A City from the Future: What if Seoul were organised like Enspiral?

Last Friday I was invited to give a lecture to about 40 officials from the Seoul City Government.

You can see my slides + notes here. I introduced myself to explain some of the background to Loomio. Then I shared a few examples of governments using Loomio to engage with citizens (e.g. LINZ, WCC, Stats NZ). Next, I explained the history of Enspiral, sharing how we do collective policy-making and participatory budgeting. After all this context-setting, I opened the discussion by imagining, how would a city be different if it were managed like Enspiral?

Checking in: ‘On a scale of 1–5, how’s your energy this afternoon?’

I made four provocations to start our discussion:

1. Transparency = data + context + invitation.

Seoul City has been celebrated for its commitment to transparency, e.g. through its participation in the Open Government Partnership. At Enspiral, we’re committed to transparency too: our policies and guidelines and issues are public, and all participants in the network have access to all discussions, decisions, finances, etc.

However, we’ve learned from experience that transparency requires a lot more than open books. To have a genuine impact the data needs to come with context and an invitation. So we think of transparency as access to data + explanation of what it means + an invitation to do something with it. This requires much more resourcing than simply making data public.

2. Participation is much more than voting

Several times I found myself referring to the impressive progress in participatory governance in Taiwan.

In particular I referenced the Blulu framework developed by Chia-Hua Lü and ETBlue. Blulu is a comprehensive theory of participatory governance, sharing tools and processes for involving citizens in government, along with a consideration for the political reality of making these kind of changes in institutions.

Blulu talks about “full spectrum participation”, arguing that to have good results, citizens must be involved at every stage: before, during, and after a deliberation event. Indeed, when officials involve citizens in only a part of this spectrum, they risk doing more harm than good.

Full spectrum participation

3. Leadership = facilitation not execution.

In his book Cognitive Surplus (and this TED talk), Clay Shirky argues that citizens have a huge amount of latent energy that can be mobilised with the right invitation. Wikipedia is the canonical example: a massive crowd of volunteers contributing to a common resource, without being paid or forced to participate.

Enspiral is a small-scale application of this principle. Most of the energy to work on Enspiral comes from the voluntary contributions of everyone in the network (this is why we’re called contributors).

We have a kind of leadership role called the Catalyst, but it’s very different to a chief executive. The Catalysts don’t do a lot of ‘executing’, they simply hold the context of what’s happening across this diverse landscape, and make a lot of invitations: you could help here, here, here, or here.

I’ve been wondering how this could be applied at a city scale: imagine if citizens were doing most of the work on their city, facilitated and resourced by the city government.

What are the conditions that make this work at Enspiral? I think a lot of it comes down to ownership and belonging.

I have ownership of Enspiral because I have direct impact on our policies, access to all the information in the organisation, and direct control of the money in the collective bank account. And I have a deep sense of belonging, because this small tribe of people really knows me and cares for me.

I’m not sure how this could be translated to a municipal context, but my instinct is to focus on the small scale. Think of a city as a collection of villages, rather than an undifferentiated mass.

4. Internal culture = external impact.

My final provocation was copy-and-pasted directly from this short talk by my colleague Alanna (Krause) Irving. She argues that the internal form of your organisation determines the external impact you can have in the world.

So if the city government wants deep engagement, innovation, and participation from citizens: how well are they practicing that within their institution?

Fortunately, I had the opportunity to make this provocation directly to the Mayor of Seoul when I met him the following week. You can read a report from that meeting in local newspaper The Kyunghyang Shinmun. He invited me to be an advisor to the city, so perhaps I’ll get a chance to support them through that transformation 😆