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CHAPTER V - Recommendations for Government Policy

An inevitable question, after a conference discussion of the sort experienced, is how can government begin to help move some of the more promising ideas forward? What changes in institutional structures, public policies and civic practices can prove catalytic?

Stefaan Verhulst of the GovLab at NYU offered a provisional template for how governments might approach the development of networked cities. He did not offer any specific policy recommendations, but rather a series of broad principles and primary policy “buckets.” Alluding to his earlier remarks, Verhulst observed that networked cities consist of four key asset classes or elements: infrastructure, people, technology and data. Governance and policy should focus on these four assets and try to develop better synergies among them to solve problems in better ways, serve the public interest and/or provide the best value.

The first question that government policymakers must ask of a new proposal is: What is the value proposition and vision? This is often assumed, Verhulst said, but it needs to be made explicit so that it can be properly assessed. In addition, the “risk proposition”—the likely costs, possible harm to citizens, reputational effects for the city—must be made manifest. For both costs and risks, metrics must be devised for monitoring the progress, success and failures or a new idea. Such metrics should also be used to develop rankings and benchmarks.

A second step for policymakers is to consider the design and governance principles that will be used to achieve the goals of a networked city. Verhulst identified the following principles: openness and principles of iteration and experimentation; user focus and engagement; permission-less innovation; and social equity and inclusiveness. The institutional process hosted by cities must use open, collaborative platforms, not quasi-secretive public/private partnerships that are not openly scrutinized, he urged, and it must enable co-design and open innovation. To ensure that governance and policy development remains agile, the process requires open, robust feedback loops and metrics that can properly measure the results being sought. And finally, the process must be seen as democratically legitimate and effective.

The third aspect of Verhulst’s overarching framework—in addition to the value proposition and governance principles—are the major policy buckets to address. Verhulst named six major concerns that cities should address:

  1. Broad and equitable access to infrastructure;
  2. Public trust, which includes issues of cybersecurity and privacy;
  3. Ethics in the use of data to prevent data-profiling discrimination or predictive inference;
  4. Openness by default—while allowing limitations on certain datasets, a topic that needs more attention;
  5. Interoperability and open standards across different technologies; and
  6. Procurement and R&D investment, a subject that requires fresh thinking to avoid tech lock-ins.

There was wide agreement that Verhulst’s framework helps systematize a rather sprawling set of concerns in how to understand and advance the idea of city-as-platform. One concern raised, however, was that the framework does not take adequate account of people, and the messy, unpredictable aspects of social interaction and culture in changing things, whether it is city bureaucracy, political leadership or crowdsourcing new data projects.

Several conference participants offered additional suggestions for how government must change in order to leverage the benefits of municipal networking:

Break down departmental silos in city government. This was a recurrent concern, understandably, because open networks are precisely about creating cross-boundary participation and collaboration.

Use government to advance government-specific goals and improve connectivity of people and information. Given budget constraints, government should spend its money only on those things that government can do, and not try to duplicate what others can and are doing, said Tim O’Reilly. This includes using government to leverage private apps such as Waze and information economy services such as Craigslist, Freecycle and Nextdoor.

Improve government procurement policies. Instead of using the standard Request for Proposal system in procurement, Jay Nath of the Mayor’s office in San Francisco suggested that government request small-scale pilot projects that can serve as learning platforms for what ought to be purchased. He also suggested putting procurement on transparent, open platforms so that peers can suggest attractive alternatives or twists to the government-stipulated framing of a procurement contract.

Use principles of gaming to tap into people’s intrinsic and extrinsic motivations. Just as networked games like Ingress have mobilized people to do all sorts of challenging, interesting things for fun, cities could use gaming principles to engage with citizens and motivate them to do things for the public good. Flint Dille, the creative lead for Ingress, suggested that a badge system that rewards citizens for certain pro-city behaviors could serve as a kind of city currency that could give discounts or free access to certain city venues. The efficacy and a badge system has been demonstrated as well by such innovations as the Cities of Learning project in Chicago, which incentivizes youth learning and engagement in ways that traditional education does not. In the city context, it is a matter of promoting the idea of being a “prominent citizen,” said Dille. “Right now, these roles are limited to people with titles or a lot of money, which shuts ordinary people out. Let’s think of ways to get them back in, and reward good citizens—with access to museums, or free public transport.”

Promote co-learning opportunities. The open-source ethic of learning by doing in collaboration with others is an ethic that cities should be promoting, not just within city government but in the city at large. John Seely Brown, Independent Co-Chairman of the Deloitte Center for the Edge and Visiting Scholar at the University of Southern California, said that there are some new ways emerging for how to “architect a system of learning,” most notably some tests that have used complexity theory principles to listen to village sentiment in Afghanistan and craft appropriate systems in response.

Explore how philanthropy can support civic empowerment and individual agency. Philanthropy can help support experiments for new types of civic engagement. Susan Crawford of Harvard Law School suggested loan forgiveness programs as one way to promote graduate student involvement in this area.

Develop an R&D lab to foster collaboration among cities on networking practices. The scale of the challenge is universal, but innovative experiments remain largely isolated and one-off. Blair Levin of the Brookings Institution believes that it would be tremendously helpful if ten cities were to come together around a shared problem and work out creative solutions using data and networking systems.

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