Most People Care About Something

While having breakfast with Nick Grossman of Union Square Ventures we were talking about the future of MindMixer and of community participation. After a few minutes lamenting the absurd friction and fragmentation that prevents you from just finding out what’s going on in your city, Nick shared a story about a brand new intersection that he walks through on his way to work every day. The project took months and hundreds of thousands of dollars to complete, and now every day when he traverses this new addition to his neighborhood, he grows more agitated. Why? He wasn’t involved in the process, the finished product doesn’t meet his needs and he has no idea who to talk to about it.

And so it goes. In thousands of cities every day, work like this and countless other park, street, public transit and development projects are carried out in a relative vacuum. Not maliciously of course, quite the opposite, but it would not be unfair to characterize them as unguided. After all, there are thousands of other people who walk through that same intersection every day, and their knowledge of that particular place is unrivaled. Nick is by definition an expert of what it’s like to walk through that exact intersection. Why on earth wasn’t he consulted about how to best pull off that important public investment? He is the customer and he knows the needs very well.

Twenty-first century citizenship should work like that. Citizens should not have to navigate governmental bureaucracy in order to participate in a meaningful way. Jurisdictional boundaries and departmental responsibilities should be fluid and responsive— not immovable idiosyncrasies of democracy. Considering what we face when interacting with government, it is easy to see that a good portion of what often gets ascribed to citizen apathy is really more an indication that we expect better. When commerce has been simplified such that Amazon can deliver my whim direct to my doorstep with a couple of swipes of my finger, it is not outrageous to believe that some of that same ingenuity would be able to reinvigorate citizenship.

As we finished our breakfast and our conversation wrapped up, Nick challenged our notions of the relative appeal (or lack) of community participation. We suggested that even if the numbers of people who we might be able to bring into a smarter type of citizenship were small, collectively they would still be mighty. Nick pushed back with a simple idea:

“I think you are underestimating the audience here. I mean, most people care about something.”

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