Some Reading Material/Sources:
B-Cycle Bike Share Program in Denver Begins at Fast Company
TOMS Shoes and Buy-One-Give-One Business Model from Fast Copmany
BioTorrent: Torrent File Sharing Goes Academic from the Great Beyond
Stewart Brand on Deviant Globalization from Bruce Sterling's Beyond the Beyond at Wired.com
Cities as Software in the Netherlands via Beyond the Beyond (original can be found here)
Jon Stewart Surrenders to Big Banks
And a series of news links from Democracy Now [dot] org:
National Day of Action for Public Education (5 March)
Mass School Closings in Detroit (2 April)
Protests on Wall Street (30 April)
Austerity and Protest in Greece (4 May)
Arizona Legislation Banning Ethnic Studies (14 May)
Students Strike in Puerto Rico (17 May)
Makers by Cory Doctorow
The Uprising by David Sirota
What I have to say does not have much in refined structure at the moment. In many ways, it feels heavy with naysaying and rants. In another way, I am pretty sure it is more than that.
Economies far and wide in the economic North are stretched pretty thin. Whether it is the strain of budget cuts and reduced income for educational systems in the United States, the continued pilfering of Americans' pockets by banks (usually with the government as a foolish intermediary), or the strain of the European Union due to overextended loans and slowly growing economies, the results are startling and dramatic. Generally, the results are tightened strings and bound coffers, which are felt most intensely on those most in need of social services and least able to defend themselves. That is, by cutting back on financial aid packages for students or raising tuition, the institution engages in a self-defeating endeavor. Efforts to raise funds from the already hard hit only disenfranchises and alienates and likely fails to greatly improve revenues. Similarly, austerity measures in Greece leave those least responsible and least able to repay national debts handling the greatest burden.
"Socialism" and "socialist" are branded around American politics to the point of meaninglessness. Therefore, I have little concern with positing this alternative: By identifying taxing those parties who are doing the best under hard times (i.e. the too-big-to-fail banks) and lightening the budgets of those pursuits that require the greatest funds (that is, military engagements), we can free up the resources for real problem solving. When you are running low on luck and resources, the worse thing that can happen is to have those around you call in favors and debts, essentially debilitating you far beyond your means. Instead, when you are out of luck and capital, you ought to be able to fall back on social capital, resources, and utility to return to a position from which debts and favors can be returned. Right now, with over ten percent unemployment in the United States, it is obvious that luck is a shy in these parts.
If we take social resources, services, and capital seriously, as foundational for a healthy, recuperative economy and community, then a new model arises. Rather than cutting back on those services that assist the most people, we see what few resources that are available allocated most broadly. That isn't to say that high taxes (or the equivalent) takes everything away only to give it back, only that enough of a net is provided to actually support social, emotional, and economic recovery.
I think this notion makes the most obvious sense with education. Education is a noncompetitive resource; that is, just because I have a Bachelor's degree does not mean that there are any fewer degrees for you to get. In fact, the more people involved in education, the superior the product. With the wave of fiscal constraints--felt strongly in California and more recently in Puerto Rico, but everyone involved in education presently senses--and the subsequent protests, the importance of education and its shear power in sculpting society runs deep in our subconscious. When those constraints are deepened--as with the ban on ethnic studies in Arizona--the pressure becomes breaking-point severe.
This growing wave of dissatisfaction with shortchanged social services and a poverty of government initiative on resolving tension, a sort of upsurge of grassroots problem solving is solidifying. (Here, I focus on urban population centers because they concentrate the intellectual and motivational resources for this sort of to-the-point problem-solving more clearly.) Urban informatics, also known as city-as-software, models take the knowledge and opinions of city dwellers and turns the usual bureaucracy and turns it on its head. With urban informatics, there are three and only three steps: 1) Make concerns of citizens easily accessible to problem solvers, 2) Provide means for problem solvers to function, and 3) Put problem solvers to work. The article above focuses on potholes: You see a pothole, text the appropriate government network with the info and maybe a photo, and those who can fix it know exactly what the issue is. There are no pink forms, no TPS reports, just citizen concern and action. The real magic, though, is that this can be a two-step, citizen-run process: Report problem, appropriate problem solvers act. (By giving the responsibility to a student intern, the Eindhoven city government seem to identify the brevity of such an intermediary when it could be easily handled by a computer program or through direct connections with problem solvers.)
Now, let's expand more on urban informatics. My friend and I go into a new restaurant and try the food; if the food is questionable we can send a text to the county health inspector suggesting a surprise inspection, whereas if the cleanliness and quality are superb, a similar commendation (hosted by the health inspector, social network, or other organization) might be in order. (GoodGuide is a mobile phone application that acts somewhat like this for food, cleaning, and cosmetic products.) Or, if we return to the classroom, if my [hypothetical] daughter is having trouble with understanding trigonometry in class, if she and other students report a problem then a teacher assistant or temporary tutor could take a few days to improve or guide the situation. If, on the other hand, my daughter's teacher is fantastic at explaining geometry proofs, then the teacher may be asked to host a class or two for those students who are having difficulty elsewhere in the school or the district.
This demands a more adaptive and mobile expectation for our social systems. It also requires much more citizen participation in order to succeed. But isn't that exactly what we want right now? I am under the impression that most people--whether they are peacenik environmentalists or tea partiers--feel that no one in the government is really listening to the issues of the day. Albeit, many of those issues are larger than a text message about a pothole or restaurant, but those examples succeed at direct communication and quick response time. It does not help my daughter if I have to wait for a new superintendent that will hopefully be stronger on facilitating mathematics in the classroom. In a way, these new models function as perpetual town hall meetings. In such meetings, communities are small enough to get everyone together and openly discuss concerns which may be as minor as potholes or as severe as water shortages. The new model takes any of the scheduling, time, and personal effort out of it. You can do it and forget about it.
What would that look like? Well, those social institutions that are presently so strained would need reinvigoration, firm support both from citizenry and from the government writing checks. In Sirota's The Uprising, he points out that the Senate is an inherently cumbersome, undemocratic institution for our government. What we need more than ever is citizen action, voice, and motivation. For each of these, we need more democratic, more transparent paradigms to solve our problems whether they are local, domestic, or abroad. We can take the new technologies, the new methods and infuse them into and through the old while constructing a the network outside it to make it all faster, clearer, more involved.
It is a community I am more interested in seeing everyday.