Consider how new tools to address complex issues can be right in front of us, and we don’t recognize them. Social Network, the movie, shows us how one young man’s knowledgeable application of technology to the age-old dilemma of meeting girls changed the way we now look at interacting with friends, community members and, yes, even our work colleagues.
The same can be said of applying technology and principles of civic engagement to rivers. Case in point: use technology with civic engagement to solve some of our most complex issues, like finding common approaches to the sustainability of the Mississippi River in the future. There’s no denying the issues are complex and the current regional approaches are ineffective. But could civic engagement, enhanced with any of new on-line community building tools, change the dynamic and future of the Mississippi River in much the same way Facebook has changed modern relationships? At America’s Waterway, we think so.
A Wall Street Journal article late last year made the case; Micah Sifry, co-founder of Personal Democracy Forum, one of a number of on-line civic engagement organizations now changing the way we solve community problems, outlined some of the possibilities as they’ve taken shape in the public policy arena.
What’s needed is a new political synthesis akin to the “neutral point of view” balancing act that has enabled millions of people to contribute to Wikipedia despite their many differences. Call it “we government”: new forms of collaboration and service that use technology, open data and public participation to solve shared problems. This is not “e-government”, where the authorities use the Web to provide information and services, but rather an effort by citizens to refashion government as a platform connecting people around the issues and needs that matter most to them.
The world as we know it today is connected in ways we never dreamed possible – across whole continents and watersheds. And expectations are for much greater participation and transparency in decision making. We’ve just seen this in Egypt. Perhaps the most compelling attribute of on-line communities and the problems they seek to address is the reality that today’s problems defy old, well-worn solutions. Because of complexity and the multi-layered composition of today’s problems, we need solutions that haven’t been tried yet. And what better way to develop them than asking the people of the Mississippi River to come together for the good of the River, at first in a National Dialogue for the Future of America’s Waterway. Then to build on that work by engaging with each other and tapping the combined energy and expertise of people who care about the River.
If Facebook can reinvent age-old courtship rituals by shifting interaction to the internet, it stands to reason we can find new solutions and a constituency to advocate for the Mississippi River the same way. Just as with romance, interpersonal activity is still important. But the hard part of sustaining a whole Mississippi River constituency – dedicated to support and action for the whole River and not just one section of it – can be realized.
We welcome your support and your thoughts here. Join the conversation on behalf of America’s Waterway, the Mississippi River.