Gathering Storms: Forecasting the Future of Cities

The prognosis for our planet, now widely accepted, is shattering our vision of a bright future for our cities, characterised by abundance and technological expansion. As a result, we urgently need to envision and confront the scenarios that are likely to become our reality, in the hope that this work of imagination can help us to adapt effectively and perhaps steer a different course.

This post is part of our series of articles on the Urban Commons sourced from the Green European Journal Editorial Board. These were published as part of Volume 16 “Talk of the Town: Exploring the City in Europe”. In this instalment, Pablo Servigne, an agronomist and expert in ecology, behaviour and evolution of social insects, examines the role of the city on the midst of a convergence of ecological and social crises.

Cities around the world today face a whole host of grave threats: from pollution to climate change, resource scarcity to overpopulation, and many more. Growing awareness of this has led to a proliferation of ‘solutions’ such as ‘green’, ‘sustainable’, ‘smart’, ‘resilient’, ‘zero-carbon’ projects, as well as ‘eco-neighbourhoods’. But how effective can these initiatives hope to be, in light of the scale of the problems faced? Our vision of the future is in dire need of being injected with a good dose of realism. The vision of a ‘linear’ urban future is in effect fed by the imagery of abundance forged during post-war reconstruction. Yet the conditions of such prosperity are no longer in place. A closer look at the principal threats facing cities can serve as a base from which to devise potential future scenarios. By stimulating our imagination, it is hoped that this conceptual framework will help us design urban policies which are more credible and less unsustainable than those we have witnessed so far.

Continue Reading at the Source: Gathering Storms: Forecasting the Future of Cities | P2P Foundation

Cities under threat

The risks of global warming are well known. According to the UN, more than 60 per cent of cities with populations of over 750,000 are exposed to at least one major risk. One of the latest reports from the IPCC describes one major risk, amongst others – of climate and environmental shocks breaking down the industrial food systems that feed most European towns. [1]

Resource shortages (metals, water, wood, energy, etc) also fall within these major threats. In fact, there is nothing simpler than seriously disrupting a city: it’s merely a matter of blocking its food and energy supplies. These are amongst the worst threats a city can face, because the social, economic and then political effects are felt almost immediately (within a matter of days). Hence the prioritisation of food security by all governments over the centuries.

Serious threats are also posed by certain types of pollution. As well as the heavy metals and organic compounds polluting the soil, and aerosols already rendering certain towns unliveable, there is the risk of major industrial accidents forcing entire urban populations to be evacuated. Cities must learn to anticipate all this, to absorb the shocks, to recover, and to learn from these events, most of which are already happening in certain parts of the world. Simply to achieve this, they need resources, energy and a degree of social order, which are increasingly hard to guarantee.

In fact, all these threats can be considered to come from outside the city (external threats). But there is another equally serious, and less well known, type of threat: internal threats. These arise mainly from vulnerable infrastructure and social conflict. It is well-known to historians and archaeologists that a town’s capacity to grow and thrive depends on its capacity to safeguard good communication, transport, and distribution networks. Today, much of the transport, electricity, and water infrastructure in OECD countries is over 50 years old (over 100 years old, in some cases), and is already operating well beyond maximum capacity. [2] The extent of its interconnection, complexity, and homogeneity, and the speed of movement of the components of city life, have also increased the vulnerability of this infrastructure. It is thus also easily destabilised by one-off events such as floods, hurricanes, and terrorist attacks.

When, following the rise in the price of diesel in the year 2000, 150 striking lorry drivers blocked major fuel depots in the UK, the consequences rapidly made themselves felt: “Just four days after the start of the strike, most of the country’s refineries had ceased operation, forcing the government to take steps to protect the remaining reserves. The following day, people rushed into shops and supermarkets to stock up on food. One day later, 90% of filling stations had stopped serving, and the NHS [National Health Service] started to cancel elective surgery. Royal Mail deliveries stopped, and schools in many towns and villages closed their doors. Major supermarkets such as Tesco and Sainsbury’s introduced rationing, and the government called in the army to escort convoys of vital goods. In the end, public pressure led the strikers to end their action”. [3]

In the cities of industrialised countries – including, need we add, Europe – it is highly likely that we will reach ‘peak urbanisation’ over the next decade.

The social order of a city can falter rapidly, even when networks don’t break down. All it takes is an economic or political crisis, leading to a collapse of industrial activity, massive job losses, housing crises, the bursting of a speculation bubble, riots, community or class conflicts, terrorist acts, and so on. These events have become frequent because of the significant increase in economic and social inequality within countries, [4] and even within cities. [5] This is nothing new, but seems to have been forgotten; archaeology shows us that the economic and political elites of great civilisations have often caused the inexorable degradation of their environment, due to the pressure they put on people and natural ecosystems. [6]

Last, but not least, all these threats are interdependent, and nowadays operate at a globalised level. Large, homogeneous, fast-moving, deeply interconnected international networks have – paradoxically – become more resistant to small disturbances, but more vulnerable to major disruptions, which, when they occur, can trigger a domino effect throughout the system, leading to collapse. [7] Scientists speak of a new kind of risk: the ‘systemic global risk’ inherent in these extensive complex networks, and, as major nodes in these global networks, cities are very exposed to these risks.

Scenarios for the Future: Forwarned is forearmed

With that in mind, four scenarios can be envisaged. The aim is not to alarm, nor to predict the future, but to stimulate the imagination and test the effects of these threats against possible futures. These scenarios are to be taken as signposts, pathways or stages, like the points of a compass. They are archetypes for the future, to help illustrate trends and provide insight into what might lie ahead. The division into four scenarios arises from two forward-looking works: Future Scenarios by David Holmgren, [8] and Resilient Cities, by architects and planners Newman, Beatley and Boyer. [9] The first work describes the possible trajectories in relation to peak oil and climate change.

If climate change has a gradual effect (providing enough room for manoeuvre to transform society), there are two possible scenarios: a ‘green tech’ transition, which, if resources decline slowly, could be relatively comfortable, or a radical and rapid change, known as ‘earth stewardship’, in the case of a brutally rapid decline in energy resources. By contrast, if climate change has rapid and violent effects, society will tip into a ‘brown tech’ future, where the powers that be would muster all their force to maintain ‘business as usual’. Or, even worse, society could completely collapse – the ‘lifeboat’ scenario – if these catastrophes coincided with a rapid loss of resources.

The second publication focuses exclusively on the end of oil, and analysing its effects on cities. It explores the following question: knowing that cities are completely dependent on oil, and have a massive carbon footprint, what would be the consequences for modern industrial cities of the end of the oil age? Two areas in particular are explored: transport and food security. The authors describe four scenarios, similar to those of Holmgren: the resilient city (corresponding to the ‘green tech’ scenario), the divided city (‘brown tech’ scenario), the ruralised city (‘earth stewardship’ scenario), and the collapsed city (‘lifeboat’ scenario).

However, both of these forward-looking publications only consider scenarios based on external threats (climate and oil), without taking account of internal threats. The latter have been explicitely included in the following proposed synthesis. [10]

The ecotechnical city

If the impact of global warming turns out to be gradual, and an ‘energy descent’ [11] can be managed, society can adopt ‘green’ technologies, ensure a successful transition, and work towards distributed renewable energy systems, without conflict or disasters. This would lead to a resurgence in regional, rural economies, more sustainable agriculture, more horizontal political systems, and more compact cities that prioritise public transport and the local economy. A balance would be found between reducing consumption and slowing economic growth, thanks to energy efficiency technology and a relocalisation of the economy. However, it is only possible for a city to take this route if it already has a resilient, well-maintained infrastructure, and if it avoids major political, economic and social upheavals. This is clearly the most desirable scenario in terms of maintaining the living standards and security that our democratic societies rely on. To sum up, in the absence of significant obstacles, even in the context of an energy descent, an efficient transition is still possible. The city can prepare, slowly but surely, for the ‘storms’ ahead.

The ecovillage city

A rapid decline in resources, including oil and natural gas, could trigger a crisis that would bring the world economy to its knees. This global collapse could create political instability, which would in turn lead to serious social problems, but also, paradoxically, to an end of greenhouse gas emissions. Local resilient communities would then emerge in some rural areas (following a massive rural exodus). This would be achieved through agro-ecology and permaculture techniques, and above all by sustaining their capacity for local democracy. It is possible that the major megalopolises would still contain rich, private, gated neighbourhoods, by developing urban agriculture within suburban gardens. In this scenario, no-one believes civilisation can be preserved as it stands; people will have moved on, to work for something radically different. Cities would return to being semi-rural, meeting many of their food and energy needs very locally, along the lines of self-sufficient medieval towns. Peri-urban belts would be made up of ecovillages, supplying the town and recycling waste, much like the Parisian market gardeners of the 19th century. However, this ‘radical resilience’ policy will only be practicable if massive disasters (hurricanes, uprisings, revolutions, etc.), that could destabilise the political and social order are neither too intense nor too frequent. If they do occur, the organisation of the city could change radically, whilst retaining a chance of avoiding breakdown and chaos, and maintaining a semblance of democracy, albeit at increasingly local levels. In this scenario, the city is instantly transformed, yet without being wiped out by the ‘storms’.

The enclave city

A slow decline in energy supply could leave influential power structures in place, thus thwarting any chance of real transformation. The combination of an authoritarian state and greedy private business would foster an extraction industry rush for non-renewable resources, with predictably catastrophic consequences. But then the climate and environmental crises would be so overwhelming that all of society’s energy and resources would be needed to keep the ship afloat, due to policies that are centralised, securitised, militarised, and inegalitarian. The city would splinter; the rich, cocooned in their safe neighbourhoods, would maintain access to increasingly expensive supplies, protecting themselves from climatic variations with new technology. The poorest in society would be left to their own devices in semi-rural areas (with survival vegetable plots providing resilience), or even shanty towns, with less and less reliable access to resources. In this scenario, the economic elite (the rich) and political elite (the government), in their opulent enclaves, would use violence and fear to maintain their privilege. These elites would have no choice than to bring in ever more oppressive laws. Those in the most precarious situations would gradually lose the means to protect themselves from environmental and social disasters, and certain districts (crowded with arriving migrants) would become shanty towns, and police no-go areas. Political cohesion, and thus democracy, would be the first victims, leaving the field open for the expansion of the private sector and its irresistible machine for generating ever more privilege and social division – in other words, social chaos. The city crumbles, the rich ‘manage’ the crisis, everyone else endures it, and the former control the latter by increasingly undemocratic means.

The collapsed city

If rapid economic and political collapse (the Ecovillage scenario) is compounded by severe environmental and climate crises, it is too late to take the resilience route; collapse is inevitable. History shows that a lack of preparation combined with a succession of various disasters will end up getting the better of any city. There is no lack of examples of dead cities, such as Ephesus, the port and second largest town in the Roman Empire, abandoned in around the year 1,000 when the river dried up after all the trees on the surrounding hills had been felled. War, illness, and famine have always cleared cities of their inhabitants, and this can still happen. In Syria and Libya, armed conflict has devastated entire towns, which have still not recovered. When the shock is too brutal, some of the urban population flee, and those who cannot, stay, prey to shortages and chaos. Epidemics and/or conflict can reduce social life to clans controlled by local warlords. Some small population clusters would survive in exceptionally favourable conditions (such as a healthy river, stable damn, fertile fields, or an isolated monastery). These small islands (Holmgren’s ‘lifeboats’) would be humanity’s only chance to find a way through a dark period and retain the hope of renaissance in a few decades, or centuries. In this scenario, unpredictable and irreversible domino effects lead to the rapid breakdown of the city.

A rupture in our imagination

This four-scenario compass provides us with a new way of looking at the future. It enables us to see more clearly what is at stake: from a hardening of class relations, de-industrialisation of towns, urban exodus, and infrastructure collapse to the development of green technologies. Even if the details of these trajectories are not specified, global trends are clear: towards catastrophes, or what some might term collapse. These narratives differ from the more common forecasts, based on myths around technological progress, and luring us with a future ever more connected to the virtual, and thus in the end disconnected from the natural. But we have clearly run up against the limits of this approach (and of earth-system science), and now we must prepare for a future of rupture and interruption.

In the cities of industrialised countries – including, need we add, Europe – it is highly likely that we will reach ‘peak urbanisation’ over the next decade. In other words, we cannot carry on in this ultra-urban direction. The future of industrial towns will more likely be one of depopulation, reconnection with green belts and the countryside, an overdue reduction in social inequality, and the re-localisation of the economy. It is up to us to tip the balance in favour of a particular scenario.

Even if the precise nature of these scenarios is not clear, we can be sure that the urban future has to be resilient. [12] Cities will have to weather various kinds of ‘storms’, some with more ease than others, and this will radically transform how Europeans design and inhabit their cities. Anticipating these ‘storms’ today, feeling and imagining them, equips us to be prepared, and thus avert disaster.

This is a revised version of an article that was first published on barricade.be.

1. P. Servigne (2017). Nourrir l’Europe en temps de crise. Vers de systèmes alimentaires résilients, Babel.
2. I. Goldin & M. Mariathasan, (2014). The butterfly defect: How globalization creates systemic risks, and what to do about it. Princeton University Press, p.101.
3. P. Servigne & R. Stevens (2015), Comment tout peut s’effondrer. Petit manuel de collapsologie à l’usage des générations présentes, Seuil, p. 116.
4. R. Wilkinson, & K. Pickett (2009). The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone, Allen Lane.
5. O. Razemon (2016) Comment la France a tué ses villes, Rue de l’échiquier.
6. For example, the salinisation of land during the third millennium BCE in Mesapotamia, or, today, the living stands of rich Europeans destroying
tropical forests. See N. B. Grimm, et al. (2008). Global change and the ecology of cities, Science, n°319, pp. 756-760.
7. P. Servigne & R. Stevens (2015), op. cit.
8. D. Holmgren (2009), Future scenarios, How communities can adapt to peak oil and climate change, Green Books
9. P. Newman et al. (2009) Resilient cities. Responding to peak oil and climate change, Island Press.
10. Here, armed conflict is not included in external threats, and civil war not included in internal threats.
11. In the context of a post-peak oil transition, this refers to the shift away from an increasing use of energy to a reduction.

What is ‘Energy Descent’?


12. A. Sinaï et al. Petit traité de résilience locale, 2015, Éditions Charles Léopold Mayer.

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Clues for building the bridge to a Networked Democracy

The advent of the Internet, the ICTs and the collective intelligence enabled by them point to the rise of a networked democracy that promises, among other things, the protagonism of the common citizen in relation to the State and to the distribution of power. In recent years, there have been a number of initiatives in this area that, somehow, advanced towards this goal, but the promise remains unanswered.

Article: Clues for building the bridge to a Networked Democracy by Cidade Democrática via P2P Foundation

One reason may be the fact that, advocating for a leading role to the ordinary citizen and the distribution of power, one is severely threatening the interests of politicians, political parties and companies that have been benefiting from an autocratic and centralized paradigm for hundreds or maybe thousands of years. So, we are aware that the mission we have before us is one that will take some time and effort to be accomplished, as it is inscribed in the great transition we are all going through.

Believing in the digital culture statement that “technology is everywhere, the people is what matters” seems adequate to avoid the fetish of technology itself and the creation of solutions that do not realize the potential of a distributed network, responding to the challenge of consolidating autonomous collective action processes that would ultimately lead to the distribution of power.

It was the promise of common citizen protagonism and distribution of power that, in 2008, sparkled the development of Instituto Cidade Democrática’s free software. Four years latter, new functions were added to the digital platform to respond to the human dynamics of autonomous collective action, modeling unique experiences such as the challenges: Amazonian Webcidadania Xingu (2013), São Paulo state city Jundiaí Cidadonos focused on social accountability (2015), Brazilian National Youth Conference digital process (2015) and São Paulo city Free Laboratories of Social Participation(2016), which promotes the appropriation of open source applications by cultural social movements for autonomous political action.

Still, in our perspective, the social participation ecosystem as a whole is far from delivering initiatives that significantly advance into the construction of this networked democracy. In this post, some of the lessons learned in recent years are presented to help us understand the complexity of obtaining some of the necessary elements for this answer: scale without intermediation, financial sustainability for ICD from a hard to measure value created, debate quality without exclusion, permanent changes in state institutions and building commons.

The answer to the above issues seems to reside between softwares’ interaction architectures, initiatives’ business models and projects’ impact and the likelihood of social participation technology ecosystem initiatives to engage in collective impact. Below are some of our latter reflections. We hope that you enjoy and that our learnings will help you work better and make the promise to come true.

1) Audience success is good for democracy?

The widespread use of social media platforms brought the promise of horizontal communication from many to many and the possibility of mobilization without media control. Groups organized around communications and campaigning tools would be able to spread their messages, becoming strong actors to influence the course of action towards their interests.

This promise has given rise to initiatives that select ‘relevant’ agendas through content curation to be offered to the ordinary citizens, producing incidence masses that act via automated systems (e-mail, phone calls or social media publications) to urge decision makers to act towards these initiatives intermediaries’ interests. Together with leading social media algorithms, this strategy only strengthens the logic of audience competition, increasing the chances of the chosen agendas to get attention and be adopted by decision makers.

The above-mentioned initiatives, almost always based on proprietary software and nontransparent algorithms, have shown to be effective at putting messages through targeted audiences, sometimes achieving positive political results and, most often, producing promising return on advertising investment. Products’ campaigns (political or non-political) are benefiting from new and effective tools to influence the public, allowing new combinations of feelings and emotions with products and messages. On the other hand, those tools are definitely not suited for the political debate. For this purpose, the strategy must include interaction architectures and algorithms that value cultural and democratic dynamics, are transparent and efficient in identifying noise and establishing minimum consensus.

That is why we keep wondering: where will this audience success lead us in the long run? Must we conform to a refashioned logic, able to mobilize ordinary citizens through impactful messages, as the next step towards a networked democracy?

Our answer is no and, therefore, we have been working on a more adequate change theory to respond to common citizen protagonism and distribution of power, stimulating autonomous collective action to surpass the limits of audience oriented social participation and enabling arrangements that strengthen each one willing to participate in the decisions on the common good. We will talk about this in the end of this post.

2) Qualifying the debate leads to exclusion?

As summarized in the previous section, this issue is not new. Several organizations, governments and open source communities have been developing and using applications based on interaction architectures and algorithms that foster informed and autonomous debate between different ideas. Some examples are: Liquid Feedback (Pirate Party), collaborative public consultations based on Dialoga and Delibera (Marco Civil da InternetPensando o DireitoParticipa.br), Cidade Democrática (contests of ideas, Webcidadania Xingu), Decide Madrid (Cónsul), Decidim Barcelona(Dedicim), DemocracIT (Greece). Our close analysis of those initiatives shows that there is a clear desire of governmental and civil society organizations to offer alternatives for democratic dialogue based on the collective intelligence and network intelligence, but these experiences have been having difficulty in scaling or generating the desired impact.

Why, to date were these initiatives unable to scale or impact? Our opinion is that it is because of the engagement limit represented by architectures that required the user-activist to have cognitive resources, time, motivation and training to be able to use these platforms properly. In other words, the unfitted way these solutions were developed requires empowered citizens — a social ‘category’ that has grown very slowly in times when politics and consumer markets still operate in the old autocratic logic of media and political power centralization. These citizens must be able to jump on a discussion with resources and willingness to hold long conversations, often requiring a lot of prior knowledge that are not widely distributed in society. It’s possible to say that we are reaching a kind of “participation elite”, ie people who already have pre-disposition and time to participate.

Moreover, even for those who have mobilized themselves to participate in the traditional tree process, the incentives (proposals/ discussions resulting on improvements in their lives) are far from encouraging: often there is no clear decision-making process that takes advantage of all that information made available by the participants leading participants to feel disempowered. Some examples of tree or mixed mode architectures that present clearer processes of deliberation (Loomio, Cidade Democrática, Decide Madrid, Application of Brazilian Youth Conference, Liquid Feedbackor even the proprietary ConsiderIT) do so at the cost of significant increase to the process complexity, setting stages, rules and obligations which ultimately reduce the engagement potential, despite of the increased effectiveness for those who pass the barrier.

To respond to this barrier that prevents more people to participate, we believe that the design of collective deliberation should take into consideration the pedagogical aspect of interaction. A good example of digital tool with minimalistic and dynamic interface is the one of collective deliberation that we will name here as ‘crowdsourced discussion’ architectures — able to gradually increase the amount of energy that participants need to offer at every step of the engagement process. These kind of applications are able to gather data from different ways in which people participate, almost no information is lost and all is put to good use in the final result.

This research of architectures that allow mass participation in a pedagogical way and facilitate the generation of autonomous collective action motivated us to choose the Pol.is open source software for the challenges of collective deliberation. In the current state, this application can provide a simple interaction architecture and uses advanced machine learning algorithms to foster the creation of groups of people based on how they participate in the proposals. Though Pol.is is very good at identifying these affinity groups, currently it only shows this information and do not progress towards helping these people to organize around autonomous collective action. In our opinion, there are improvements to be made in the application precisely to carry out this type of action.

Media-Lab Prado (Madrid, Spain) selected our proposal for a prototype that incorporates the feature mentioned above in the call for Collective Intelligence for Democracy to be developed together with the creators and main developers of this community in November 2016.

3) Autonomous collective action is enough to change policies?

In the previous reflections we have presented some of the pitfalls of opting for interaction algorithms and architectures that bet on audience as a mean to scale and that operate through events, maintaining broadcast standards, reinforcing a passive form of participation, with strong intermediation structures, maintaining the dominant political culture and stimulating content and agenda consumption instead of autonomous collective action.

To build an effective networked democracy, we must be able to encourage autonomous collective actions as the ones that express singular interests and hyperlocal contexts, stimulating the role of agenda promoter that each one can perform. In the current context, however, there are few chances for these proposals to be highlighted and outreach because they end up being overwhelmed by strong intermediation structures or, also, they do not prevail against evidence brought by social indicators and the inescapable finitude of resources.

So, besides being limited by the small audience provided only by the singularly qualified citizens, proposals created through autonomous processes have an additional risk to be taken off from the agenda setting process as they are the expression of interests of small groups with little chances of being highlighted in the deliberation, planning and prioritizing processes of political institutions. Thus it seems necessary to have some kind of ‘magnet’ for societal agendas arising from autonomous collective action to adhere to State agendas for which there are available public resources (public budget) and which respond to the most critical demands (weak social indicators). When the autonomous collective action consider these two diagnoses in its strategy, it increases the likelihood of its actions to have greater impact and it also leads the State to better plan and execute the public budget and policies in the areas where it is most needed.

To our knowledge, to date, there are no social participation processes implemented by the State or civil society taking into account such evidences. That could be one of the reasons why social participation initiatives have been lacking impact. Designing participatory processes to foster autonomous collective action around the intersection between popular needs/ desires, existing public resources and deficient social indicators seem to be the way to address this problem. This also provides a strong incentive for participants to engage around proposals that, besides of being critical, have better chances of being implemented.

For this to happen, that is, for the autonomous processes of participation to join (magnet) the issues where there is public funds (and also private as far as there are records of the availability of companies and private foundations resources for public affairs) and weak social indicators, we argue towards the articulation of current social participation initiatives with initiatives that map public resources and social indicators (e.g. IPS Amazônia) and present them through data visualization and open data. Thus, open and accessible provision of information on public resources and social indicators will increase the effectiveness of autonomous collective social participation actions.

4) Are society and State ready for joint efforts to build common digital resources?

Another barrier for the common citizen to play a protagonist role and the distribution of power is the dispute between public and societal parties to command the way through which social participation should occur, a matter that can be translated as: who decides which process and application will be adopted. And the quality and effectiveness of the process, as said before, depend on the characteristics (architecture, implicit process and features) of the applications used.

We believe that a plausible way out of this impasse is to join efforts from State and civil society to build common digital resources, with the State participating by adherence to the work of open source software development communities. This has happened to a part of the governmental social participation policies in Brazil, over the last 7 years, benefiting from the efforts invested by Brazilian civil society to build technologies for collaborative social participation on the Internet.

The first of these experiences took place in Marco Civil da Internet consultation that had its technology based on the work of an open source community from digital culture agenda, led by the Ministry of Culture. As an extension of this experience, a number of other public consultations used the same technology or articulated other open source communities developing collective deliberation technologies. This was the case of Participa.br and Pensando o Direito who adhered to at least three different open source communities: Noosfero, Delibera (WordPress) and Allourideas (Pairwise). The common trace of these initiatives is that they were all based on the use and adherence to open source software development communities who had already been working on the creation of innovative technologies for collective deliberation.

Beyond bringing innovative technology into the governmental processes, State’s relationship with those open source communities was also an opportunity for State and society to work together in the construction of shared common digital resources. We believe that the knowledge to build and maintain relationships with open source communities and manage the development and use of software as a common good is a capacity for the State to acquire and incorporate into its formal processes.

This would be a way for the State to develop public policies from the standpoint of the common goods (technologies/ digital resources), ensuring State’s sovereignty (often dependent on isolated processes and proprietary technologies) and, at the same time, preserving the autonomy of society. These institutional changes would significantly reduce the information asymmetry and produce sustainable and democratic policies’ designs. We see this as a clear way of building the bridge to a networked democracy.

5) Conclusions

In this post we have tried to present a synthesis of our recent reflections on the limits faced by the social participation technologies ecosystem. We have analyzed event based advocacy models and other models of qualified deliberation in terms of advantages and disadvantages of each kind. We have put both models on stage starting from a discussion that has, as the background, the promise of achieving a networked democracy that enables autonomous collective actions and distributes power.

Designing engagement processes aiming at the building of a networked democracy seems like the most promising strategy to be taken on days strongly marked by transitions in politics, economy, climate, health, education and other systems that governs our lives. In our perspective, these engagement processes will derive from open source commons arrangements capable of building crowdsourced and easy to use interaction architectures, connected with state resources mapping and public indicators dataviz solutions.

This is a fairly good description of Instituto Cidade Democrática’s change theory, built from our project’s experience in the recent years. This is the result of a wide-ranging reflection, motivated by the burden of perceiving the social participation technologies ecosystem to have low capacity to scale and impact towards a networked democracy. This theory was the basis for the shaping of our next products and prototypes, and sharing it with all of you who follow us and other stakeholders as an invitation to jointly address the challenges posed here, is a contribution that we are proud to offer to the our field of work. We hope that you enjoy it and we encourage you to share your thoughts with us.

The post Clues for building the bridge to a Networked Democracy appeared first on P2P Foundation.

Article: Clues for building the bridge to a Networked Democracy by Cidade Democrática via P2P Foundation

New Municipalism in Poland

This post originally appeared on European Alternatives

Today’s challenges, from the flight from war-refugees to the management of the commons, and the environmental crisis, are being tackled at the local level from some City Councils across Europe. Some cities are proving to be spaces with an outstanding capacity to confront and face reality with reachable solutions.

While the European Commission is set soon to examine Poland’s response to its recommendation of December 2016, regarding the rule of law in this Member State, a number of NGOs have submitted an open letter to the European Commission demanding to take action against Poland for its “complete disregard and undermine” for the rule of law. The Polish democratic crisis is only one of the many examples of states where national political institutions are not longer responding nor dealing with the global trends affecting the rule of law in their countries. Today’s challenges, from the flight from war-refugees to the management of the commons, and the environmental crisis, are being tackled at the local level from some City Councils across Europe. Some cities are proving to be spaces with an outstanding capacity to confront and face reality with reachable solutions. It is in the city where dynamic and organic transformations of social struggles are happening thanks to citizens-led measures and new forms of political participation. Barcelona, Madrid or A Coruna, are some of the most cited cases of successful municipalists governments in Europe. But these are not the only existing examples. In the Polish case, in a country accused of systemic threats to the rule of law, the city of Lublin is successfully translating the political struggles at the national level into political participation and re-appropriation of the public space for its citizens. Lublin is the ninth largest city in Poland and the capital of Lublin Voivodeship with a population of 349,103 people. In 2010, Mr Krzysztof Źuk was elected the Mayor of the City of Lublin and he was re-elected for the second term securing a majority of 60.13% in the first round of the local government elections held at the end of 2014. We spoke to Piotr Choroś, political scientist and head of social participation office in Lublin’s Municipal Office. He is specialist in the field of cooperation with local government, intercultural competence and anti-discrimination policies, and in the Lublin municipal office, he is responsible for the use and development of new technologies in communication with the residents.

Read more at the source: New Municipalism in Poland

How Urban Governments Are Promoting Worker Co-ops | P2P Foundation

Source: How Urban Governments Are Promoting Worker Co-ops | P2P Foundation

How Urban Governments Are Promoting Worker Co-ops | P2P Foundation.

Here is an important report on pro-coop policies in 10 cities. The full report is available to download through this link. Highlighting some of the most the important findings, the article we’re sharing below was written by and originally published at Grassroots Economic Organizing.

10 Cities Investing in Healthy, Sustainable & Equitable Growth

City governments are shaping up as key actors accelerating worker co-op development. It started in 2009 when the City of Cleveland accessed a federal guaranteed loan to help finance the Evergreen Cooperatives. Since then, nine more city governments have moved to promote worker cooperatives through municipal projects, initiatives, or policies because they want to reach people and communities often left out of mainstream economic development. Other city governments including Philadelphia are considering it now.

Getting worker cooperatives to the scale of being a real market alternative will take time, energy, and the sort of experimentation we are seeing from these ten cities. A recent Imagined Economy Project report, Cities Developing Worker Co-ops: Efforts in Ten Cities, explores how city governments are thinking about their strengths in making worker co-ops structural features of local markets.

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Traditional economic development, said Madison, Wisconsin’s Ruth Rohlich in the report, “isn’t helpful in creating really healthy communities, financially strong communities, in an equitable way.” Worker ownership may be a way forward, and city experiences right now will help municipalities decide how worker co-ops may become long-term features of their economic development agendas. To commit to worker cooperative development long term, the cities will need to see modest growth in jobs and business ventures resulting from their current efforts and may benefit from input and insights from worker cooperatives as they continue to adjust their sense of best practices.

Cleveland and New York Leading the Way through Distinct Approaches to Worker Co-op Development

The City of Cleveland ventured into worker co-op development in response to a Cleveland Foundation initiative to set up a network of worker cooperatives connected under a corporate umbrella that planned to supply needed goods or services to hospitals, universities, or other anchor institutions. “I heard about it just in passing,” said Cleveland’s Economic Development Director Tracey Nichols quoted in the report, and the word of mouth led to the first instance of a city getting involved in worker cooperatives in a big way.

The main way the City of Cleveland assisted the initiative was by accessing millions of dollars in federal guaranteed loans and some federal grant funds as startup capital for the Evergreen Cooperatives. In so doing, the city produced the contours of one municipal approach to worker co-op development, termed the anchor approach in the report, whereby the city government role is mainly to finance startups and resolve underwriting risks in what are considered unconventional projects. In Cleveland, Nichols used tax increment financing and set aside the non-school portion of payments in lieu of taxes as a debt reserve for loan repayment to minimize risks to the city.

New York City is the nation’s second large scale municipal effort to bolster worker cooperative development locally. Instead of helping build worker cooperatives as part of anchor institution supply chains, New York is one of five cities taking an ecosystem development approach in the vein of the Democracy at Work Institute (DAWI). A worker cooperative ecosystem, according to a Democracy At Work Institute and Project Equity report, is a series of interacting elements including but not limited to cultural/entrepreneurial familiarity with worker co-ops, supportive laws, customers, capital, technical assistance, and professional service providers that help worker cooperatives emerge and survive.  As part of its Worker Cooperative Business Development Initiative, New York committed to funding a collaborative of cooperatives — there were eleven funded in 2015 and fourteen in 2016 — to spread general awareness of the worker cooperative business form, incubate new or converted worker co-ops, and support existing worker co-ops with matters like drafting by-laws, accounting, Board development, and employee participation strategies. The City itself also became part of the ecosystem when it began offering a “10 Steps to Starting a Worker Cooperative” course through its Small Business Services Solution Centers.

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The separate approaches have produced modest results, with the three Evergreen Cooperatives for-profit startups employing 113 people (38% member-owners) over several years and New York’s initiative leading to 21 new worker cooperatives involving 141 worker- owners in its first year. While the wage and earnings statistics specific to the co-ops developed through these municipal efforts are unavailable, a Sustainable Economy Research Project report found that worker co-ops in New York pay an average of $25.00/hour but apparently offer less than full time opportunities; the average annual income earned in New York’s worker cooperatives is $18,000.00 according to that report, mostly involving women of color. Current wages and earnings in the Evergreen Cooperatives are also unknown, but 98% of those employed by the three ventures are Clevelanders, 100% are racial or ethnic minorities, and 47% are returning citizens, Evergreen Cooperatives’ CEO John McMicken offered in an email.

Both municipal approaches have been inspirational to other cities. Rochester, New York and Richmond, Virginia are at various stages of planning for municipally-supported anchor-linked worker cooperative projects as part of broader poverty-reduction efforts, while Richmond, California, Madison, Wisconsin, Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Austin, Texas are working to bolster and expand worker co-op ecosystems in their cities.

Spread to New Cities Leads to Evolution in the Approaches

The ten city governments are attracted to worker cooperatives as sources of quality jobs, as well as ways to build wealth for individuals and divested communities. Accomplishing those goals will be a matter of “adaptive management,” assessed Berkeley’s Brandi Campbell, as they know they have much to learn. Ultimately, cities want sustained growth of individual co-op businesses as well as multiplier effects in the local economy to result from their investments in worker co-op development. These may be tall orders for geographically-dispersed cities with very different experiences with worker cooperative or broader social enterprise cultures, and the city governments are aware that they will need to readjust their approaches and planning as they learn how to develop worker co-ops by doing it.

Part of learning by doing involves learning from each other. The city governments are motivated to apply lessons from other city experiences as well as from the broader cooperative or co-op developer community. Most of the ten cities active in worker cooperatives are connected with expert consultancies that are playing key roles in helping inform municipal efforts and also bringing insights from other local projects or initiatives with them as they help additional city governments develop their desired approaches to worker co-op development. Certainly, ideas about how municipalities can be most effective in worker co-op development are cross-pollinating, and this has resulted in some evolution of what can be called the Cleveland and New York models of worker co-op development as additional city governments work through the place-based opportunities and challenges related to emulation in their own local areas.

Evolution in the Anchor Approach — from Cleveland to Rochester

The city role in the anchor-linked approach to worker co-op development started in Cleveland as primarily financial, but the newer cities are taking on expanded roles. In both Richmond, Virginia and Rochester, city governments have initiated anchor-linked worker co-op projects from City Hall, so their roles have evolved to include finance but also conceptualization, planning, and active participation in setting performance targets.

Rochester is further along than Richmond in its planning, already having completed a feasibility study in consultation with the Democracy Collaborative or the main architect of Cleveland’s Evergreen Cooperatives. Working with the Democracy Collaborative, Rochester has been able to build upon the lessons from the Cleveland experience. Certain alterations have been built into Rochester’s anchor approach that, ultimately, may help minimize financial risk and potentially allow for quicker growth of the supportive infrastructure built through the corporate umbrella.

First, the City of Rochester is acting to influence the business mix. Said Henry Fitts, Director of Innovation for the City of Rochester, “A lesson learned from the Evergreen experience has been that high-capital startup businesses are a lot more difficult to accomplish through this model.” Rochester is interested in focusing more of its business starts on lower-capital, service-based businesses. For instance, only one of Rochester’s five potential worker cooperatives is a multi-million dollar venture, compared to all three of the Evergreen Cooperatives startups, according to a 2016 planning document released by the Democracy Collaborative. Additionally, the worker co-ops proposed in Rochester are planned to satisfy unmet consumer or anchor institution demands, instead of entering markets already served by existing vendors. Fitts believes this will minimize risk, as well as prevent duplication and competition within the local supply chain.

Second, the anchor approach in Rochester is conceived to build alliances with independently-forming worker cooperatives or conversions as a way of accelerating growth in the cooperative sector. Rochester’s planned nonprofit umbrella corporation — the equivalent of the Evergreen Cooperatives Corporation — plans to offer business services and back office support to other cooperatives. Potentially, this will facilitate profit pooling across a wider universe of co-ops that can be used to finance additional worker co-op starts. Speedy growth in the number and size of anchor-linked worker cooperatives is the best way to benefit worker co-op members, while also lighting a spark in the divested communities where they locate. The concept in Rochester builds a new avenue for growth into the approach.

The Ecosystem Approach in Motion in Madison and Richmond, California

New York’s effort to promote worker cooperative development happened by a collaborative of nonprofit co-op developers that provide technical assistance. As more cities have emulated New York, the ecosystem approach has shaped up, as cities think about the DAWI-inspired ecosystem concept in the context of the particular resources, strengths, and challenges in their cities. In New York, the collaborative of co-op developers organized itself, but this has not been the experience in every city. How to activate a community of worker co-ops or co-op developers is a challenge to overcome in certain places, and trajectories in two cities lead to different answers.

Richmond, California had a difficult experience getting worker cooperatives established through an education-focused program it funded for one year in 2011/12, finding that cooperative entrepreneurs needed more business and social supports than were available. Learning from those challenges, City Councilperson Gayle McLaughlin is helping the nonprofit Richmond Worker Cooperative Revolving Loan Fund, spun off from her time as Mayor, establish a worker cooperative incubator. The planning is funded by the California Endowment and, if established, will provide heavier business supports than the initial City of Richmond endeavor. Incubators have not figured prominently in municipal understandings of how to promote worker cooperatives, but it may be useful in areas like Richmond without much local worker cooperative experience arising organically.

The path forward in Madison is different. Madison enjoys a comparatively rich cooperative history and business culture, but worker co-op development organizations did not join together to lobby for municipal funding as they did in New York. Instead, the Mayor initiated the plan to fund cooperative development through personal interest and more casual interactions with some of the city’s cooperatives. In the absence of a co-op developer collaborative like New York’s, the City of Madison is setting out to organize one itself. After approving budget allocations of $600,000 for each of the next five years, Madison has been encouraging a variety of existing local cooperatives, organizations, and lending institutions to come together to discuss how they can proceed in setting up worker co-op development capacity as well as loan funds.

The city is convening the local organizations, cooperatives, and lenders to decide together how best to divide responsibilities and, said Madison’s Ruth Rohlich in an interview, the group “may have to create new organizations to manage the program as opposed to just adding it to already existing programming.” While the participants have leeway in imagining how they can best make use of Madison’s investment in worker cooperatives, the city government has used its Request for Proposal to place some parameters on the planning process. For instance, Madison expects any organizations contracted for this initiative to work with University of Wisconsin’s Center for Cooperatives (a university-based research center), Shared Capital Cooperative (a cooperative lender), and to include labor unions in planning and implementation processes. Like New York, it will also require reporting so that the city can help troubleshoot if necessary.

Another element introduced in Madison is to make finance capacity an explicit focus for ecosystem building. Madison is devoting half of the funding allocated, or $300,000 per year for five years, for the development of a worker cooperative loan fund. The City of Madison expects whatever fund managers it contracts to be capable of growing the loan fund beyond the city’s contribution, mainly through fundraising plans, matching dollar requirements, or getting financial institutions to set aside percentages of loan capital.

Berkeley and Oakland Join the Wave with a Third Approach to Worker Co-op Development

A third approach aimed at incentivizing worker cooperatives through preference bidding is taking shape in Oakland and Berkeley in consultation with the Sustainable Economies Law Center. Both cities passed resolutions to establish bidding preferences earlier in 2016 for implementation in the coming months or year. Oakland just sent a follow-up ordinance for City Council consideration in October 2016.

While the details are still being worked out for eventual implementation, the resolutions or planned ordinances in Berkeley and Oakland involve worker co-op certification protocols intended to make sure preferences go to truly worker-owned and managed businesses; informational materials to be displayed by the city to incentivize worker co-op starts; and discounts or points for worker cooperatives competing for city bids. Additionally, Berkeley’s ordinance includes some tax and registration exemptions or reductions, as well as expedited land use review.

As preference bidding proceeds, city governments are likely to adjust their approaches. Said Oakland Councilperson Annie Campbell Washington in an interview, “There will be a limited number of worker cooperatives right now who will be able to take advantage of (bidding preferences).” Getting worker co-ops to form in the areas of city purchasing and contracting may prove to be the main puzzle to be solved in growing the worker co-op sector through bid preferences and, ultimately, a focus for experimentation as the approach unfolds over time.

Making Worker Cooperatives a Permanent Urban Economic Development Focus?

In her book The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Public Vs. Private Sector Myths, Mariana Mazzucato made the case that government spending is often implicated in cases of transformative innovation, such as that motivating the advocates of worker cooperatives as engines of market change. The spreading municipal commitment to worker cooperatives is notable, not only for the resources city governments bring but also for the connections they can make between worker cooperatives and business, financial, and nonprofit communities as well as other scales of government. Institutionalization or making the city commitment long term or permanent could help produce the sort of sustained attention, effort, and patience needed to scale-up worker co-op sectors.

At this time, the ten city governments have not taken steps to make support of worker cooperatives routine. Rochester’s Fitts expressed in the report a sentiment common among the cities. In Rochester, ongoing municipal commitment will depend on showing, he said, “that this is a feasible and effective method of capturing some of the economic energy, that it can be replicated, and that it can continue to grow businesses of this kind.” New York City has decided to fund year by year, although it could decide to make multi-year commitments in the future.

Worker cooperatives may have additional ideas for measuring and enhancing performance of these municipal cooperative development efforts, as well as deciding collaboratively how city governments can improve their support. But, assuming worker cooperatives perform as desired, city governments cited additional challenges to asses before deciding whether or how worker cooperatives will fit into their economic development plans. First is duplication or displacement of existing small businesses. Oakland’s Campbell Washington relayed a sense that city officials like herself are to “advocate for local independent businesses at the same time I am advocating for worker cooperatives.” Displacement of existing local businesses and the jobs they support are risks in all types of economic development, but innovative cities want to see net growth of opportunity, especially for people at the bottom of the wage hierarchy. Advocates of worker cooperatives can allay some of this challenge by focusing on growing or emerging market sectors when possible, or in areas of unmet demand.

A second challenge to routinizing city commitments to worker development concerns resources. City governments cannot always count on slack budgets and reported needing to make hard choices at times between competing projects. Cities have been important allies to worker cooperatives, but the federal government role could be bolstered, helping cities access an adequate resource base from which to co-create innovations with community.

Finally, some cities are curious to see how well worker cooperatives balance social and business purposes. There is possible tension between getting to social inclusion and remaining competitive in the market, noted Minneapolis’ Daniel Bonilla. Cities want to see outcomes in both areas and, if both can be accommodated, worker cooperatives may become more permanent features of city economic or small business development planning.


[Editor’s note: attempts were made by the author to elicit feedback on the various policies discussed in this article from co-op worker-owners, but none have so far responded.  However, as our mission at GEO is to amplify the voices of worker-owners specifically, we are asking again for feedback from practicioners on these municipal policies. It would be especially helpful to hear from worker-owners in the cities discused about their experience of the programs so far.  We encourage everyone, but especially worker-owners, to respond in the comments section.]

Photo by smata2