In Conversation With Scott London

Each month, PlaceSpeak presents a Q&A with one of today’s most innovative thinkers in urbanism, public engagement, and civic technology.

This month, we chatted with Scott London, a California-based consultant who has studied and written extensively about how new technologies can help communities make better decisions.

Scott manages projects and offers ideas and assistance to organizations committed to social innovation and public engagement. He’s led many studies and research projects exploring the power of informal networks, the theory and practice of public deliberation, the political ramifications of new communications technologies, and other topics. For more, see Scott’s website here.

Q: Digital technologies have allowed for the development of interest or issue-based online communities. Why are place-based online communities important?

A: I don’t think we’ve given the idea of place-based online communities the attention it deserves. In fact, some people think of it as an oxymoron—a contradiction in terms. After all, the Internet allows us to transcend the limitations of geography. We have instant access to people around the world and can create new kinds of communities based on our common interests and identifications.

The trouble is that we’re now spending so much time and attention online that it’s taking a toll on traditional place-based communities. The time we spend interacting with friends on Facebook, shopping on Amazon, or watching videos on YouTube is time not spent hanging out with neighbors, participating in community affairs, or shopping in local stores.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. A range of online platforms, mobile apps, social networks and other technologies are emerging today that can strengthen and improve place-based communities. These technologies can educate and inform residents, support local businesses, care for the needy and disenfranchised, and give people a powerful voice in local decision-making.

As I see it, the purpose of these technologies is not to replace existing communities with some kind of virtual substitute, but rather to help neighborhoods, towns and cities function better and to strengthen the bonds of community that already exist.

Q: Social networks have allowed people to sort and polarize into echo chambers of opinion. How do you convince people to engage with their fellow citizens who may not share their views?

A: You’re right, many of us have become fragmented into enclaves or subcultures made up of people who share our views and think like us. That’s one of the downsides of social networks. Even so, I don’t think people need to be convinced to engage with others who see the world differently.

The problem is we lack mechanisms for meaningful engagement. We’re frustrated and polarized because we don’t have ways to work through our disagreements and discover common purpose. We’re all familiar with online forums, for example. They tend get out-of-hand very quickly in a way that normal face-to-face conversations rarely do.

So the question is, how can we create effective platforms for people to express their concerns, deliberate about issues and make decisions together? There has been a good deal of research on this question in recent years (and I’ve done a fair amount of it myself) but much of the technology is still under development. There are thorny questions that need to be worked out, like how to make sure that all voices are given a fair hearing, that decision-making processes are open and inclusive, and that participants have access to the right background information.

Q: What role can online civic networks play in connecting people to local decision-makers?

A: An exciting aspect of these technologies is that they open up new ways to bridge the gap between citizens and officials. That’s more important than ever given that public trust in leaders and institutions is now at or near an all-time low.

The new technologies are of great value to citizens for obvious reasons. Connecting with leaders online is far more convenient than having to attend public meetings, wait your turn to be heard, and then, in the two minutes or so that you’re given to speak, state your opinion for the record. Technology offers a better way to raise issues, voice concerns and push for accountability from local officials.

Online platforms also benefit decision-makers by giving them the ability to inform the public about key issues or solicit feedback on pending decisions. But why stop there? The new technologies allow people and their leaders to do more than simply “connect” with one another. They open up pathways for thoughtful two-way conversation. That gives public officials more exposure to the community, engages people who might not otherwise be part of the decision-making process, and allows the public to be involved in addressing difficult issues that experts and advocates alone can’t solve.

A: How can online means facilitate better processes for deliberation on issues?

This is a question I’ve spent a lot of time exploring because good decisions—the kind that reflect people’s highest and best interests—require some process by which people can work through conflicting values and perspectives. If the public is unclear about what it wants or where it stands, no solution is the right one. But how do we do that?

Deliberation differs from debate, negotiation, brainstorming, consensus-building, and other forms of public discussion because the objective is not so much to talk together as to think together. That means listening deeply to other points of view, exploring new ideas and perspectives, searching for points of agreement, and bringing unexamined assumptions into the open.

Deliberating together in face-to-face situations is rather straightforward. Most of us do it with our families, friends and colleagues everyday. But it’s not as easy to do online. We tend to miss important social cues in a text-based environment, for one thing. The conversations are often dominated by those who are the most forceful or articulate, for another. And then there is the problem of trust: few of us are willing to speak openly and honestly with a group of strangers online.

What seems to work best, in my experience, is when online communication is used to augment rather than replace face-to-face communication. Communities and groups of people who already have some relationship with one another seem to do very well communicating online. In some cases, the technology actually allows people to go deeper in exploring issues and working through disagreements. But, as I say, there needs to be some underlying relationship of trust and reciprocity in place before people are willing to really invest in an authentic and meaningful exchange.

Q: Youth are usually early adopters of technology. Do you see many young people participating in civic networks and why?

A: Yes, young people are always the early adopters. They are comfortable with technology and it seems natural to them. But because they are young, they tend to be more invested in technology than in community. With older generations, it’s the other way around. So there’s a disconnect.

But I’m not too concerned about it. This will all sort itself out as millennials set down roots and start families—as they become more invested in their communities. Over the next decade or so, I think they will help complete the transition that was started a generation ago when people first went online. They recognize that computer networks can help us build better communities—communities that are more flexible, inclusive and responsive than the communities of the past.

Q: What is the tipping point for widespread adoption of place-based technologies and online networks?

A: The technologies aren’t there yet—but they’re coming. We need online platforms that can allow for authentic two-way communication between people and their elected officials. We need technologies for people to engage in joint decision-making, such as participatory budgeting and citizen juries. And we need mechanisms for people to work together effectively as citizens to identify issues, work through disagreements, set directions, and discover common purpose.

As I say, I think it’s just a matter of time and there are many exciting new technologies and ventures—PlaceSpeak chief among them—that are pointing the way.

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