By Evgeny Morozov and Francesca Bria. Following the celebration of the “creative city” (as described by Richard Florida), the “smart city” has become the new flavor of the month—and a brand. It makes clever use of resources, and it attracts money, corporate power, and private industries. Offering us cheap, effective solutions to social and political problems, the smart city is functional, optimized, and safe rather than participatory, sustainable, and fair.
As Evgeny Morozov and Francesca Bria point out, however, the problem is not merely the regulatory impulse of smart technologies. Coming from a political-economic rather than a purely technical perspective, the authors argue that the smart city can only be understood within the context of neoliberalism. In order to remain competitive in the era of austerity politics, cities hand over the management of public infrastructure and services to private companies, both de-centralizing and de-personalizing the political sphere.
How can cities regain control not only over technology, data, and infrastructure, but also over the services that are mediated by smart technologies—such as utilities, transportation, education, and health? Offering a wealth of examples and case studies from across the globe, the authors discuss alternative smart city models, which rely on democratic data ownership regimes, grassroots innovation, and cooperative service provision models.
Evgeny Morozov is a prominent critic of digital capitalism, dealing with questions of how major technology companies are transforming society and democracy. The author of several books, he also writes for various newspapers, including The New York Times, The Economist, The Guardian, and Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. With a background in social science and innovation economics, Francesca Bria is an expert in digital strategy, technology, and information policy, who is active in various innovation movements advocating for open access, open technologies, and digital rights. She is currently Chief Technology and Digital Innovation Officer at the Barcelona City Council.
Laying out what works and what doesn’t in the smart city of today, the authors do not simply advocate for a high-tech version of socialism in the fifth publication of our “City Series.” By carefully assessing what is at stake and for whom, this timely study offers practical solutions for how cities can be smart while retaining their technological sovereignty.
The Chilean government’s innovation lab—Laboratorio de Gobierno[link in Spanish], or “LabGob” for short—was formally established in 2015. Since then, it has worked with thousands of civil servants and citizens in Chile, using an iterative, human-centered design approach to tackle problems in health care, energy, and more. Emily Middleton spoke to its founding Executive Director, Juan Felipe López Egaña, about LabGob’s mission, and about how to drive innovation in the public sector. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
President Michelle Bachelet first announced the idea of a government innovation lab to the Chilean Congress in May 2014. Before that, the focus in governments had been on how to increase innovation in the private sector: in firms, and through encouraging entrepreneurship. But there hadn’t been a dedicated agency responsible for encouraging innovation within the public sector. President Bachelet recognized that, and seized on the opportunity to create one.
The Chilean government made a call for proposals for the initial conceptual design of the lab. Together with Nicolás Rebolledo, I put together a design for the lab to address three main problems the Chilean government was facing at the time — and which many other governments also face:
How to learn to understand and manage complex problems
How to improve productivity and deliver better public services with lower cost
How to create a better relationship between citizens and government based on enhanced trust
Those three aims became the political mandate for LabGob.
When LabGob was founded, what decisions were made about its organizational design? How have these contributed to its success?
First, an interministerial governance model was created to ensure the representation of, and real input by, key stakeholders, both from within and outside government. The board of directors was designed to provide strategic direction for LabGob, and includes members from five ministries: those of the Economy, Interior, Treasury, General Secretariat, and Social Development. It includes representatives from within the civil service and from civil society. This model of governance has been critical in realizing the presidential mandate we received in 2014.
Second, we decided to do an open call to recruit the founding LabGob team. We received an overwhelming response, and were inundated with more than 2,700 applicants from a wide range of professional backgrounds. Attracting and retaining a strong, multidisciplinary team has been a key part of our strategy since the beginning.
What are LabGob’s main priorities and projects?
The LabGob has two overarching strands. The first is “Train and Mobilize”: to train and mobilize both government employees and citizens in innovation approaches. An important program under this strand is Innovadores publicos, which trains public servants in skills necessary for innovation. The aim is to build social capital within the public sector. We also help the National Civil Service Directorate to run Funciona — the title is a Spanish word that’s a pun both on “it works” and “civil servant.” It’s a prize that recognizes civil servants that have innovated within their ministry.
The second strand is “Explore and Solve,” which helps government to better understand and solve public problems. It’s primarily concerned with project service delivery [link in Spanish] within government as well as open calls for public challenges. We have in-house, multidisciplinary teams that undertake innovation project briefs in collaboration with government ministries to tackle a particular problem or policy.
One example is a recent collaboration between LabGob, the Ministry of Energy, and the Chilean consumer protection agency. The project was to redesign the domestic electricity bill to better enable citizens to understand their energy usage and reduce costs. The bill was co-created with a diverse group of citizens, and is now received by every household in Chile.
How do LabGob’s values and ways of working differ from the rest of the civil service?
LabGob primarily uses methods from human-centered design, open innovation, and ethnographic research. Our process is adapted from the “Double Diamond” model articulated by the UK Design Council. We have a strong focus on people and understanding the user or citizen. We believe in co-creation and experimentation, and in taking a systemic approach to problem-solving.
Our main goal is to integrate approaches and principles from design into the way governments work. Governments won’t change their management pillars: hierarchies, teams, budgets, timeframes, and rules. Our challenge is how we can communicate our approaches in the language of the public sector. We want people to understand that we are proposing a cultural change that is possible and feasible, and that is not a threat to the traditional way civil service works.
Ultimately if we want to be tackle complex problems, and if we want to reshape the government’s relationship with citizens, will a traditional, linear approach work? No. So let’s use principles from design to shift from a linear policymaking process to a more open, complex, user-based approach. That’s how we will be able to deliver better and more sustainable public services.
How do you manage the cultural change element of your mission? Isn’t it difficult to change culture within the civil service?
It might sound counterintuitive to say, but the Chilean public sector is extremely innovative. However, public servants often don’t have the opportunities or the support to foster their own initiatives. And budgets, timelines, rules, and leadership typically do not often align with the innovation process.
From my perspective, we need to work with public-sector managers to get them on board, and create an environment accepting of innovation. It’s not only about giving civil servants tools and methods.
That’s why we work on three dimensions: improving opportunities inside public-sector institutions, developing skills among public servants, and fostering motivations across people both inside and outside government.
How does LabGob engage citizens?
One of our main tools is open innovation challenges, where we invite members of the public to propose solutions to a public problem.
For our first “demo” challenge, we chose access to primary health care. This is a big problem in Chile — people often queue very early from 5 or 6 am just to get a primary care appointment. We received 208 solutions, 70–80 percent from Chile. We then held a boot camp for the best 20 to prototype their solutions in a municipality. There were four eventual winners. Of those, one is now in the market, and two are being absorbed by the municipal government as part of their service delivery.
For us, it was very promising to see what happens when you open public problems to the public. The results can be exciting. For instance, Levanta Tu Casa (Lift your House) was a project led by a group of architecture students. It won AULAB Natural Disasters in 2016 [AULAB is an innovation competition for university students, run by LabGob]. The students designed a new system for emergency housing that now has become the new standard of emergency shelters for ONEMI, Chile’s National Emergency Office.
For our next open innovation challenge — in public safety — we want to involve as many people as possible in terms of demographic diversity and geographic area. We want to encourage families and local neighborhood groups to come up with solutions to their local problems.
LabGob has been especially active within the design and innovation for government movement globally. What’s your take on the outlook for this movement? And what advice would you offer to other countries wanting to replicate LabGob’s success?
LabGob has conducted research with the OECD on the capabilities needed to innovate inside government. This had an important milestone in 2016 with the Future State event, which aimed to explore the common opportunities and challenges of innovating in the public sector. With the event, we also wanted to connect with public-sector innovators from other countries, and help build that community. A synthesis of the discussion is available here [link in Spanish]. We believe that a global movement for public-sector innovation is not only important — it is imperative for driving government transformation.
In Latin America, we have been sharing our experience with other countries. One of my main messages is that it’s not really about design, labs, and methods… those are just tools. It’s really all about how government works, how it understands, and how it addresses new problems. We should talk about public management rather than design. Otherwise it becomes a very selfish conversation, only suitable for an elite trained in specific methods. The government innovation labs around the world that failed were in love with design tools. They didn’t take the time to convince and persuade their clients, and to speak their language. If we want to have a successful international movement, we need to speak in the language of the public sector — not in the language of design.
What are your plans for LabGob in 2017 and beyond?
Our short-term goal is to consolidate our work. In 2017, we need to demonstrate beyond doubt that our work is vital and urgent. The LabGob was established by the current President, and we have a presidential election at the end of this year. We need to ensure continuity of LabGob, no matter what the outcome.
In the longer term, LabGob should be widely recognized as a frontline agency that can help public institutions test new approaches and services. That’s it. If that happens, I can die happy!
How has activism in Spain produced new political platforms that are victorious in municipal elections? Are there stories, lessons, methods or tools that can be shared or translated to other contexts? How might these support the growing movement in France?
CommonsPolis — a civil society initiative to create dialogue between progressive municipalist movements and city governments, and European citizens — held an encounter described as “a common space for exchange; cities in transition and citizen struggles” in Paris on November 24, 2016, at the offices of the Charles Léopold Mayer Foundation (FPH) and with the collaboration of the Utopia Movement. Spanish activists from a variety of regions were invited to share with their French counterparts their recent experiences of entering the municipal public administrations, and their efforts to make the political process more participatory and inclusive for citizens. The event was held in Spanish (Castellano) and French, with simultaneous interpretation. I went along with Stacco Troncoso as observers from the P2P Foundation. We were invited to attend, listen, and share our P2P/Commons perspective about the coming political landscape.
The Spanish context was outlined in a handout offered at the event, which described the most significant breakthroughs of the last two years (2015-16). In May 2015, the new citizens’ coalitions which had emerged from the street-level movements were successful in a number of large municipal elections. The path of these citizens’ coalitions traces back to reactions against the failures of Spain’s post-Transition bipartisanism, and their victories indicate a shift in mindset, culture, and power. These new, municipalist “non-parties” are outgrowths of the 15Mindignado movement and “las mareas” (tides), citizens’ initiatives around housing, health, education, culture and urban ecology. They build on prior political traditions of self-management and governance, while also drawing influences from the de-growth, ecology and free/libre movements and applying mindful use of technology and media.
The event began with a brief introduction by Vladimir Ugarte, who described Commonspolis as a mixture of personal and professional developments. Sergi Escribano, originally from Spain, was living in France and observing the tremendous changes shaking up Spanish civil, and political, society. Meanwhile Vlad, originally from Uruguay, brought a Latin American perspective on the political environmental and cultural crisis worldwide. As they witnessed the local governance initiatives taking shape under a municipalist ethic in Spain, they decided to do something about it — but instead of writing a grand manifesto, they would first proceed by listening. This event was created in support of that intention, and to explore the question of how such a shift would scale or transfer to another context – how can the municipal experiences of Spanish activists help inform the next steps elsewhere, in France for example?
From bipartisanism to municipalism: Spain’s Political Landscape
We spent the day together in a clean, modern room with light wooden paneling and lots of windows facing an interior courtyard at the FPH offices. The atmosphere was friendly and familiar, and a number of people had either previously met or corresponded, so the morning started with upbeat conversation and coffee. The organizers called us to sit in a circle to begin, and for the next several hours, the story of the municipal victories in Spain unfolded.
Members ofBarcelona en Comú, Marea Atlántica and València en Comústarted by sharing their perspectives on what provoked the crisis and its reactions in Spain, and the relationships and patterns that they see emerging among the resulting different movements and parties.
A brief look at Spain’s most recent forty years set the context for the stories that would follow. The post-Franco years were marked by the rise and fall of Spanish bipartisanism. The power structures of the dictatorship were largely preserved in one of the two dominant political parties, Partido Popular or the People’s Party (PP), supported by old-guard power players and the Catholic church. Meanwhile, the more moderate and steadily center-leaning Partido Socialista Obrera Español (PSOE), the Socialist Worker’s Party, swiftly abandoned Marxism in the late 70s. In the early 2000s, Spain adopted the Euro with great expectations but, after a decade of speculative action, the quality of day to day life began to deteriorate. Prices went up, but salaries stayed flat. While neither party was solely to blame, neither was innocent. Corruption became more prevalent and obvious. Unprecedented construction speculation culminated in the devastating housing bubble, triggering “the crisis” marked by rising incidences of mortgage foreclosure and eviction, and rampant unemployment.
As we know, this political/economic crisis provoked a widespread activist reaction in Spain, beginning in 2011 with the eruption of the 15-M movement. Five years later, a large part of this activism has since moved indoors from the streets and squares to government posts, but this did not come easily. Power and influence struggles persist, both internally among activists with different missions, and as a by-product of the constraints felt in being a minority power. A relatively low number of seats in parliament poses an obvious disadvantage for those activists now working within government. Progress is often hamstrung by the institutional rigidity of government structures, not to say the baroque quality of Spanish law.
So, how did these activists manage to grab the power needed to break the bipartisan stranglehold? In 2014, 5 Members of European Parliament (MEPs) fromPodemoswere elected, evidence of a strong resistance to bipartisanism. The kind of changes Podemos triggered started on a local scale with municipal platforms, creating networks for every city to work for local change. These platforms are the “how”, but not the “who”, of change; it’s important to remember that any one party, Podemos included, is a part of the platform, and not the whole.
L-R: Vladimir Ugarte (Empodera), Laura Roth (BCN en Comú), Rafa Juan (València en Comú), Sergi Escribano (Empodera), Neus Fàbregas (València en Comú), Daniel Rodríguez (Marea Atlántica), Marcelo Expósito (BCN en Comú), Diego Jimenez (Marea Atlántica). See all participants here.
On the practical level, many people who felt indignation in response to the crisis indeed becameindignadas, activists not just in their own lives but also in electoral politics.“Las Mareas”, or the “tides”, are citizen-activist groups formed throughout Spain after 15M, each acting in a specific sector and often identified by color (green for education, white for health, etc.). Mainly, they help create or safeguard access to different public services hit by austerity policies. La Marea Atlántica, formed in 2014 in A Coruña, Galicia, was formed with another goal in sight. Building on a long tradition of local leftist politics, La Marea Atlántica intended to develop a participative municipal administration. They collected 2,500 signatures towards presenting candidates for city council and also mayor, the latter of which they won in the 2015 elections. There is a special cultural significance in this win: the mayor, Xulio Ferreiro, is the first in office who speaks the local language (Gallego).
As they describe themselves, La Marea Atlántica has several currents. They incorporate the ideals of 15M, but for the platform to be successful, they stress that everyone involved must work together. For example, the platform should not be considered as a projection of Podemos in particular, there are a number of parties represented. It’s a political space where many come together, what they call a “political proposal”.
Marea Atlántica’s online instruments have been created to enable all types of citizens’ participation. “Mareas abiertas” (open tides) is a key element: there are no party-imposed quotas, any individual can participate. The campaigns are completely self-financed. And they continue to develop more participatory, inclusive projects, such asCo-Lab. The website describes Co-Lab as “a recent social innovation project with a mission to improve quality of life for people and have a more egalitarian citizenship, through mechanisms of collaborative, open and re-usable knowledge production.”
But the truth is, they sometimes have difficulties in keeping it all up. The daily management is hard work, and it doesn’t sustain itself without a lot of input. Maintaining a high level of interest and engagement in people sometimes becomes challenging in the flow of action between activism and institutions, even when the processes are open and participatory.
Why have a such wide range and high number of people in Spain have turned to activism? Not long ago, many people were working hard just to pay the mortgage, only to see their job security and financial stability slip away. People started going “underwater” on their mortgages, and the ugly spectacle of police-enforced home evictions proved to be too much to bear without resistance by those affected and their friends, neighbors and communities. 2009 saw the beginning of thePlataforma de Afectados por la Hipotecaor (PAH) — Platform for People Affected by Mortgages — in Barcelona. Through civil disobedience and direct action, people take part in opposing evictions, often putting themselves physically between law enforcement and homeowners— the banks take the property, but the cops take the people.
PAH has successfully prevented well over one thousand such evictions. One of their founding members, Ada Colau, became a spokesperson ofBarcelona en Comú, and more recently was elected the mayor of Barcelona. Where 15M once had people in the streets and squares chanting “no nos representa”— “they don’t represent us” — now, in Ada Colau, they have a mayor who emerged from the movement itself. The “en Comú” movements in other cities including València are municipal platforms that have gathered a good deal of public interest and support. From the en comú movements in these two cities, Barcelona and Valencia, many reflections and indeed, even warnings were shared.
En Comú in València is a platform of the streets, now in the transition to electoral politics and campaigns. With its roots in street assemblies, food sovereignty campaigns and the student and housing movements, en Comú identified a shift: people moved toward thinking in terms of “ours”, rather than “mine”. They’ve also crowdfunded their own “improvised” campaign and gained 33 seats in the local parliament. But being in the minority, like La Marea, they’ve got a vertiginous climb ahead. With the political will to survive, the members of VEC stress that it’s worth the trouble of persisting. Although the process is full of problems, they’re committed to keeping on, moving forward, not losing hope. This is the moment for reality checks but also going back to the roots of the organization, to recuperate what people have in common while also confronting an administration that mainly seeks to take care of itself.
Barcelona en Comú are often asked to tell their story, and they do so “warts and all”, with all of the problems and challenges along with the successes. Yes,they did win in the Barcelona elections, but with 11 seats (out of 41) in city assembly, it’s clearly not enough to govern a city; the change is local and limited, for the moment. While they may form part of the government, the ongoing question is how to be part of a government that doesn’t want you to make changes. So, within the small space between simple legislation and doing nothing at all, BeC is attempting to do something differentwith the many limits and problems at the government level.
Through their organization’s creation and continued evolution, they have come to understand that the change in political discourse has taken place on both the right and the left. Extensive changes are occurring in traditional politics. The left, however, seems to communicate in abstracts, which creates rather than solves problems at the local level. People do not want abstract terms, they wantconcrete solutions. This must be discussed, but not in the accepted, unquestioned, persistent ways. Results should come by treating concrete problems, being realistic, and going through phases at the local level, growing real participation among people. The PAH platform, for example, has been built step by step, acknowledging every little victory that adds up to something (previously) unimaginable. And finding the appreciation for the small steps is part of the change.
Keenly aware of the masculine style of typical political discourse, along with its implications, the movements in Spain have been working to feminize the discourse and encourage more and better participation. Bringing others into the platforms depends on something mentioned multiple times: an ethical code, designed for open participation and the encouragement of real politics with people creating their own platforms – implementing radical democracy. Participatory conversation creates political change, and the feminization of politics is not only about the political work itself, it also means a change of style.
But these municipal platforms are not solely designed for local citizens; it was made clear, they must be part of a multi-level structure capable of operating at the national, and even transnational, levels. To make this happen, the municipal platforms must coordinate among themselves and beyond. They need to present viable political alternatives that channel the rising resistance to recent right-populist political developments such as Brexit and the election of Trump.
Crucially, each of these new municipalist coalitions has based their work on their“codigo etico”, the ethical codewhichshapes everything they do in the platforms, participation in institutions. This ethical code is developed from existing experiences, and acts as both the glue and the attractor for participants. Its main principles are:
No revolving doors (no cycling through public/private positions)
Open primaries — no party quotas, and open to anyone
Voluntary/citizen self-financing, and rejection of institutional or bank financing
Caveats and cautions were offered about the problems found in making municipal change. Hard limits, even something like a “glass ceiling”, were described. Some of this is surely due to the experimental nature of this new institutional style grating against the very durable, quintessentially neoliberal, crisis produced by the established political powers. Opposition is not easy, and neither have been these first moves from the streets into municipal chambers. They said it again and again: for all the progress made in Spain, there’s no formula for entering these institutions.
Winning is not the same as gaining power; to gain effective power takes a very empowered citizenship, and citizens are starved of power. Broadening citizen participation is obviously important, but this must be done within the local context, and will create something different in each location — so, again, “recipes” are impossible. While it’s true that the regime crisis has led to a growth in political and urban “lab” environments, making the leap into the municipal government is not simple, and successful attempts at change are slow and hard won. Even the new methodologies employed can cause problems.
Because of all this, thecodigo etico — code of ethics — was described as indispensable. New government is, as has been learned, not always an effective government, and political organizations can be prone to inter-faction disputes. Think inclusively — how might a single, immigrant mother of several children, for example, be encouraged or enabled to participate, and why? For a positive reception to some kind of marea social, or citizens’ tide movement, there must be real solutions and a clear path to participation or there will be no way out of the crisis.
With so much of what’s familiar and concrete being constructs of neoliberalism — business, management, government — the path towards reconstruction from the bottom is difficult, and more so with a repressive legislative architecture. On top of it all, there’s another difficulty. This hard, neoliberal Europe has also produced a rapidly rising, bottom-up, citizen-level force from the right which must be watched and considered closely.
But, what do the movements find when they ask the people what they want? The people are still outraged and anxious. They want assurances of security, to finally get out of the economic crisis. What happens when those who’ve moved into municipal government want rupture, but what the people want is restoration? People say they want to “go back to the way things were”, but not only is that impossible, things were not really so good — but memories are short. This is the key of the extreme right, this ideological message. What’s needed is more empathy.
In conclusion, those presenting from the various movements in Spain all shared that their processes have been a qualified nightmare at times, and that navigating through the crisis has been very hard. But at the heart there remains a source of hope and motivation– sí se puede.
Widening the Conversation
In several small, multi-lingual groups, we had some animated discussions about the enthusiasm, curiosity and doubts in reaction to the initial expositions. What clearly came across were ideas about promoting self-management, the need for exercising caution with the existing paternalism in society, and providing more visibility to self-management practices. People discussed encouraging social empowerment to correct, rather than tolerate, constant institutional blockages, as well as how to promote more social income and participatory budgeting.
Even with some notable differences in the French context, there is a clear need for municipal learning and “unlearning” within concrete, multi-scale, autonomous movements; a need to find ways to resolve the eventual failures, and to put forth proposals that people can use. Strengthening bottom-up narratives and nurturing inclusivity in political practices are fundamentals. Without this shift towards change that remains in service of the community, people will eventually lose confidence.
Instability fomented the change in the Spanish territory, and that original energy continued to provoke changes in the context of the social movements. A strong focus emerged, along with a greatly increased local participation. Investigations into the crisis — what caused it, how to address it — provided a springboard from which people began thinking and working collectively, always keeping those ethical codes in sight.
The trajectory of personal transformation can lead into a political one, and ideas turn to politics. But how would those in the French context follow the work done in the Spanish municipal arena? By introducing the virus of change into the institutions. Study the length of time before elections, and find a way to anticipate what will be needed, and communicate it. Work to avoid power struggles, and work to make those personal transformations integrate into the platforms. This includes feminization to induce noticeable differences in governance — it’s important to dismantle patriarchal constructs, i.e. the tendency for the loudest to be heard, and for the longest time. Oh, and another thing — resolve the tension between just talking to people about problems, and changing things so that communication becomes empowerment.
But what about the fact that people have long adopted completely neoliberal behaviour patterns, right from primary school — how is it possible to address these limitations?At this point,how many people outside of these specialized groups really know how to work in a participatory style anymore? The dialogue has been long lost, and must be recovered, including a change in values. The tension between power and counterpower has to be acknowledged, and differences between “collective” and “commons”, where the commons is a search for construction among people.
Later in the day, some more clues and tools came through from the activists from Spain in an additional round of group work, some more conceptual and some more concrete. Keeping up a good level of critique was cited as a key component, and to avoid forming “bubbles”. Sustainability, in the material sense, can mean using local and complementary currencies, or instigating more activities, rather than just talks — having more action take place in the communities (eg. garden cultivation and instructions). As far as inclusion, we need more work on “feminization”: get more women to participate, and change the grand-scale masculine logics and ideas for something more feminine, closer. Be inclusive of groups with fewer resources (eg, youth groups) and reach out to those former- or non-activists who feel excluded, cynical or disinterested. Make it all more open to the “others”, and work to maintain that level of inclusion.
Feminization, as it was described, can be a difficult, slow process of experimentation. Knowing this, it’s a good practice to create a protected environment for experimentation, and foster something slower but deeper. Create other forms of organization that are participatory from within the institutions: introduce techniques like speaking in turn, or request participants to give just one sentence, in quick rounds – things that encourage better participation. The goal is to break the usual tendencies for certain people to dominate and certain people to remain silent – time to shake up the comfort zone.
What about all the people who are used to just voting and dropping all the responsibility on the elected officials? And the question of enabling people’s capacities in the spirit of commons – how can this be done? With education, making every action more visible and creating spaces for discussion – actual, physical spaces. De-localize the decision-making within the platforms. Make proposals to the people, show them the ways to co-create communities using participatory principles, including codes of ethics. Someone could lead by example and propose a work group with specific rules and context, so everyone knows how to participate. Debate questions openly, eg. how to define the urban commons? Technical questions come up, and questions of tech, which is the means through which a large dominion of civic and political information is controlled. Think about how to make the technical solutions compatible with the political ones.
In the final afternoon discussions, there were several proposals following on the earlier dialogues. Why not hold the next European Commons Assembly in a “rebel” city, one undergoing commons-friendly changes, to see more potentially concrete changes and proposals in action. And with the EU elections coming in 2019, more work needs to be done within the commons political network, focusing on “free, fair, sustainable” principles with visible alliances around the different commons – knowledge, social justice, ecology, etc. It’s time to open some common spaces for action where people can learn to make, do and live differently, and discover how to exchange experiences around common development and management (“gestion en común”).
Change-making in France: a reaction
The question that was opened for exploration at the end of the day: exactly what aspects of the citizens’ platforms in Spain might be portable to France? Although it’s understood that the process and results are still in flux, there is ample space for change anda strong desire to experiment with what can be replicated at different scales. So, how to mobilize now – what kinds of tips and tricks might be viable in the French sociopolitical landscape?
In 2014, Spanish activists said “let’s take the city” – a seemingly impossible challenge. One year later, municipal elections were won by Ahora Madrid, and en Comú in Barcelona and València – and although these new parties and representatives may face hostility from inside, the spirit of“sí se puede”has been successfully validated and propagated. With a strong commons culture in France, the possibilities are wide open. How to organize and mobilize? The advice offered was: organize for what already exists, don’t over-politicize, keep to the needs of people in the communities, and work up from small steps.
While there are apparent cultural differences in the French and Spanish contexts, some form of “viral” idea sharing could promote a cultural change towards more widespread citizen engagement, particularly in municipal politics. In Spain, people organized in and from the public squares, where in France this kind of expanded organization may not yet have taken root fully — althoughNuit de bot certainly offers us a good view on how it could develop — but, that said, it was acknowledged that a movement has beenborn in France with roots in an economic crisis, even if different from that in Spain. For a young person, joining Uber is a lot cheaper and faster than obtaining a taxi license, but this easy entry could have a high cost in eventual precarity.
Conclusions. Where do we go from here?
All the municipalist players from the Spanish territory are working multi-scale (local, national, regional, and now in international dialogues). The coalitions are non-partisan, though inclusive of established political parties. They all want to end the isolation presently perceived at the city level, merging more towards an ideal of the “networked rebel cities”. Overall, the key point made for the French activists was the need to create and implement a common ethical code for participation. Meetings such as this one should obviously evolve to be more diverse and representative of the public at large, as the movements themselves are. As the meeting drew to a close, it was noted pretty bluntly– if we don’t get our shit together, the far right will, in terms of gathering massive support by addressing the concrete needs of people.
As commoners and activists concerned about caring for our neighbours and the environments which sustain us, the responsibility falls on all of us, beyond Spain, beyond France. We are the stewards of change, and this change needs to go beyond boundaries to engage real needs with viable, common-sense solutions. The community empowerment, network logics and feminization of politics displayed by municipalist platforms such as València en Comú, Marea Atlántica and Barcelona en Comú could inspire new bottom-up electoral coalitions in surprisingly different contexts. Let’s spread the word and show the world what happens when concerned citizens decide to take the power back.
Within a few weeks of Trump’s victory, mayors of big “sanctuary cities” throughout America, including New York, Chicago and Los Angeles declared that they wouldn’t collaborate with a Trump administration order to deport peaceful, law-abiding resident. Trump is now threatening that he will deny these cities federal funding unless they comply. The amount of money that cities could be denied by the Trump administration isn’t entirely clear, but Mother Jones estimates that Washington DC could potentially lose up to 25% of its budget, New York and San Francisco could lose 10% and Los Angeles could lose 2%.
If cities want to have a leg to stand on during their negotiations with the Trump administration, they must prepare to operate without federal funding. If there is one message US cities need to convey to Trump, it’s that they can turn Trump’s belligerence into the political will they need to make municipal government more efficient, transparent and participatory than the Federal government; and in the process restructure the relationship between municipalities and nations. Trump and his supporters must realize that the more pressure the Federal government puts on cities, the more cities will unite together, and the faster an emergent, post-nation-state paradigm will emerge. If In short, if Trump doesn’t play his cards right, he could very well become the president that undermines the role of the nation-state in global affairs and kicks off a new version of the “devolution revolution“, but this time based in cities and inspired by progressive values.
Municipal governments will not be able to fend off the federal government if their bureaucracies are inefficient and unpopular with the public. Most municipal bureaucracies were designed in an era of switchboards and memos and need a significant upgrade. Is there really any doubt that new systems designed around smart phones and open source software couldn’t out perform the many-decades-old legacy systems most cities currently use by significant margins? The factor limiting the upgrading of municipal bureaucracies are political, not technological. Changing how government works involves shifting the balance of power within agencies, department and groups. These types of changes require tremendous amounts of buy-in from members of the bureaucracy and the public in general. This buy-in is hard to get, but with the nightmare of Trump using federal funds as leverage to coerce cities to adopt policies their residents abhor, it will become much easier to make the case that municipalities must engage in serious internal reform.
The choice for city residents should be clear: adopt 21st century technologies and organizational forms, or submitting to federal coercion. If current city leaders can’t or won’t execute the reforms needed to wean their cities off federal funds, then new leaders need to be brought in who will. Instead of talking about it — let’s build it. For our cities. And now. As if the lives of our neighbors depends on it. Because it might.
Existing models show us how we can systematically transforming government agencies through the adoption and use of inexpensive open source tools and techniques. One group that performs this type of activity is 18F, a unit within the Federal Government’s General Services Administration. 18F helps federal agencies figure out how to improve their operations using open source technology and iterative development processes. They’ve been extremely successful, to the point where government contractors lodged an official complaint that 18F was hurting their businesses because they were saving the Federal government too much money. 18F’s is small group in a massive federal government so their impact is limited, but their model is spreading. The Pentagon’s Defense Digital Services and the White Houses US Digital Service both model themselves off of 18F. City governments could and should create similar types of Digital Service Organizations (DSOs) as a means of increasing their ability to not only do more with less, but also as a means of challenging the Trump administration’s competence.
One of the innovative features of DSOs is their commitments to clear documentation of business processes and utilization of open source software. This allows them to share the innovations they develop for one agency with other agencies within that government (and ideally with other governments around the world.) This eliminates complex procurement processes, reduces costs and even creates an opportunity for highly skilled developers outside government to contribute to their effort. Since the solutions DSOs create are often open source, they can (and do) set up bounty systems that allow software developers to submit code that solve problems identified by the DSO. Allowing highly skilled urban residents to contribute code to a project that improves a city’s effectiveness if precisely the type of deep contribution city residents should be able to make to defend their cities from federal coercion.
There are existing “civic tech” volunteer groups in cities all around the country filled with people passionate about finding ways to help city governments run faster, better and cheaper. A great example is NYC’s BetaNYC group. These groups present fantastic venues for sourcing and organizing volunteers that can amplify and support the work of DSOs to help make cities more resilient to federal coercion. But technology is just one area. Cities will need to build many more mechanisms that can convert their resident’s anger at Federal policies into surges of local volunteer-ship that increase the capability of city governments and reduce their need for federal aid.
If cities can find more effective ways to mobilize their massive human resources, then the era of Trump will be a catalyst pushing cities to be more efficient, autonomous and globally networked than ever before. This might sound like overkill, or too much work, but we have to be prepared if we want to defend ourselves and our neighbors from destructive federal actions. And if it turns out we overreacted and mistakenly volunteered to improve our cities, so it goes.