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.”