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People at the Center of Public Policy: The Network as a Platform for Participatory Democracy

November 28, 2011 - 0 Comments

Last Friday I spoke at the Metropolis World Congress in Porto Alegre, Brazil, where leaders from the private sector, public sector and NGOs are gathered together to discuss new models and strategies for architecting and running cities around the world. The delegates to this event include mayors from cities like Porto Alegre, Barcelona, Bogota, Rosario, and others that are taking their cities through major transformations and helping to define successful models for urban innovation and revitalization. Through all of these stories, one theme emerges: the concept of participatory democracy, or how citizens around the world are co-creating solutions with government, that will help solve the challenges facing us this century.

The economic and political events of the last few years and the continued challenging circumstances still facing us today have in many ways contributed to this new paradigm; necessity is the mother of invention. But the initial steps started a few years ago by a handful of cities have borne a larger movement, and one that promises to change the very way in which citizens interact with their communities and live their lives. Just as people started to produce their own content through social media channels, eschewing the passive consumption of information distributed from centralized powers, citizens pursuing active engagement in the public realm will foment a new public system, one in which citizens are the innovators and enablers of public sector services – and the public sector becomes the orchestrator of innovation.  And we’re not far off from that concept becoming a reality.

Let me tell you what I mean. Let’s take a few examples from South America. For many decades, Bogota City became synonymous with murder and drugs. As recently as the early 1990s, the city was a murder capital of Latin America. Led by democratically elected mayors, local government campaigns encouraged citizens to take back their public spaces, resulting in the city becoming one of the most attractive centers in Latin America for business.  Porto Alegre has been encouraging its citizens to vote on priorities for the city budget for 22 years now, a model that has been replicated in several cities around the world, including four NYC districts just last year.

We think these types of stories will start to spread exponentially because of the underlying driver of interconnectedness, the open network. The vital component of participatory democracy, it’s what brings together complex, distributed communities of information, people, and things, tapping into the power, knowledge and ideas of each network and enabling cross-network sharing of those assets to empower much richer patterns of participation and engagement.

Consider this: today, there are more devices than people on earth connected over the Internet. Cisco estimates this inflection point happened sometime between 2008 and 2009 and forecasts that this growth will continue exponentially – doubling to at least 25 billion devices in 2015, and to 50 billion devices by 2020. These smart physical objects and devices, connected to each other and to humans around the world, will use Internet Protocol over public or private networks.

The effect of this technological proliferation and resulting increase in connectedness is to change rules within government as information goes beyond the traditional boundaries of the state and as citizens and community organizations embrace bottom-up collaboration to develop and produce public value independent of hierarchies. The knowledge base and seat of decision-making power, once held at the center, increasingly moves to the edge as technology increases reach, inclusiveness and transparency. This is already happening in sectors like healthcare, education and government.

It’s the idea of the Fourth Quadrant, a phenomenon described by author Steven Johnson in his book “Where Good Ideas Come From- the Natural History of Innovation,” which describes the space of collaborative, nonproprietary innovation – a space that gave rise to the Internet. Unlike the classic entrepreneur that protects his innovations for financial gain, private corporations that compete, and the amateur individual that invents for the pure joy of discovery, the Fourth Quadrant produces innovations that are owner-less; it’s a creation of a group of individuals and organizations with a common goal and no hierarchy. It’s a counterintuitive idea, because the Fourth Quadrant doesn’t provide financial rewards, and yet it has generated more world-changing ideas than the competitive marketplace in the last two centuries. The reason for this is, quite simply, that increased connectivity and the free exchange of ideas lower barriers to innovation.

So, how can cities all over the world start to make these concepts work for them?

It’s not about installing broadband to the home for people to have Internet access; rather, it’s about how to put a network at the center of the city, and how that helps the city’s healthcare, transportation, buildings, entertainment and other services run on information. It’s the way successful cities of the future will run – designed around the citizen so they can more easily navigate, find and use the city’s services, in real time.

One example of what that might look like is Songdo, Korea, the world’s first smart+connected city that was built from the start with economic, social and environmental sustainability and designed around the citizen’s needs. All essential services, including healthcare, government, transportation, utilities, safety and security and education are all within a twelve minute walk, because studies have shown anything further will result in citizens driving instead of walking. As validation of the vision, in September, tens of thousands of residents began to move into the city.  South Korean city Busan is built on the “Green u-City” vision, which combines green-growth initiatives and ICT infrastructure, integrates ICT infrastructure, technology, and services into housing, economic, transportation, tourism, safety and security, environmental, and other city infrastructures and systems. It puts more power of choice into citizens’ hands so that they can select better options for greener ways of living. San Francisco has made open data gathered from city and county integrated operations centers available to citizens who have built a host of applications to intuitively navigate the city’s bus, train and public parking systems. Networked transportation is the key to managing the growing environmental impact of cities. Cities like PlanIT Valley in Portugal are building this way as well, accounting for ICT as a fourth utility in the master plan.

Finally, and most importantly, it’s about shifting the way we think about how cities are built and run after hundreds of years of doing it the same way. In the next 10 years, more than 100 cities housing a billion-plus people will be built in China, and India faces similar numbers.  It’s clear that a fundamental change in the way that cities are built will need to take place so that they are successful in the future. What will these cities of the future look like? At Cisco, we think it will mean:

  • Applications, services, and new business models created by the citizens and businesses inhabiting the cities;
  • Government and enterprise becoming the enablers and orchestrators of public value creation;
  • The open network serving as the platform for holistic city planning and management;
  • And the city running on information, so that services are consumed by citizens in much the same way they consume entertainment or retail goods today.

Participatory democracy will come to shape the 21st century in areas reaching far beyond the public arena. Fueled by the increasing interconnectedness with the local and global community, enabled by growing smart networks and infrastructure, citizens all over the world have started to take a hands-on role in shaping the forces that affect their lives. At least, that’s the vision at Cisco.

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