America…we have a problem.

We have created a Star Wars civilization, with Stone Age emotions, medieval institutions, and god-like technology.”

So says E. O. Wilson in his latest book, “The Social Conquest of Earth”. I happen to agree with him, especially about our “medieval institutions”, which I consider him to primarily mean our systems of government and to a lesser extent, organized religions.

Wilson goes on to say that “[w]e are terribly confused by the mere fact of our existence, and a danger to ourselves and to the rest of life.”

Again, I have to agree.

I’ve done a lot of research and reading over the last several years, starting with the “Peak Oil” phenomenon and continuing on through the “Great Recession” and IBM’s “Smarter Planet” initiative and its derivatives, namely, “Smarter Government” and “Smarter Cities”. To put all this work in perspective, I have to take a short step back in history. This historical review, will, of primary experience, be one with an American viewpoint. But I think the lessons are relevant to the rest of the world as well. Bear with me.

I have come to the conclusion, in essence, that we have been “spoiled” over the past half-century or so by an economic and techological expansion never before seen in the history of the world. Not heeding Rachel Carson’s (in “Silent Spring” which started the environmental movement) and Dwight Eisenhower’s (in his farewell presidential address in which he mentions “the military-industrial complex” and appealed to “an alert and knowledgeable citizenry”) prescient warnings in the early 1960s regarding the ramifications of our industrialization, we have seen a somewhat steady progression of living standards, at least in western civilization, which tended to blind us to the unintended consequences of such industrial development both in terms of human and environmental externalized costs. To be sure, there have been some blips along the way (the Cold War (and its regional proxies), the Energy Crisis of the 1970s, the S&L crisis of the 1980s), but once we toned down our tribal, war-like behavior, we had good economic times through the 1990s.

Having been somewhat spoiled, we became complacent. Human beings tend not to rock the boat, especially when a rising tide is lifting all boats. But looking at the world through various cognitive biases is a recipe for disaster.

I find it very ironic that during the Second Industrial Revolution (the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th), we went through similar economic upheavals which forced the American government to regulate the “robber barons” via the Sherman, Clayton and Robinson-Patman Acts. Such needed legislation is nowhere to be found today, for the simple reason that the US government has lost its ability to protect its citizens in the age of globalization, big-money elections (Citizens United) and polarized politics (I suspect we American citizens have not been too alert and have foresworn being knowledgeable). At the same time we have seen the rise of global multi-national corporations and the Information Revolution, we have seen the power of governments decline. No doubt there are many reasons for the decline, but one in particular stands out to me – government is still a “medieval institution”.

Governments, in particular the American ones, are still structured as if the Industrial and Information Revolutions had never happened. The massive bureaucracy and hierarchical organization of government is relatively the same as it was a century ago.

Unfortunately, the effects of the Information Revolution on government has just made it worse. For when we computerized and automated government, we did not re-engineer it to be more efficient and effective, we just locked in the hierarchical structures and paper-based processes that had been built up over the decades. While we did speed up the internal processes, we also locked down the data that supported those processes into the various organizational siloes from whence they came (and where they still reside).

The effects and fragility of this sclerotic process and data imprisonment was masked by both the increase in process speed and the apparent rising tide of affluence during the relative calm of the 1990s.

The dawning of the 21st Century, however, brought to light just how ineffective and inefficient our government became through some wake-up calls, namely, the terrorist attack of Sept 11, 2001, the bungled response to Hurricane Katrina and the Great Recession, an event which Thomas Freidman calls “our warning heart attack” (change your ways or things will get worse).

In light of these events, and to be honest, when I first heard of the IBM Smarter Planet Initiative, I cynically thought of it as a clever marketing ploy. Upon further reflection, I began to see it almost as a clarion call for humanity, albeit in a “bright-sided” way.

For what is the inverse of a Smarter Planet? I assert it is where we find ourselves today. I sometimes sardonically refer to Earth as a Stupider Planet, especially after having read Carlo Cipolla‘s famous essay entitled “The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity”.

As E. O. Wilson further says, “[w]e are an evolutionary chimera, living on intelligence steered by the demands of animal instinct. This is the reason we are mindlessly dismantling the biosphere and, with it, our own prospects for permanent existence.”

Or, to put it another way, the scope of the challenges of the Anthropocene Era are just now becoming apparent to most “alert and knowledgeable” citizens of the world. The 2D dotted lines we humans draw on maps do not matter anymore. They are vestiges of our ignorance, arrogance and hubris from our “social conquest of Earth”, aided and abetted by technology – from the Stone Age to the present day. Every challenge we collectively face, whether it be war, famine, pollution, fresh water, crime, social justice and the ultimate challenge of climate change, either has its roots in the formation of, or fundamentally ignores those dotted lines.

Note: One of my favorite “dotted-line” irrelevance stories comes from the American West after the Civil War when John Wesley Powell made his famous trip down the Green and Colorado Rivers in the American West and submitted his observations to Congress in a document entitled “A Report on the Lands of the Arid region of the United States”. Congress promptly ignored Powell’s visionary suggestions for managing the limited water supplies in the Western United States, such ignorance being a proximate cause of the DustBowl years of the 1930s and the byzantine water rights laws which hamper progress in resource management efforts to this day. I suspect some cognitive biases were at work…if not complete idiocy – it wouldn’t be the first time, or the last. You can read more about water issues in the American West in Marc Reisner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1986 book “Cadillac Desert: The American West and its Disappearing Water”.

So what does this all mean relative to re-architecting our governance for the 21st Century?

As is frequently observed, the first step in solving a problem is admitting you have one in the first place (Climate Change deniers are thankfully becoming few and far between). As evidence of the fact we have a problem, at least from the structure of government perspective, I offer the dual phenomena of the “Open Data” and “Civic Hacking” movements as exemplified by the Sunlight Foundation and Code for America organizations.

The Sunlight Foundation attempts to foster openness and transparency in government while CfA takes a bit more hands-on yet similar approach primarily by sending “Fellows” out to local governments to attempt to solve a problem using web-based coding technologies.

CfA has been termed a Peace Corps for Geeks by its founder, Jen Pahlka, who asserts that much is broken in government and is attempting to fix it. Code for America has become quite popular in the local government worldwide community, so much so that Pahlka was asked to spend a year in Washington, DC as a Deputy CTO for government innovation at the White House.

Code for America’s very existence, worldwide popularity (Code for Europe) and spinoffs (the CfA Brigade and startup efforts) is, at the very least, confirmation from the tech and designer communities, particularly among the millenial generation, that the current situation in local government is indeed one of opaqueness and brokeness, not to mention bankruptcy (Vallejo, Stockton and San Bernardino, CA, among some notable others (Detroit, MI)).

But the open data and civic hackathon movements are not without their detractors and critics, who seem to have two basic and relevant points: the efforts are not sustainable; and the efforts do not address the root cause of the issues. But that is not to say that such efforts do not have value…they do. If nothing else, they highlight the transparency, political, financial and especially organizational issues facing local governments today. The challenge is in making the changes represented by the creation and use of these popular applets sustainable. Its all about making them part of the city or county operational systems. That is not an effort that will be accomplished via civic hacking or by financially-strapped local governments, at least in their current incarnation.

As an example, I know of one situation where a web app was created by civic hackers, but would have had orders of magnitude of greater impact if integrated with the operational software applications in the city. Unfortunately, the city in question did not have the financial wherewithal to do so and to expose the APIs from the city IT standpoint would have created a severe security issue. So the ultimate value of the app will continue to go unrealized and better service to citizens remains to be addressed.

We seem to be dealing all these big challenges with limited historical perceptions and piecemeal approaches. But Big Challenges require Big Solutions. According to Robert M. Pirsig, author of the classic book “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”, the ancient Greeks held a view of reality wherein the past was spread out before them and the future rushed up from behind. I think that is accurate assessment of how our current governance system operates. To confront the challenges of the Anthropocene Era, we will collectively have to turn around and look boldly into the future…something we have proven, throughout history, not to be able to do well. I think we have developed enough knowledge and awareness on a global scale (the emergence of the semantic Web) that I’d like to offer a way to do so.

I have come up with two concepts that I think address many, if not all the issues currently facing governments, especially at the local level, and provide a transparent, sustainable and inclusive way forward for re-architecting government (starting at the local level) in America and elsewhere.

The first concept I call Smarter Local Government. SLG addresses the fundamental inefficiencies built into our current design of local government (indeed most all of government) from the Enterprise Architecture and Information Technology industry perspectives and provides a way for open data and transparency to be part and parcel of the daily operations of local government.

The second concept I call Cognitive Digital Democracy. CDD deals with the process by which local government policies, programs and priorities are developed, analyzed and implemented, both from a citizen engagement and a “BigData/Analytics” perspective, while promoting regional collaboration.

I will provide more details on the SLG and CDD concepts in future blog posts in the hopes they will prompt some much needed action to improve our governance of ourselves and our planet.

Since I started this post with a quote from E. O. Wilson, I think it only suitable I end it with one, which is the paragraph with which he ends his latest book:

Earth, by the twenty-second century, can be turned, if we so wish, into a permanent paradise for human beings, or at least the strong beginnings of one. We will do a lot more damage to ourselves and the rest of life along the way, but out of an ethic of simple decency to one another, the unrelenting application of reason, and acceptance of what we truly are, our dreams will finally come home to stay.”

13 Responses to America…we have a problem.

  1. ML says:

    Enjoy your writing Mark. Your final quote by E.O. Wilson definitely makes one think a bit more. Thanks for sharing. Marylou

  2. Jack Park says:

    The entire topic is appropriate, timely, and well enough justified that further serious sensemaking should emerge. I’d like to suggest accumulating the issues and debates at http://debategraph.org/ (free, and can be embedded in this blog).

    • Jack: Thanks for the comments. I checked out DebateGraph…seems to be a group participation dynamic mind-mapping tool, which I find very cool. I’ll have to think more on how to use it. Suggestions welcome – perhaps you can create a skeleton of your ideas around my blog post and we can go from there?

  3. Dennis Vlasich says:

    I think one area that may be a factor in the whole discussion of technology and government is technology and the law. We have managed to keep legal statutes on the books that are absurd because they don’t consider the availability of technology or capabilities that didn’t exist when they were first made. Consider the fact that under California purchasing laws it is still require posting bid notices in local papers (at significant cost) and website posts are not considered “public notice.” We set the retirement age at 65, yet a lot of our lawmakers in state and federal government are older than that and still making laws. When they went to law school, computers were still just number crunchers and many can’t comprehend the concept of an electronic document (with all of its incriminating metadata). It’s possible now for us to bring every document and conversation in government to the constituency, yet we make people fill out paperwork to see it and some try to hide behind these archaic laws to cover up less than stellar activities that might keep them from getting elected next time. We could not “open” government without technology, but some of the laws will need to change in order for that to happen.

    • Dennis: Thanks for the comment. I could not agree more. That is one area in which the Open Data (Code for America) and transparency (Sunlight Foundation) movements can help make a real difference. These archaic laws and statutes need to change as they keep our governments in the “Dark Ages” (medieval institutions). I recall that the League of CA Cities lobbying group, instead of thinking of the citizen, actually came out against a State Bill for open data stating it would be an undue burden on already over-worked staff.
      What? Its the citizens data, we own it, and we paid for it. Its not our fault if our elected officials cannot manage in the 21st century. We need a whole new mindset here…

      Elected officials at all levels should be made equal (I seem to recall some discussion of that in some documents called “The Constitution” and “The Bill of Rights”) to any government employee and any citizen in terms of retirement benefits and medical benefits. No more “elected elite”. California, unfortunately, seems to be behind the rest of the nation in terms of its transparency and digital awareness…especially in local government. I have to believe its not just ignorance, but a purposeful willingness to not be transparent, which means, generally, our elected and appointed officials have something to hide. We need to rally the millenials, the elderly, and everyone in between to start pushing for transparency to open up our government and thereby take back our government.

      I suggest you get a Code for America Brigade started in the Inland Empire. Get all those idealistic college students at those universities fired up. Let me know if you what some help to get that done.

      • Dennis Vlasich says:

        Mark,
        I’ve looked into CfA and it’s really a hard concept to sell. I have to come up with at least $180,000 to get a team of experts to come and try to find something to do. No deliverables, no plans, just a bunch of brainiacs trying to find a problem and then hoping to come up with a solution before the time or money runs out. I know they’ve done some great things, but without a better defined need and outcome, I can’t sell it here.

      • Dennis: Understand the monetary challenges with a standard CfA engagement. What about the CfA Brigades? See: http://brigade.codeforamerica.org/pages/about
        The CfA Brigades have a Google Group you can follow to see what is happening in various cities around the country…http://groups.google.com/a/codeforamerica.org/group/brigade/
        They are up to 232 locations worldwide and adding more all the time: http://brigade.codeforamerica.org/locations
        I have to believe you have some civic-minded folks in the Inland Empire with a positive activist approach…there is a lot of help out there to get things going…

  4. Very thoughtful piece, Mark. I would say that I’m optimistic about what I see happening in this space right now. The pace of change is accelerating and there are so many opportunities to co-create the world that you envision. But I believe change is going to come from two sources: (1) civic data standards, and (2) civic APIs. It will be a decentralized, distributed effort, much like open web and foreshadowed by the efforts to create a semantic web. WebPlatform.org is a great model from which we can all glean important lessons.

    I’m glad you’re working on SLG/CDD, but (and perhaps this is a misunderstanding) I believe enterprise architecture implies a top-down/hierarchical approach. In marketing lingo, that’s a push strategy:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Push%E2%80%93pull_strategy

    Civic innovators would do well to focus on a pull strategy, i.e. creating demand through various prototypes and frequent iterations. The challenges are too big for any single solution. We need hundreds, if not thousands, of approaches that will look very messy and fragmented at first, but will eventually be seamlessly connected through a variety of APIs and front-end frameworks. And it seems to me that this experimentation has already begun. Very exciting times!

    • Ash: Thank you. I agree that the pace of change is accelerating and that there are many opportunities. I’m also of the agreement we need open data standards of all types and specific ones for the civic arena – at all levels. There will also be many APIs, and the open and most useful will survive.

      Actually, EA does not necessarily entail a top-down approach…its more of an enlightened approach to business design. It can be adopted top-down or bottom-up, inside-out or outside-in. It depends on the organization and its relationship to the “outside” world…how much transformation needs to happen to make it relevant. Much current business literature and research shows that organizations using EA are significantly more effective and efficient by almost any measure. EA does not prevent any sort of rapid prototyping or iterative SW development methodologies. You could think of it a a framework into which you imbed function as developed at the edge or the core or anywhere in between.

      Note that if all we do is develop “hundreds, if not thousands” of approaches and their attendant artifacts, we have just re-created a problem similar to the one I noted wherein we locked down data and reinforced organization silos via initial automation efforts.

      My concerns with waiting for all this organic evolution to occur is that it is messy and slow. I’m not sure we can wait…the rest of the world is moving too fast.

  5. Mark, keep on keepin’ on. I signed up for your e-mails. I will get “smarter” with time, eh?

    Cheers

    Pete

  6. Mark: There’s the makings of a book here! I wish I could share your confidence that the number of climate change deniers is decreasing. The trends towards anti-science and deliberate ignorance are also deeply troubling.

    • Colin: Thanks for the comments. I’d agree there is the makings of a book…just have to figure out the outline and chapters. Speaking of books, I just started reading “Enterprise Architecture for Connected e-Government” by Pallab Saha of the National University of Singapore (and others). The first section is great – talks about systems thinking in the context of “Whole of Government” EA…will help reinforce and shape some of my future posts.

      I think the more we start to use open data, analytics, gaming/simulation/System Dynamics in shaping our future governance, the more people will come to realize that beliefs are not facts and we continually learn more facts each day. At least I hope so…

  7. Liliana says:

    Mark- You gave me good food for thought.. reading it makes me want to go get the book you mentioned by EO Wilson.. I agree that we have as a ww group taken it all for granted.. and the boats are no longer all rising.. and we’re paying for our excesses in many ways.. and as the world has really become smaller, we all get to pay for everyone’s carelessness, not just those in our immediate area/country/segment of the planet…

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