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The Internet is still changing everything. Now, the rendez-vous with ourselves

The Club de Madrid convenes its annual conference this week, which this year is themed on Internet and Democracy. Down the road, indignant protesters camp in Zuccotti Park, networked through the Zeitgeist and the ether with many other groups worldwide.

There is a global movement in the offing that is transforming what we mean by government and democracy from the ground up. The Palestinian Prime Minister crowdsourced the popular selection of new cabinet picks using Facebook to ask for nominations. The Icelandic government is turning to a brainstorming platform to invite strategies for rebuilding after the financial crisis, including how to redraft its constitution, and then listening to those suggestions. In post-earthquake New Zealand and Japan, tech-enabled networks of civil society organizations and individuals are collaborating with public first responders to coordinate disaster relief and recovery.

Local governments from Amsterdam to Vladivostok are implementing tools to open up the way they search for solutions to social problems, and to bring citizens more effectively into governance processes  to help with everything from policing to public works in manageable and relevant ways.

The turning point for governments, public institutions, media companies or journalists came when they realized that speaking or telling their own story was not enough: now they had to listen. And not only that, but they had to engage in a continuous dialogue where different voices who had struggled to be heard now started playing an active role that changed not only the rules, but the game itself.

Ordinary people using network technology can do extraordinary things by working together for the public good, with far-reaching implications for our public institutions. When non-professionals can write Wikipedia, the most comprehensive and highest quality global encyclopaedia; spend their evenings moving a telescope via the Internet and making discoveries half a world away; help organize a protest in cyberspace and in the physical world, such as the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia or the demonstrations of the ‘indignados’ throughout Spain; or pore over purloined State Department cables, we are at an inflection point where we have the to use the technology at our disposal to further democratize our democracy and thus increase its very legitimacy.

Citizens are given the power to voice their thoughts and exchange in dialogue around the world. They have become journalists, all willing to share their own ushahidi. As such, everyone has become an expert in something  and so many would be willing to participate in the life of our democracy if given the opportunity to do so meaningfully. From Egypt to the U.K., governments are taking advantage of network technology to “mak[e] every citizen an acting member of the government,” as Thomas Jefferson aspired, and thereby attach him “by his strongest feelings to the independence of the country, and its republican constitution.”

Today, more than ever, we need accountable and legitimate governments that work. It is not only in the democratizing states of the Middle East that nations are desperate for innovative strategies to deliver better services to citizens for less money. One billion of the world’s population lives on an income of less than $150 per year without access to clean water, basic education, or even minimal healthcare. Environmental catastrophes such as the Haitian earthquake of 2010 or the Tsunamis of 2004 and 2011 exacerbate their plight. Rising temperatures threaten the planet itself. At the same time, we are making tremendous leaps in science and technology that could allow us to address these challenges better than ever before.

We have arrived at a point in history when technology is making it possible for governments to get better scientific information and innovative ideas for how to solve problems faster and, at the same time, to democratize governance. This is not to say that the crowd is always wiser than the institution. We can’t replace government with Google or Wikipedia and arrive at the right answers. There are no right answers. In other words, direct or “crowdsourced” democracy is too simplistic for the complexities of modern life.

Twenty-first-century networked institutions are neither bigger nor smaller. They just work differently. They accelerate the rate of interaction with new ideas and information. They are smarter hybrids – amalgams of bounded organization and fluid, dynamic network – that leverage somewhat anarchic technologies within tightly controlled bureaucracies, connecting professionals and data within the institution to people with good ideas and information outside of it in order to solve problems democratically.

Much remains to be said and done to understand the power of digital interaction, big data and networking capabilities for building what is bound to be the next stage in the history the of common good. Public institutions, the private sector, civil society, academia and the media industry must work hand in hand in this endeavour to respond to what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. so beautifully said: “Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy.” We have all the tools at our disposal to do so, so let us not miss this rendezvous we have with ourselves.

About the author
Beth S. Noveck, former US Deputy Chief Technology Officer. She has curated the Club de Madrid Annual Conference on “Digital Technologies for 21st Century Democracy”

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