[1/2] Civic Tech and tomorrow’s Education

Rethinking our society’s (r)evolution through the prism of interdisciplinarity

This post-event report explores the CRI Open Class EdTech #8 — What education for what democracy? with François Taddei, held 10th of November at the Centre de Recherches Interdisciplinaires in Paris. We’ve written two complementary viewpoints about how education and democracy can be integrated into the civic-tech vision of tomorrow’s society, as two of the students in the EdTech Master. You can also read Anthony Jahn’s article here.
“World map made up of people”. Image credits to earley.com

I wouldn’t dare define Education or Democracy. In my opinion, inspiring intellectuals have successfully approached the truths reflected in these two universal values throughout history. However, there have been crucial points of innovation and change-making throughout history where those two values have been overlooked by policy makers. Presumably, Civic Tech could constitute a new -or not so new- change-making step, aiming to serve today’s societies’ sustainable progress and well-being. If so, where and how could technology enable the engagement and participation of the public in stronger development, enhanced citizen communication, improved government infrastructure and public good, within a future Civic Tech society?

Civic Engagement and Collective Decisions in bacteria; bacteria actually vote!

“Microscopic Level’s Social Networking”. Image credits to wingd.ca

To begin with, let’s be inspired from nature and one of its simplest life forms, bacteria. Quorum sensing is the phenomenon during which bacteria communicate using extracellular signals in order to control a variety of their physiological functions through regulated gene expression. Bacteria “vote collectively” by releasing specific signaling molecules. However, their gene expression is affected by the density of the local population and only when specific signaling thresholds are exceeded. Likewise, some social insects also use quorum sensing to collectively determine where to nest.

How could we be inspired by this wisely constructed and effective biological phenomenon in order to establish a decentralized system of information, engagement and collective decision making within a Civic Tech society? [1,2 & 3].

Re-thinking Education as a Global Problem-solving Tool

Humboldt’s model for education was based on two ideas of the Enlightenment: the individual and the world citizen. Humboldt believed that the university (and education in general, as in the Prussian system) should enable students to become autonomous individuals and world citizens by developing their own reasoning powers in an environment of academic freedom [4].

According to this model, universities should be places where one is free to learn, free to teach, free to do research and develop new projects. In the latter case, a mentor should facilitate the project’s development and growth by providing guidance, instead of solid and already existing solutions. One point that may distinguish a teacher -which is a misperceived role in many educational systems today- from a mentor, is that the second one is by definition expected to act towards the enhancement of the student’s self-reliance and problem-solving capability.

Today’s problems would have probably already been solved if the application of already existing solutions was enough to do so. There is a myriad of problems existing nowadays in our world, otherwise categorized under 17 Sustainable Development Goals in the UN agenda [5]. Education, however, could be the tool to potentially find a solution for every other problem, by training the problem-solvers of tomorrow.

According to Thomas W. Payzant, education is knowing what to do when you don’t know what to do [6].

Many of the existing educational systems, remain limited; they only reproduce and “teach” the solutions of the past. However, our world’s evolution follows a rather dynamic, nonlinear curve, within which new conditions create new challenges and needs. For this purpose, finding the solutions of tomorrow requires an education that will train cooperative problem-solvers who think critically, re-combine, adapt and evolve existing knowledge, but most importantly “invent” a new approach that contributes to a sustainable solution for all.

The role of Universities as “civic-spaces”

University incorporates a big portion of today’s society. For this purpose, it should be the first to re-consider, re-establish or even re-invent its contribution to this civic-tech society of tomorrow. Ideally, university, should put itself in the dynamic process of continuous self-reinvention, aiming to an open, “glocal” model where knowledge is available and accessible both in a local and a global level.

So far, knowledge is being evaluated through certification. However, in tomorrow’s learning society, knowledge evaluation should be unlimited and extended to all different types of contribution, civic involvement and engagement. Although this might seem difficult at first glance, the contribution of modern technology could be of great importance in prototyping this “evolvable” university model.

To this point, Aristotle claimed the existence of three forms of knowledge; Episteme (i.e. science, for knowing the world), Techne (for acting on the world) and last but not least Phronesis (i.e. the ethics of action on the world). Given the equal importance of all three knowledge forms, as well as our tendency to oversee the third one of them, Phronesis should be one of the fundamental aspects of this re-invented university model. And although Phronesis may be misperceived as a static idea, it constitutes a very evolvable and adaptable notion. Philosophy reminds us the creative aspect of Phronesis and could finally support the integration of the complexity and beauty of the world into the student’s scope of tomorrow’s civic tech society.

Citizen Science, User-Experience Empathy and the Culture of Open Source

All things considered, we are coming back to the problem-solving culture. How could the profile of an effective problem-solver look like? Imagine someone designing a future tool, without getting any feedback and evaluation from this tool’s future users. Which would be the chances that this tool would be useful and effective for its users?

Although this mistake may seem an easy one to avoid, it is usually not the case when researchers are asked, for example, to design tools for geographically and culturally remote communities. Looking for first-hand experience and empathy for the future user’s/stakeholder’s needs could be one of the priorities of the re-invented education and civic tech tools could act as the facilitators and catalysts of this progress. One way to achieve communication and interaction between those two “sides” could be the establishment of open-source tools within a citizen science culture.

This is another point where civic tech platforms could serve as the matrix for citizen-citizen and citizen-scientist interaction, collaboration and eventually empowerment in a local and global level.

However, to what extent could an ideal and extended civic-tech engagement and action, diminish big inequalities and eventually promote public good?

Is civic-tech engagement the panacea to the problems of humanity? Reputation as the key element to civic-tech platforms

The key-element for survival of every living organism in nature is their adaptation mechanisms. There is no recipe for the perfect adaptation mechanism, though, but rather a more favored combination of multiple coexisting mechanisms taking place at the right place, at the right time. Likewise, there are some everlasting conflicts throughout human history, which, perhaps, have no ideal solution. As long as the sources of the conflict between money-making and environmental protection are here, it is likely that the conflict is going to stay. But, maybe in that case, the catalyst that could bring the conflict to an end could be found in putting enough weight on either side of the conflict. Ideally, we would like companies to understand how their image is affected when they get involved in conflicts threatening public good. This, however, is not the case most of the times.

Nevertheless, raised public awareness, engagement and action would potentially put the weight on the “right site” of the conflict, thus, defending public good. In this case, civic-tech platforms could exert their influence by reflecting the reputation of companies and their evidence-based impact during such conflicting situations, when the public is usually little or even misinformed.

The whole is greater than the sum of its parts”

Trying to bring such an evolvable topic to a conclusion would seem equally naive as trying to strictly define Education and Democracy. However, even when definitions fail to reflect the depth of some values, there are still some widely accepted and evidence-based quotes that reveal global truths through wise and simple statements like this:

“The whole is greater than the sum of its parts”,

stated in Aristotle’sMetaphysics (also perceived as 1+1>2). This phrase could potentially reflect the power that a society of well-educated and consciously engaged Civic Techs could have in tackling today’s society problems and building healthier societies for tomorrow.

*Many thanks to Anthony, Alicia, Lydia and Alex for their contribution to the refinement of the article.