Crowdsourcing and citizens’ initiatives

Technology can really help to reduce friction during the organizing process. The generally held belief is that bringing together the necessary resources to carry out a complex task demands certain infrastructure and coordination, the kind of infrastructure that can be found in most businesses or institutions.

But traditionally, the chances of getting people to work together efficiently to produce a decision was nigh impossible, with a tendency for the process to turn into a meeting, and run along neighborhood association lines: very hard to manage.

Yet the possibilities opened up by the web seem to be changing the nature of such processes, empowering them with potentially much more ambitious outcomes.

There is no shortage of examples: in the wake of Iceland’s wiki-Constitution, which now seems destined for an early grave, we are seeing similar initiatives in other spheres. In Finland, more than 50,000 people have signed a petition to introduce new intellectual property rights legislation they say is fairer: in the face of increasingly tougher proposals that have always been dictated by international lobbies acting on behalf of corporate interests, this citizen’s initiative proposes reducing copyright infringement sentences and moving toward a fair use system, as well as banning unfair clauses preventing the recording of film and music, and also allowing people to make copies of things they own.

Initiatives such as this are in large part prompted by a widely felt anger with what seems many societies’ slide into a police state in which people’s houses can be searched and their internet activities monitored, a system that last year enraged many after it was learned that police raided the home of a nine-year-old girl and confiscated her Winnie the Pooh laptop. The proposal will be put to the vote in Parliament at the beginning of next year and looks set to be approved.

Meanwhile, in Berlin, two civic groups have put in a bid to run the city’s electricity distribution network. In the 1990s, many German cities privatized their electricity networks, and not all were a resounding success: the country is a leader in renewable energy use, and around 25 percent of energy generated is environmentally friendly, and in some areas as 100 percent. But in Berlin, the property company in charge of electricity distribution, Vattenfall, is making no effort to increase renewable electricity production from the current 1.5 percent: it turns out that the Vattenfall uses coal from its own, German, mines.

The civic groups involved in the bid want electricity distribution to be publically-privately managed, and for profits to be reinvested in a more efficient and flexible supply grid. They also want to drastically increase the amount of electricity produced by renewables, in line with other regions in the country.

A second proposal, which has similar ends, has arisen out of the growing support for the remunicipalization of the energy sector, and has already garnered more than a quarter of a million signatures, forcing a referendum on the issue that will take place in November of this year.

What we are talking about here are voters organizing themselves via the web, proposing initiatives and developing decision-making processes about energy generation that are transparent and clearly to the benefit of the common good. In other words, crowdsourcing applied to the management of public resources. Have no doubts: the progressive adaptation by representative democracy of the new technologies at our disposal will see the emergence of many similar processes and initiatives of this kind.

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