Tag Archives: democracy

Harnessing Big Data to Democratic Ends

Seattle skyline at night, 2002. Wikimedia Commons.

Seattle skyline at night, 2002. Wikimedia Commons.

Part 3 of the series Thriving Cities in a World of Big Data 

It’s easy to be afraid of Big Data. (Like Big Brother or Big Tobacco, it’s coming for us).  It’s even easier to be excited about it. As Noah Toly noted in his recent posts on Common Place, the same qualities of Big Data can inspire both utopian dreams and dystopian fears. But what can Big Data do for–or to–democracy?

In 1992, the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) called for governments and NGOs to “develop and identify indicators of sustainable development in order to improve the information basis for decision-making at all levels.” The hope was to craft new, large-scale statistical resources that would help assess and craft policies. The UNCED’s goal was twofold: first, to “bridge the data gap” that exists at all levels of government on key environmental and economic issues; second, to improve “information availability” in order to assure that data be accessible to all decision makers and managed securely and openly.  UNCED hoped not only to improve elite decision making but also to democratize sustainable development practices.

The data the UNCED proposed to track would serve democracy in a “broad sense, ” helping  individuals and institutions at both the international and grassroots levels to engage with the pressing questions of our time. But while obviously helpful to the functioning of democratic societies, these large-scale statistical measures also present problems for them.  For example, elites can use such data to support what  appear to be their interests alone—a truth borne out by metrics such as GDP, which can be used to monitor and inform the economic power of the wealthy without reflecting the well-being of the population as a whole.

Indeed, assorted measurements and data have long been used by governments and political elites to  control populations, going back to the first efforts by monarchs to require  thorough census data on their  subjects. As political scientist and anthropologist James Scott shows in Seeing Like a State, the transparency that statistical measures give to complex political phenomena can also make citizens more “legible” to, and thus controllable by, political elites. Big Data thus not only abets surveillance, but can also also bring the politically “illegible” into the fold by forcing their normalization.

Then, too, Big Data can be used to assert the sufficiency of statistical fact, thereby sometimes curtailing robust or fully informed demoractic debate. Take recent partisan arguments  pitting economic stimulus against austerity. Neither side is prepared to engage in a conversation over the data itself. Both sides claim to be in possession of the facts, the left asserting that stimulus will lead to sustained economic growth, the right that austerity is the only route to the same destination. In this case, as in others, conversations beginning with the assertion of absolute facts tend to end either in stalemate (as in recent debates about the federal budget in America) or with technocracy, where the statistician is favored over and against the popular will of people (as with Italy’s Monti government).

Can we have the benefits of Big Data without the drawbacks? Is there a way to harness the democratic power of information  while also promoting democratic open-mindedness and popular empowerment? The work of geographer Meg Holden, who studied the development and implementation of a regional environmental impact index called Sustainable Seattle (S2), is useful here. Holden’s study of S2 shows how  complex phenomena such as urban sustainability and climate change can be made subjects of political debate through statistical measures.

Holden shows that grassroots attention to indicator development and application allowed the S2 project to bridge existing learning gaps between local politics and dispersed economic, ecological, cultural, and institutional phenomena. Rather than shifting knowledge of large-scale phenomena outside democratic debate, S2 promoted “social learning.” Residents of Seattle could (and did) use its findings to promote better  democratic debates.

The demands S2 placed on its developers were many. Among other things, they had to become statistical experts in indicator development while finding measurements that meaningfully correlated to ecological questions. They had to be marketers who could advertise their project and findings to their community. And finally, they had to lobby in support of their findings in order to have an impact on local politics. While Holden shows that S2 was imperfect, the responsiveness of its developers to broad public concerns makes it a model for those hoping to  to harness Big Data for democratic ends.

Above all, the S2 project leaders recognized the limits of Big Data. Its developers acknowledged the imperfect nature and sources of data, the limitations inherent in its processing, the necessity of packaging findings, and the need to bring findings to all audiences and institutions. In the long run, such chastened optimism and humility may prove to be the most helpful lessons  of all.

Callum Ingram is a graduate student in the Department of Politics at the University of Virginia. His dissertation research focuses on the use of urban space and architecture by democratic social movements.

Editor’s note: For more on this topic, subscribe to receive the spring issue of The Hedgehog Review, “Too Much Information.”

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The Magic of Mayors?

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2014 issue of Comment Magazine, a publication of CARDUS. Available by subscription at www.cardus.ca/comment.

 

If Mayors Ruled the WorldWhen identifying potential leadership for global challenges, we often neglect history. Specifically, we tend to forget that the nation-state is a relatively new kid on the block, a political entity much younger than the city and yet one we take to be the basic unit of society. We assume that power resides in presidents and prime ministers, not mayors and municipal managers.

For a “cosmopolitan urbanist,” someone who believes that cities and their mayors are poised to provide much-needed leadership on global challenges, the relationship between the ancient city and the upstart nation-state is more fraught. From this perspective, the nation-state is like the sorcerer’s apprentice, having set into motion a number of global dynamics that it cannot control or stop. In Goethe’s masterpiece, the apprentice conjures a broom to assist with his chores, but the broom actually makes the mess worse. Unable to undo the spell, the apprentice breaks the broom instead.

The broom then multiplies, which only exacerbates the problem. When the apprentice is beyond hope, the sorcerer returns, breaks the spell, and restores order. Mayors, cosmopolitan urbanists might say, are like the sorcerer himself: they have an ancient and untapped magic to address global challenges that defy the capabilities of the nation-state. Indeed, this is the daring thesis of Benjamin Barber’s recent book, If Mayors Ruled the World: Dysfunctional Nations, Rising Cities. In his manifesto for urban leadership in an increasingly interconnected world, Barber proposes to leverage the potential of cities and urban leadership through a worldwide “Parliament of Mayors.” “Can cities save the world?” Barber asks. His answer is clear: “I believe they can . . . they should . . . and they already do.” But is this hope justified? Can cosmopolitan urbanism deliver what it promises?

Taller Borders, Eroding Democracy

Barber argues that nation-states, having initiated and fuelled contemporary global dynamics, are now constitutionally incompetent to channel those dynamics for the common good. At stake is not only material wellbeing, but also the credibility and practice of democracy.

For Barber, the problem is rooted in the distinctive notion of sovereignty that reserves for the nation-state absolute, independent, and exclusive authority over a given territory. Since the seventeenth century, sovereign nation-states, more than other institutions, have used their authority to cultivate space for democratic practice. While democracy may have been conceived in the ancient polis, modern nation-states have been responsible for maturing democratic practice.

However, according to Barber, global challenges expose limitations and contradictions built into the strengths of the nation-state system. As he writes, “The dysfunction of nation-states as global cooperators arises at least in part out of their virtues.” Sovereignty does not preclude collaboration, but it does hinder effective governance of  transnational matters. Simply put, accountability beyond the borders of the state is an affront to sovereignty. Therefore, faced with actors, issues, and contexts that are not territorially bound and may demand transnational accountability—greenhouse gases, for example, need no visas, and the atmosphere is a commons shared by everyone—the sovereignty of the nation-state betrays the common good.

As if pandemics and ecological catastrophes that defy the capabilities of the nation state are not bad enough, Barber’s greatest fear is the erosion of democratic governance. Hanging over his analysis is the specter of authoritarianism. For all his discussion of environmental and social challenges, Barber is most concerned with the ways in which those challenges indirectly threaten democracy by exposing the incompetence of the nation-state.

Barber worries that the formal, but ineffective, authority of the sovereign nation-state, to date the most fertile ground for democracy, may be superseded by the emergence of more competent, but undemocratic, forms of governance—either a global government or, more likely, multinational corporations. Like greenhouse gases, such actors span borders and thus trump sovereignty, but their empowerment also undermines meaningful democratic practice.

So it is that we stand at something of a crossroads. Climate change and other global challenges combine with the emergence of effective but undemocratic institutions simultaneously to undermine material  wellbeing and threaten hard-won practices of self-governance. Barber sees the city as a way out of this mire.

The Return of the Polis

Barber’s proposal for a worldwide Parliament of Mayors is audacious. Three times per year, the leaders of 300 cities would meet to consider challenges facing our increasingly urban world. To ensure consideration of challenges faced by megacities and modest towns alike, each meeting would include 50 cities of more than 10 million inhabitants, 125 cities with populations between 500,000 and 10 million, and another 125 with populations under 500,000. In matters requiring a vote, each city would cast one “city vote” along with one demographic vote for every 500,000 inhabitants. In any given year, each of the three meetings would include a different set of cities, with the exception perhaps of a small cadre of permanent members.

The Parliament of Mayors would primarily be what Barber calls “an Audiament—a chamber of listeners” in which urban leadership from around the world would gather to be updated on the challenges faced and solutions developed by their peers. Only occasionally would the parliament vote on a measure, the passage of which would require a majority in three consecutive parliamentary sessions.

Barber thinks that the Parliament of Mayors will work because cities share four characteristics that predispose them to both democratic governance and successful collaboration on global challenges. First, the scale of cities enables participation, opening their “civic logic” to the possibility of bottom-up governance.

Second, cities are now home to more than half of the world’s population, a percentage that demographers predict will only increase over the coming decades. So, quoting Las Vegas urban reformer Tony Hsieh, Barber concludes: “If you fix cities, you kind of fix the world.”

Third, Barber claims that cities are predisposed to cooperation because they have never been self-sufficient, but have always depended upon their hinterlands and other cities to meet their needs. Barber ignores the important fact that this dependence has not consistently resulted in cooperation. At its height, the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan was the definition of a regional hegemon, demanding tribute from its hinterland. And our largest contemporary cities are not known for cooperation at the metropolitan level, much less at the global level. The fact that cities need resources from beyond their territorial boundaries does not mean that cities will play nice to get them.

Fourth, Barber claims that cities are inherently disposed toward pragmatism, rather than ideology, and are therefore more likely to face up to the practical challenges of globalization. There is some truth to this claim, but Barber ignores the history of entanglement between corruption and what he describes as an urbanpreoccupation with practical challenges. Ignoring both ideas and personalities in favor of “getting it done” has played a major role in the history of machine politics, which depends to an extent upon preserving the status quo and thus changes very little about the city, much less the world. So this cuts against the grain of Barber’s proposal more than he admits.

The Future of Cosmopolitan Urbanism

The high hopes shared by Barber and other cosmopolitan urbanists are to a certain extent grounded in existing realities. Cities are already exercising leadership on global matters. Transnational municipal networks are addressing issues such as climate change, food security, and economic development. Cities in these networks are sharing best practices, diffusing policy agendas, and operationalizing norms in innovative ways. They don’t yet constitute Barber’s Parliament of Mayors, but if transnational municipal networks are the future, then the future is already here.

There is, however, the matter of inequality, not only within cities but also within the emerging global urban system. It isn’t entirely clear that the relative prosperity of New York, London, and Tokyo is unrelated to the relative vulnerability of Nairobi, Lagos, and Tacloban. These inequities are reflected in the shape of already existing networks and might be exploited if and when the Parliament of Mayors takes shape. To borrow a line from William Gibson, whose dystopian Sprawl Trilogy Barber confusingly cites as an example of the future he envisions, “The future is already here; it’s just not very evenly distributed.”

Nonetheless, Barber makes an important contribution by navigating the strait between idolatry of the city, on the one hand, and what theologian Edward Farley describes as “social Manicheanism,” on the other. Unlike purely boosterist accounts of cosmopolitan urbanism, Barber is at least aware of urban challenges. He insists that mayors must get their own houses in order even as we “rediscover the polis tucked into the core of cosmopolis.”

Indeed, cosmopolitan urbanists as a whole seem to have high expectations for what Farley describes as “theonomous sociality.” Theonomous sociality “has to do with how a society manages and transcends its . . . natural centrisms . . . not by repudiating ‘location, territory, or specific cultural content,’ but by taking up the aims and goods of particularity into agendas oriented to the well-being of broader environments.”

Unfortunately, cosmopolitan urbanists offer only very thin accounts of why cities would do this and, in particular, why they would do it better than other institutions. Barber’s particular account only goes so far in this direction. He makes a case—drawing briefly upon Edmund Burke, who Barber spins into a sort of “grounded cosmopolitan”— that urban leaders should take into account the global common good. But Barber offers no account of the motivations that might drive such a commitment on the part of cities, their urban leadership, and their citizens.

Still, whatever their motivations, these cities exist. But will they make a difference? Can mayors and other urban leaders save us from social and ecological catastrophe and keep democratic governance viable? One thing’s for sure: mayors won’t be able to go it alone as global leaders. If cities are to experiment not only with social and ecological innovations but with new governance models that can couple effectiveness with self-rule in service to the global common good, then we will all have to reconsider the ways in which we inhabit our communities. If there is any magic to be recovered in the polis, then citizens, and not just city managers, will have to manage and transcend their natural centrisms in favor of the common good.

 

Noah Toly currently serves as Director of Urban Studies and Associate Professor of Politics & International Relations at Wheaton College. He has taught various courses in environmental politics and policy, urban politics, and ethics. He is also a member of the Thriving Cities Project steering committee.

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