies like ourselves who are hungry and really want to work with city-makers and stakeholders to tackle these problems. We’re very community -and grassroots-oriented in the sense that we want to become an accessible, open platform for everyone to receive information and give feedback.
What is your favourite thing about working in the civic tech ecosystem?
L: Knowing that there’s a team behind you and that everyone is passionate about the same subject makes everything worth it. You’re fighting for something right.
LM: In the civic tech space, people are hungry for representation and participation in our democratic system. Civic tech tools let them do that. Over time, it would be amazing to assess the impact of these new forms of engagement and data collection and see how it influences the city. We can use this information to create new benchmarks for tomorrow.
What advice would you give to anyone trying to do something similar?
L: We went through a long phase of having no money and not being able to attract supporters; now we have people willing to make connections to help us progress as a company. My advice would be to really latch onto people who can offer help and education. You don’t have to focus too much on funds; they will come in time if you persevere with making connections.
LM: What goes hand in hand with that is fostering a strong relationship with your co-founder to support each other personally and professionally. Sometimes she’s gotta pick me up and sometimes I’ve gotta pick her up: leverage the support of your team and be honest about the challenges you’re facing.
What does Milieu have planned for the future?
We want to keep partnering with both developers and cities to inspire others to get engaged. We’ll be moving to Toronto in the fall to get even more involved within the city-building conversation.
What would you say is the most overrated thing about working in civic tech?
LM: Startup culture provides a lot of false hope for new businesses that may or may not be actually solving problems. There’s this turnstile culture where people are always looking for the next Uber. They forget that Uber wasn’t looking for Uber when it started — they were just trying to meet a need. More people need to stop talking about what they’re doing and just focus on doing it.
L: I just don’t like how impact is measured by how much money you raised in this round or the next one. That standard needs to be changed; we need to be thinking bigger than that.
If you were to describe Milieu as a food, what would it be?
We’re all about perseverance, knowing yourself, and sticking with your goals, so Milieu would honestly just be a period of fasting.