Connected communities: Technology, voice and governance in London neighbourhoods

Act Local: Empowering London’s neighbourhoods

Connected communities: Technology, voice and governance in London neighbourhoods

Indy Johar imagines how neighbourhoods can become a key site in harnessing technological developments for social good.

Today humanity faces many serious challenges – climate change, rising wealth inequality, runaway technological innovation, growing populist sentiment and nationalism to name but a few. These technological, societal and environmental crises of our time are entangled in our here and now. And the trajectories of these interlinked risks – from species extinction to digital monopolies and mass manipulation – are being intensified rather than limited or mitigated by our existing governance models.

In the face of these challenges, we urgently need to redefine our relationship to the future – and governance innovation is perhaps the most urgent priority if we as a species are to redefine our collective viability. Governance and regulation is one of the most important roles of the state – the means with which we structurally cohabit the present and define the future. It is the codified relationship between market, state, and civil society, ensuring adequate protections and terrains of action for each.

Yet around the world, much of the discourse around regulatory innovation is focused on reducing the “regulatory burden” for corporations and “cutting red tape” – a trickle-down theory that views corporate profit as the key to bolstering broad economic growth. But the challenge is deeper than rethinking neoliberal economics: government are increasingly unable to exert control over contemporary corporations and technologies at all. The challenge is to rebuild the social and technical capacities of the state – not against, but with and across public and civil society sectors.

New models

Part of the challenge is to change a regulatory approach in which ex ante permissions are given based on centralised prediction, rather than decentralised iteration. Such predictions don’t account for the adaptive nature of our innovation age, where uncertainty is co-produced across corporates, governments and civil society. Too often, our established institutions aren’t even acknowledging the interlinked nature of these risks, let alone creating strategies that tackle them meaningfully. We need to build our collective capacity to respond systematically to the threats society faces in a real-time basis.

The urgency of the societal and environmental risks we face is fuelling a decline in the “softer” elements that underpin our governance system – trust in institutions, imagination of better futures – just when we need them the most. This in turn is driving and exacerbating a diminished capacity to build legitimacy around bold, systemic interventions.

Whilst the impact of these factors is increasingly felt and understood at the scale of our cities and neighbourhoods, we lack the capacity to act, cooperate and innovate at the scale on which we live – in our here-and-now. We therefore need to find new models for exploring issues, discovering solution pathways, and making decisions together. We must embrace the reality of a complex, volatile and emergent world
by building capacity for simultaneous regulatory and technological innovation. To keep up with the pace of change we also need to transition towards a collaborative and agile model of designing, delivering and updating the rules. This collaborative model must be public, private and fundamentally civic.

At the same time, new technologies such as big data, machinelearning insights, digital registries, automated administration, and parametric legislation are paving the way for new governance models that learn from real-time feedback. Ultimately, these new technologies can help unlock a transition from centralised governance to a distributed model operating at the neighbourhood level. But we must also avoid the possible negative effects of these technologies, exploring their potential value without undermining the foundations of legitimacy that underpin the public sector’s ability to lead collective action. A new collaborative and agile governance model must be guided by legitimate means for identifying and advancing the public good.

This future requires two strategic shifts in direction.

1. Recognise that cities and neighbourhoods are where society’s challenges and possibilities become personal.

Cities and town centres are where formal government becomes personal – where individuals have the greatest capacity to be civically engaged, and where they most feel the outcomes of engagement. But local governments are generally caught between political agency and citizen accountability – a position that both motivates and constrains innovation. This means that they often lack the legal jurisdiction to work effectively with innovative technologies, yet bear accountability to residents. As a member of Boston City Hall noted recently: if a tragedy happens with self-driving cars, residents will say “Why did the Mayor let these drive on our roads?” – and responding with “the test is happening in accordance with a state-level ordinance” will not be a good enough answer.

Yet local governments are often ahead of national governments in taking responsibility and action. For example, a number of Canadian cities have responded to global climate change by declaring a Climate Emergency (Ottawa, Montreal, Kingston and Vancouver); while in the neighbouring United States, New York has adopted a Green New Deal and other cities are following suit. Perhaps this ability and willingness to act explains why city governments are often more trusted than regional or national ones.

The ability and determinedness of cities and local authorities to address national and international challenges is recognised and supported by a growing community of strategic innovators around the world. The United Nations Development Programme in Eurasia has recently launched the new City Experiments Fund with the new emerging work by EIT Climate-KIC on full city transitions, but one could also cite the 100 Resilient Cities programme powered by Rockefeller, Bloomberg Philanthropies’ work, and the seeding of Future Cities Canada by the McConnell
Foundation. There are also a growing number of platforms and networks such as Participatory City, Fab City Global, and PlacemakingX that demonstrate the transformative potential of neighbourhood/urban village scale transition – marrying the power of cities with the legitimacy of the neighbourhood (urban parish/town hall).

With cities accounting for up to 80 per cent of global growth, potential for impact is huge. But for cities to succeed at placebased governance, we need to devolve capacity for innovation while building neighbourhood-scale infrastructure of legitimacy and participation.

2. Build the capacity for regulatory experimentation at the neighbourhood scale.

Civic activists, social entrepreneurs and civic innovators are exploring new governance models, but more needs to be done to support these experiments and consolidate what is learned from the results. Regulatory Experimentation (RegX) could provide strategies for doing this, enabling cities and neighbourhoods to
move beyond centralised, brittle, homogenous rules and norms – instead embracing the richness and dynamism of individual and contextually emergent conditions and civic leadership.

Regulatory Experimentation will demand institutional infrastructure (civic data pools, digitalised registries), innovation capacity (identifying new models), experimentation capacity (testing new models), synthesis capacity (collecting evidence and synthesising it collaboratively across experiments), and legitimacy (participatory engagement). It also requires a longer timescale: many effects will only be seen, tested, retested, and understood over 5-10 years – that is, longer than traditional political cycles.

Regulatory Experimentation will be a process of simultaneously building new modes of practice and creating the conditions for their long-term legitimacy. These new civic, neighbourhood-scale institutions are vital in order to help us identify and act on strategic opportunities for regulatory experimentation.

RegX is a critical step towards system-scale regulatory innovation. Developing this degree of technical capacity while maintaining legitimacy requires dedicated hybrid and massively participatory institutions.

What it means for London

With the right support and capacity building, it is neighbourhoods, towns and cities that can lead the charge in a progressive transition.

The way forward cannot be dictated by the Mayor’s office. It lies with our civic capacity to build decentralised infrastructure for radical innovation. Reimagining how we choose to live together will need to happen from the neighbourhood level upward.

London’s historic town halls could be a critical location in helping achieve this. They are places where trust can flourish through legitimate participation and civic leadership. They present the viable locations for the construction of progressive self-governance, and should be empowered for radical governance innovation. They could be at the forefront of a movement of neighbourhood-scale governance: massively participatory, legitimate, and charting our transition.

London’s governance needs to be reconstituted around a participatory scale at the level of village parishes and town halls, from Acton and Ealing to Hanwell and Hammersmith. At the same time, economies of scale must be simultaneously aggregated at the level of the Greater London Authority – and structural governance innovation capacity radically expanded – if we are to transition London at the speed and scale needed.