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Civic Innovation – the Internet of Cities

February 4th, 2017

As I wade through the many articles and opinion pieces on what is happening around the world with our economy and the future of work, I came across this post by Dylan Hendricks. The Near-Term Future of Democracy and Civic Innovation: The Internet of Cities

I thought Mr. Hendricks framing of the problem as a failure of our governance structures was spot on.  He makes a case for the Internet of Cities and gives us a series of steps that can help cities stabilize and move through the turbulence. There is much to consider in this post. His assessment provides new rays of light that hold promise.

Dylan Hendricks is the Director of the Ten-Year Forecast at the Institute for the Future. Speaker and researcher on mythology, the future, and the mythology of the future.

The Problem:

It’s becoming clear that global governance bodies like the UN and WTO are failing to stabilize and maintain the post-WWII geopolitical order. Global growth has stagnated.Multinationals acquire each other at unprecedented rates as nations compete for their largess. Conflict is brewing around the world, manifesting in frequent bursts of civil unrest and factional warfare. All this, and climate change and political upheaval have fomented the worst migrant crisis in modern history.

Most national governments now face an existential battle on two fronts: protecting themselves from their own disgruntled populations, and defending against foreign governments vying for power in the next wave of global dominance. It’s as though we’re in one big Mexican standoff between every country and religion and tribe in the world, all pointing guns at each other while we wait for the next big shoe to drop. That’s how Russia, though economically beleaguered and globally isolated, has found itself so powerful suddenly — it’s a good time to be a chaos agent.

The problem, of course, is that this current class of platforms have broken free of national constraints by riding the commercial infrastructure of multinational corporations. This isn’t in itself a problem, but where these private ventures have been phenomenally successful in developing compelling experiences and technologies, they’re neither incentivized nor equipped to navigate the social contracts that governments and the public have hammered out over centuries of hard-earned progress. Airbnb provides an incredible service to its customers and a novel revenue stream to its providers, but it disrupts low-income housing as much as it does traditional hotel chains. Another way of saying this: these platforms have already become too important to be managed entirely by individual companies.

The Solution, Step 2: Enter the 21st century city-state.

Residents in Austin, Texas and Barcelona, Spain have already discovered what happens when local regulations push Uber out of the local market: a dozen equivalent services emerge to fill the void. With their relatively self-contained infrastructure, populations and industries, cities might represent the ideal scale for governance and policy in the wild west that is the twenty-first century global economy.

Cities, of course, have always played the role of cultural catalyst during times of historic transition. Democracy was birthed through the powerful city states of ancient Greece, and Baghdad once sparked a golden age of science and art that spread across medieval Arabia. Today, individual cities like Sao Paulo and London provide the economic engines that power entire countries.

More importantly, real democratic work can likely get done in cities in a way that is currently impossible in the western climate of cold civil war. While national divides are complex, the easiest predictor of whether somebody voted Democrat or Republican in the 2016 American election wasn’t whether they were white or educated, but whether they lived in a city or not. In the Brexit vote, 75% of Londoners voted to stay in the EU against the will of a thin majority elsewhere in the country. Like it or not, residents of cities currently agree a lot more on the fundamentals than the entire populations of nations do.

And unlike nations, cities are inherently governable. They are large enough to implement meaningful system-wide policies, and small enough that residents can reasonably influence those policies through council hearings, mayoral elections, and local protest. And while only one-in-five Americans trust the federal government to make the right decisions, nearly three-quarters trust their local and city governments. Cities like New York and San Francisco have already pledged to use the many means at their disposal to protect against unwanted federal policies during the Trump administration.

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