• Published Date: 21/03/2019
  • by: UNDP

Legitimate Change & The Critical Role of Cities

Civic Cities as the Minimum Unit of Change in the Great Transition.

We are living in the midst of rapid change and mounting evidence of the fragility of public trust in societal institutions. Increasingly our means of change are restricted not by capital or capacity (though we often like to point at these shortfalls), but rather by our means to create legitimacy, or shared coherence as to the proposed direction of travel, even as the climate threats to our civilisation become increasingly paramount.

How do we address the growing fragility of legitimacy in our increasingly complex contexts? There are multiple forces, trends and drivers in play — including major demographic shifts, climate destabilisation, nutrient system hazards, and industrial revolution 4.0 consequences — which are creating feedback loops with second and third order spillovers and unintended or unimagined effects.

Cities are the sites where these complex systems knot together — including property rights, food systems, logistics, financial systems, water systems, human development institutions, schools, universities, etc. Transforming these underlying systems in an integrated manner is required in order to address the challenges we face and open up opportunities to create the full decarbonisation of our society, unlock inclusive innovation capacity of our economy, and build climate stabilisation resilience. This requires system innovation at the city scale.

It is this complexity, knot of systems of systems and the need for socially legitimate solutions, which is forcing a new architecture of legitimacy and the growing global calls for the strategic devolution of nation states — and the rise of the city. But this transition is about more than just nation states handing over power to cities (which to date has been much of the call — understandably). If cities are to be genuine “engines” of Human Development 2.0, where we can address and transcend our societal challenges to create a regenerative industrial revolution 4.0, they will need to transform the lock-in of systems and unleash the economies of scope, context and systems change to create a legitimate landscape for solutions in a complex the world. It is this latter work that needs to be developed and reimagined.

Remaking legitimacy involves remaking the deliberative and participatory infrastructure of civic debate and civic policy making. This needs to go beyond just new tools of opinion harvesting (whilst they do have a space and a need). We increasingly recognise addressing complex challenge requires deliberative processes if we are to avoid meaningless simplicity or meaningless solutions — either addressing averages that don’t exist or wishing away reality as we are increasingly witnessing with the political denials of climate destabilization.

Remaking legitimacy in a complex world requires a whole raft of transformation, based on our work to date, below is initial and limited outline list:

1.The purposeful adoption of parametric policy making by national governments— creating legitimate space for contextual responses and innovation by cities. Whilst maintaining the capacity and capabilities to continuously sense, refine, adjust and augment these national, networked and shared objectives. This possibility and tool has been eloquently outlined by the brilliant work of Yuen Yuen Ang and her book “How China Escaped The Poverty Trap” and the deliberative use of ambiguous centralised regulation to support contextual and city region experimentation.

2.The purposeful remaking & redesigning of national centralised treasury functions— towards a new real-time, decentralised, network of city region-based treasury functions. Supporting a combination of radical fiscal devolution and networked aggregation.

3.The purposeful devolution of national innovation agencies— The purposeful devolution of national innovation agencies (where they exist) — addressing the systemic inequality of discretionary spend, and R&D spend.

4.The systemic and systematic use of deliberative process such as citizen assemblies, civic juries— but also Community (business) Improvement districts as an inherent & systemic component of our democracy (not as exceptional fixes to challenges).

5.Building a systemic culture of referenda and quadratic voting (combining intensity of intent with opinion)whilst deliberative processes are a powerful mechanism for building new consensus, we will go through difficult and complex challenges and need to complement the capacity of politicians and deliberative processes by building the capacity to crystallise these discussions into complex decisions (which cannot be functionally or effectively delegated). Building the architecture for an informed, legitimate debate is foundational both in terms of accountability, external influence and making the necessary transition.

6.Improving on Evidence based policy making to build Informed Citizenship based policy making — We need to fundamentally shift the flow of evidence and data from the current architecture of “Evidence to Policy-makers to Politicians” (where politicians are required to construct new social consensus) to an alternative — where we use evidence, data and civic visualisation to build informed civic consciousness (making invisible forces like air pollution visible and reducing information asymmetries to create the context for policy possibilities). In this new reality, it is the role of politicians to construct new social consensus and thereby direct policy and policy making (this proposal also seeks to recognise the diminishing role and contribution of local/regional newspapers).

7.Civic Hacking the future city— Whilst we recognise the historic asymmetric role of start ups in driving innovation and transforming the city. Increasingly, as technology and its impact go beyond the individual to societal affects, the need for a real-world “space” of experimentation becomes structural to innovating in complexity– hacking the future of the city requires the structural underpinnings of civic trust & legitimacy (as Sidewalk Torontoare discovering). In this future meaningful innovation will face the need for open collaborative approaches and practices which are civic first, system innovation orientated, and start up venture capital subordinate. Cities which are able to build the statecraft & economies of civic innovation will be able to increase the speed of experimentation and adoption of the future.

8.Remaking City RegulatoryThe changes suggested above require a new type of statecraft for cities — new division of powers (between civic data visualisation & policy information, between integrated public services and system compliance etc). It also requires a new architecture of regulation — which recognises that the development of information technology (eg. Internet, IT) and intelligent technology (eg. AI, IoT, Data) both require and enable us to update our traditional 19th century governance models by bringing about the possibility of a new digital age governance model. For example, automation and artificial intelligence technologies are bringing about radical efficiencies in the management of systems, reducing bureaucratic costs to near-zero. In addition, as we convert regulations into machine-recognisable codes, dealing with complex decisions using parametric variations, this regulation could be constantly re-tweaked, refreshed and reinforced to respond to the need of changes in humans and machines. This new reality requires us to the remake the democratic & legitimacy architecture for parametric policy making and new means for its social validation which go beyond internal regulation impact reports. This moment presents a strategic opportunity for recasting our architecture of trust or foundationally undermining it.

9.Rebuilding the legitimacy of politicians.Finally and perhaps most importantly for some parts of the world currently, a good deal needs to be innovated in this arena, but a substantial beginning requires us to acknowledge that the self regulation of politicians and their ethical standards is inadequate in our increasingly complex world. Simply by outsourcing ethics & governance procedures, standards, regulation and compliance of politicians to a standing citizens jury and civic assembly would radically improve transparency, understanding, integrity & trust in politicians and thereby accelerate capacity of our political system to operate and deliver in this complex world.

This list is just the beginning , and is limited primarily to the ‘dark matter’ change required, as opposed to the physical, cultural, or spatial manifestation of change required to build ecologically-healthy and socially-inclusive cities that will mean building our infrastructure differently and in ways that are regenerative to people and planet. Our attempt here has been to recognise the reality that if cities are to be the new minimum unit of change and transformation, they must not replicate the outdated procedures of the Nation State — they will need to be become structurally new instruments of 21st century statecraft — which means remaking fractal legitimacy, governance & innovation capacity from the scale of the street, the town square, and from neighbourhoods to the city as whole.

If the future is to be in the hands of our cities, then we will need to radically reimagine city governance and city statecraft fit for the scale of the civilisation-threatening challenges we face. And we must start by recognising that the current future trajectory is in many ways highly flawed; we must harness our collective wisdom to change course and realize a future that enables human flourishing and planetary healing.

Whilst we think radical work and experimentation is required in remaking statecraft at the scale of the city, the city as the site of the future of change and solutions is increasingly starting to be recognised by a growing community of friends and strategic innovators around the world — from UNDP Eurasia who have recently launched the new City Experiments Fund, the McConnell Foundation and their seeding of Future Cities Canada, the new emerging work by Climate KIC on full City Transitions, or 100 Resilient Cities, and Bloomberg Philanthropies with city governments around the world, to name but a few. And of course, this all sits on a legacy of city region devolution in many countries, including the UK, and the leadership work of C40 Citieshelping cities take the global leadership on addressing climate destabilisation. Also, it is worth recognising several other new platforms and networks focusing on demonstrating transformative potential for cities from Fab City Global Initiative, ParticipatoryCity, CivicSquare, and Co-Cities to name but a few.

Original content: https://provocations.darkmatterlabs.org/legitimate-cities-df8f5561780e

Written by Indy Johar

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