New Orleans: civic innovation

The reconstruction of New Orleans represents an opportunity to employ techniques for civic participation that have been developed and tested over the last 30 years. For example:

  • Some entity (the federal or local government or a major nonprofit) could offer the dispersed citizens of New Orleans a chance to deliberate about basic issues. Should their city be developed primarily as a port, with lots of blue-collar jobs? Should its main focus be culture and tourism? How big should the population be? Should parks be built instead of houses in the most flood-prone areas?

    There are excellent methods available for public deliberation. Over the next three months, people from New Orleans who have congregated in cities like Houston could be invited to forums run by AmericaSPEAKS. That’s an organization that uses technology to mediate discussions among hundreds or thousands of people who gather in convention halls or other large venues. Meanwhile, dispersed citizens who have Internet access could deliberate online using a mechanism like that of e-thePeople. Finally, small clusters of people could use the Study Circles process to deliberate in living rooms, shelters, and church basements. All these discussions could be framed in the same way, and all the groups (large and small, offline and online) could report their results to a central agency.

  • In Porto Alegre and other Brazilian cities, portions of the municipal budget are turned over to public assemblies to allocate. This “participatory budgeting” process has decreased corruption and increased efficiency. Why not try it in New Orleans, using (say) $20 billion of the $200 promised federal aid?
  • Another good prompt for public deliberation is a “charrette” process, in which teams of citizens come up with ideas for buildings and neighborhoods, and architects use software to whip up quick illustrations that the citizens can review. Adolescents should definitely be included in charrettes.
  • I’m not sure how many of the city’s schools need to be rebuilt because of storm damage. And there may be some desire to rebuild old neighborhood schools more or less as they were. However, to whatever extent possible, I’d recommend building much smaller middle and high schools. I’d also try to attach some of them to adult institutions like colleges, libraries, museums, and even police stations and hospitals, so that adolescents have chances to work with people younger and older than themselves. I’d also recommend designing the school buildings so that they contain spaces for democratic deliberation that the students can use frequently, and community members can use on special occasions. A good model is the new high school in Hudson, Mass., designed with civic goals with a lot of input from the kids.
  • Instead of reconstructing the wires that once crisscrossed New Orleans, could we make the phone and Internet systems entirely wireless? Once you start thinking about decentralized, “peer-to-peer” networks, even more radical ideas come to mind. For instance, could there be incentives for people to build solar panels on their roofs, so that residents could contribute a considerable amount of energy to the “grid” on sunny days? Having solar panels everywhere would also generate lots of skilled maintenance jobs. Or could some of the city’s sewage be treated by entrepreneurs who set up greenhouses to process waste? I have no idea what’s cost-effective, but the general idea would be to replace “hub-and-spoke” systems that reserve skilled jobs for a few (and that cost lots of cash) with decentralized systems that provide more opportunities.
  • I do not mean to suggest that the destruction of New Orleans is in any way a good thing, but we should try to rebuild as well as possible. I’m taking a cue here from E.J. Dionne’s interview of Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR). Blumenauer sounds like my kind of person: an enthusiast for public participation, an environmentalist who’s optimistic that we can make the lived environment better than it was before, a hawk about federal deficits, and a guy who’s “always seeking to put together left-right coalitions on behalf of his eclectic mix of ideas.” He told Dionne:

    I’ve been in Congress for nearly 10 years and I’ve never been so optimistic that we have a chance not just to engage in the gargantuan task of helping people in the Gulf, but also of healing the body politic. … You’ve got to build a citizen infrastructure along with all the roads and bridges. … [P]eople should have a role in what it should be like, rather than have it done to them

    I don’t know if his optimism is justified, but we certainly need ideas, energy, and innovation.

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    • mwallae1

      couple of things:

      much as i love some of Blumenauer’s ideas, he does have the unfortunate tendency to speak for Portland and not for the rest of the state. this wouldn’t be such a problem in some places with many major metro areas, but in Oregon, his voice leads to overweighting the urban voice and underweighting the voice of the rural population (which is a large percentage of our wonderful state). kudo’s to him for dreaming big, but sometimes i wish he would talk less and listen more.

      the more interesting point to me was the idea of a wireless infrastructure for New Orleans. it is an interesting concept, and certainly internet for the entire population of a city is a strong goal, but as someone involved both in technology and psychology, i think it is hard to make the internet a “public good”. i work at Swarthmore College, just outside Philly, and so i’ve been here as the city attempts (and fails, and then attempts again) to figure out a way to implement all-metro wireless. i actually sat down and talked about this with our Cisco rep, and he said that the project would most likely never take off, because nobody would take it on.

      obviously, you’d have to get someone to contract something like an all-city wireless network. the problem is that when it is backed by the city (and particulary in New Orleans, where the eye of the nation would be on the project), the contract has tons of penalties built in if you don’t deliver. “if the wireless goes down, we dock the contract 2 million.” this would seem to make sense, since you obviously want to provide incentive to make it a stable network, but wireless isn’t so simple as that…even hard wired networks are hard to keep up 24/7, and wireless is an entirely different headache on top of that. so the company taking it on either has to be a) able to take a $2 million hit or b) be willing to risk it all and end up in paupers.

      the problem is that A companies won’t take it on because there is no profit in it and B companies are rare and so small that they don’t truly have the ability to take on a project like this and make it work.

      what would be much more practical for a city rebuilt from the ground, like New Orleans, would be a hard-wired infrastructure. if you could run fiber in the downtown area while you’ve got the city with socks pulled down, you could essentially create a blazingly fast business network that would attract high tech companies to what is could be a very solid location from them. after all, author William Gibson, in his book Neuromancer, did envision “The Sprawl” as including the South, and certainly there are many great technology reasons to locate technology in New Orleans.

      but then, there is one rather big reason not to: it could happen again. many technology companies have to take a look at what happened in New Orleans and think about the physical location of their data centers; it may seem ridiculously, but i think there is a very real chance that companies that formerly had data centers in New Orleans may move safely inland into the middle region of the country, where disaster recovery means data disaster at a home site, not flood waters on top of your hard drives. not every data center employee is like http://www.livejournal.com/users/interdictor/

      all that long technological rant aside, i do think that the US has a chance to create a city for the future. the question is: what does that even look like? we are talking about implementing wireless…is wireless really “the future”? certainly it is the now, but considering that the reconstruction of New Orleans will take 10+ years, is wireless really a forward looking technology?

    • mwallae1

      and then, of course, there is the alternative to no compnay wanting to get involved:

      http://www.betanews.com/article/Google_Testing_Out_Free_WiFi_Service/1127232580

      after all, if you aren’t paying anything, it is tough to not be happy with the level of service…