The past 10 years have seen the greatest expansion of information since the dawn of civilization. According to Google’s chairman Eric Schmidt, human beings create every two days as much information as we did since the birth of humanity up until 2003. Today, two-thirds of human beings are connected to the Internet and there are more mobile phones than people on the planet. At the same time, computing power doubles every 18 months and in the next decade we will see a machine with the processing power of a human brain.
We have never experienced so many dramatic changes that are disrupting social relationships, transport, education, economics, commerce, privacy and knowledge at the same time. However, politics have stayed basically the same for the past 100 years. We are 21st-century citizens, trying to communicate with 20th-century institutions that are underpinned by 19th-century processes and ideas.
We live in revolutionary times. Although inequalities have been around for centuries, suddenly it feels that the entire world is aware and sick of it. A possible explanation may be that institutions are under stress as a generation born into a 24/7 online world becomes political. Today, people have better access to tools to connect and information, which translates into more expectations: for better education, better services, better health, and no corruption. Nothing grows faster than expectations, and that is why microscopic or subtle changes are not enough; we need to reframe structures. How can we talk about democracy when the political class is the least trusted class in a many countries?
Being a citizen is not a passive role. We no longer think in hierarchies; we think in networks and we expect our governments to be another node within that network. We need to stop looking at the Internet as a digital extension of what we already do offline and understand that it is fundamentally rewiring the way groups, individuals and states engage with politics, economics, social action and governance.
The voice of citizens
We will not solve the concept of government if we do not solve the concept of citizenship first and understand that voting every once in a while cannot be our only interaction with our governments. Citizens need to realize that we are not only consumers of public services. The Internet has opened up spaces for grassroots movements to emerge and seek political and social empowerment through the Web.
One clear example of this happened in Monterrey, in the north of Mexico, in August 2011, when members of Los Zetas cartel set out one afternoon to send a message to the owner of a casino for failing to pay an extortion. They arrived at the casino, ordered the people inside to leave and started a fire in the entrance. However, some emergency exits were closed, others had never been built due to corruption, and 150 people were trapped inside. This has been the most violent and bloodiest attack in the history of Monterrey. On that day, a network of volunteers went on Twitter to alert and help citizens from Monterrey and its metropolitan area, from missing persons, to legal aid to follow-up on the investigations.
This network of volunteers became an institution called, “Center for Citizen Integration” or CIC, which integrates the existing Twitter conversation, verifies it, amplifies it by alerting other citizens and finally forwards the validated citizen reports to the official corresponding institutions so that they can be addressed. Today, there are more than 60,000 validated citizen reports that have been addressed in the region and they have become a pulse, a measurement, of Monterrey in real time.
The voice of geeks
Transparency is not only about governments opening up but also about citizens asking questions. Institutions have a lot of data, but have little idea of what can be done with it. We need subject matter experts to articulate problems in advance, and data scientists to create stories and discover hidden insights. To understand our world and make better decisions, we need to make sense of it; we need stories. For example, if we want to tackle security problems in Latin America, it would be useful to know that 77% of all the homicides committed in the region take place in five countries, and that one out of every two people murdered in the region is either Brazilian or Mexican (). When you can create stories with data, you have more impact.
We are moving away from just developing apps to solving big problems – from the app to report a pothole or identify public transport routes to real engagement with technology that creates communities, where citizens and governments can, together, face challenges such as education, security, health, power outages and governance.
To encourage this, the Federal Government of Mexico is preparing the launch of a national open data policy that will make all public government information accessible in open formats. Data will be available on budgets, infrastructure, health, sanitation, natural disaster risks, education, among others, in open formats, online and for free. It does not need to be perfect, but perfection is not the goal. The goal is for this data to become actionable intelligence, a launchpad for investigation, analysis, find correlations and causations and improve decision-making at all levels thus elevating the issues which matter to the people into the public consciousness and national debate.
The voice of government
It is through government that we can best help citizens live longer, and have safer, richer and freer lives. According to Geoff Mulgan, Chief Executive of National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA), the most valuable things that democratic governments can grow are intangible: trust, happiness, knowledge, capabilities and confident institutions.
Governments are not in the innovation business; they are in the stability business. However, it is important for governments to harness technology to redefine the way in which institutions and citizens relate with each other. To address that need, the office of the President of Mexico created the Coordination of the National Digital Strategy, to maximize the economic and social impact of technology in society and focus on governance, health, education, security and digital economy.
Since innovation cycles are long; and political cycles are short. Governments need to harness civic innovation projects with a clear objective and methodology. In every project, every experiment that governments perform we must have a clear view about why, where, what and how are we doing it, in that order.
Finally, we need to ask ourselves which actions worked and can be scaled, and which ones didn’t and should be terminated. This is not a linear process; this is a cycle – even if that sometimes means failing.
Government has moved beyond being society’s “problem solver” and has become another actor in the creation of the conditions for the “problem solvers” to flourish. We need to understand the motivations behind the voice of the citizens, the voice of the geeks and the voice of the government, and encourage them to work together as a whole, with a critical understanding of what technology amplifies and what it reduces. This is the only way we will be able to achieve smart cities, by creating smart citizens and enabling platforms where citizens can innovate in tools and business models to meet daily necessities and solve problems in new ways.
Our generation is undergoing a drastic change in the fabric of society. Today, we are understanding what democracy means in the 21st century while creating new ways to exert it. In the end, it is not technology that moves societies forward, it is the people behind it that do. Institutions cannot be imposed from the top, but rather, they are built from the bottom, one interaction at a time.
Author: Jorge Soto is Deputy General Director of Civic Innovation, Coordination of the National Digital Strategy, Office of the President, Mexico.He is a World Economic Forum Technology Pioneer and Global Shaper and will be participating in the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting in Davos 2014.
Image: A doctor speaks on his cell phone as he walks past graffiti in Mexico City. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido