This blog is part of an online learning platform which includes the Pathways to New Community Paradigms Wiki and a number of other Internet based resources to explore what is termed here 'new community paradigms' which are a transformational change brought about by members of a community.

It is intended to offer resources and explore ideas with the potential of purposefully directing the momentum needed for communities to create their own new community paradigms.

It seeks to help those interested in becoming active participants in the governance of their local communities rather than merely passive consumers of government service output. This blog seeks to assist individuals wanting to redefine their role in producing a more direct democratic form of governance by participating both in defining the political body and establishing the policies that will have an impact their community so that new paradigms for their community can be chosen rather than imposed.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Code for America is NOT the Wimpy Geek for Disruptive Innovation of Communities

Two posts ago, this blog was still trying to communicate the concept of applying disruptive innovation, as developed by Professor Clayton Christensen of Harvard University, to the public sector and civic arena.  This is not only difficult but also raises the risk of conveying the wrong impression.  

One wrong impression that may have been made is that Code for America is seen as being ineffectual based on the assertion that it is not a disruptive innovation, at least not as defined by Professor Christensen’s operational use of the term.  I now think that I was being unfair, not wrong, just somewhat unfair.  Code for America is definitely not ineffectual, they obviously do a great deal of good, and what is more important, the technology offered by Code for America may very likely be an essential component in bringing about disruptive innovation within the civic arena. 

It could be argued that what Code for America brought to the community advocacy table was a, 'there's an app for that' set of solutions. Before this time, Code for America provided some of the tools but not the necessary craftsmanship for meaningful change. Innovation is not merely a matter of having new tools, it is also having new ways of using those tools and creating something entirely new with those tools.

Code for America is networked across the USA but it is grounded in local communities, often though through city councils and city management. This is part of what makes it usually a sustaining innovation because its implementation is so often through a system that works to maintain its own existence. If disruptive innovation is then desired, it will need to be implemented, at least in part and sometimes initially, from outside of city hall.

It is similar to the relationship between disruptive technology and disruptive innovation, there can't be meaningful change without having some underlying philosophy, some set of governing principles or programatic guidelines whether created by, from within or imposed from outside the system. Disruptive innovation, within the private market, does not require or is it even possible to forcibly implement so it cannot be imposed only facilitated.  There is, what I will call system momentum (creating a perfect storm), when the necessary inherent factors arise as a result of a relevant innovation to make a market, subject to proper management, potentially disruptable. So-called disruptive technology is not enough.  A question being asked here is whether this process of disruptive innovation can be replicated with the public sector and in the civic arena.

My evolving perspective on Code for America is that they are developing a set of principles upon which to organize and manage change beyond the technical gadgets. This perspective came about because of two books, the first, from some time past, Gardens of Democracy, was created outside of Code for America and the second, more recent, Beyond Transparency, from within. This post will consider the first.

Part of the problem is that although Code for America has been followed for a while, it has been given little direct exposure on the pages of this blog.  The New Community Paradigms wiki though has included both a Code for America wiki page, as well as one dedicated to the book, Gardens of Democracy by Nick Hanauer and Eric Liu for some time. The reason was that although many of the ideas in the book were appealing, it was decided to let the blog work through the relevant issues independently.

The Gardens of Democracy wiki page features a link to a video of authors Nick Hanauer and Eric Liu proposing that we need to fundamentally change our conception of citizenship and democracy because society has so fundamentally changed. 

Gardens of Democracy challenges the current approach to governance by creating a new metaphor that sees the world as a garden needing constant attention, discretion, and periodic weeding rather than as machinery needing to be constantly tweaked to be perfected but that never can be.  Evoking metaphor, as a means of initiating paradigm level change are of foundational importance in the continuing creation of our communities.  We use symbols and stories to define ourselves and how we relate to each other as community.  By changing the metaphor we begin to change the nature of the conversation. 

We should stop using mechanistic metaphors, such as "efficient markets" especially in defining our local economy, and instead use an alternative metaphor by which the economy is viewed as an organic ecosystem so that it can be understood to prosper best from the middle out not from the top down. We should also redefine the conversation of big government versus small government, which according to Eric Liu misses the point, and instead make it a conversation about the what and the how of government. Government should be big on the what and small on the how. Government should strive to set great goals and invest resources making them available at scale but the innovation to achieve those goals should come from the bottom up in networked ways.  

The world, according to Gardens of Democracy, has now become more complex and networked and the management of these challenges is no longer a matter of simple or of layered, add-on solutions.  The economic, environmental, and social systems which we are dealing are often nonlinear and frequently in states of non-equilibrium. Another change in the use of metaphors and language is that systems should stop being described as either efficient or inefficient but rather effective or ineffective. We are, according to the Garden authors, interdependent, cooperation is a major driver of prosperity and we are emotional approximators. Our systems are impacted positively or negatively by contagion. Therefore we not only need avenues for change, we also need to understand the momentum for that change.

For New Community Paradigms this means that, the "machine" metaphor still being used by entrenched political institutions must be transformed into a community governance model built on the metaphor of a garden of democracy.  Democratic governance would be done better through a garden of direct deliberative democratic governance by community rather than by ‘the machine’ of institutional government.  The Gardens metaphor offers a more meta approach to this question that could serve as an umbrella to a host of separate strategies focused on a variety of different challenges. 

Viewing the world in this new way can help redefine our approach to politics. The mechanistic model of citizenship "atomizes" individuals according to Eric Liu. Through the use of metaphor to convey the need to redefine the notion of community and self-interest, Gardens of Democracy helps redefine our means of community governance. Human nature stays the same, but what can be changed is human understanding, our relationship between ourselves, ideas and the world moving from a fatalistic to a mechanistic to a hopefully organic perspective.

Under a Gardens of Democracy model, individuals are networked and citizenship can be redefined accordingly, making possible a true enhancement of self-interest through community based mutual interest as understood by Tocqueville. In understanding this new reality, you realize that you are not stuck in traffic, you are traffic. We need to be far more than simple spectators to the political process, more than simple participants in the existing system but co-creators in redefining that system. We need to be more than customers and consumers of a system of community management and become co-creators of a system of community governance.

This can be seen as a disruption of the system but it is also a disruption of our own thinking.  The question is how to bring this about within others and one answer is to demonstrate to each individual how a change of innovation could be made to address a particular community related job-to-be-done. Innovation, particularly disruptive innovation, is focused on the specific needs. or in D.I. terms, jobs-to-be-done of particular individuals and all the more so when addressed through design thinking.

Code for America and particularly Gardens of Democracy provides a potential avenue, in my view, for changing three different relationships, dealt with previously, defining our communities. 

First, changing the relationship of individual community members to the community-as-a-whole and civil society. (see Civil society as a platform for new community paradigms and Community paradigms as a set of community relations). Communal networked connections can address separation in time and space to a far greater degree today.

Second, changing the relationship of the individual community members, making up the community-as-a-whole, to the institutional city government.  Everyone has the potential of working in the garden and the more that contribute the better the crop produced. This again raises the idea of direct deliberative democracy.  This blog has long argued that the community needs to take over a greater role in governance from institutional government. We can carry our understanding and metaphors of civil society to new neighborhoods and communities but at any specific time we choose to what degree we will participate as part of the on-the-ground community of our geographical location.(See Using Online Communities to encourage Direct Democracy for On-The-Ground Communities and Governance by the Community or Not - Getting with or past City Hall.) Based on the technological reality expressed above, a more radical approach to community engagement can be adopted through practices such as participatory budgeting.

Third, changing the relationship of the community as a whole to institutional government. Institutional government would appear to be put into a relatively more subordinate role, in reality, staff would take on a more facilitative role in working with the community. (See Looking for Non-Experts to Create New Community Innovations then Make sure They are Disruptive and Still Looking for Non-Experts to Create New Community Innovations? Look outside City Hall.)  The existing systems arose because of the types of environments we created. Changing the system does not necessarily sufficiently change the environment and we need to change not only what we do but how we do it as well. 

Past Posts