Where Edgeryders dare: Report: conference session - Meet the policy maker
One of the main tenets for the existence of Edgeryders when it was created was to give the European institutions information and ideas from European youth.
It is hoped that the Edgeryders experiment will be a venue to promote a more fluid dialogue between the ruling institutions of Europe and its young citizens, while at the same time provide insight into the new forms of precariousness and poverty that are emerging among the youth all around Europe, and avoid implementing policies that promote marginalisation (i.e., problem-solving policies vs. potential-promoting policies).
This session was a test case of that goal: sit around a table members of the Edgeryders community alongside those involved in policy decision-making and create a face to face debate that would (hopefully) tear down the walls between institutions and citizens.
As all debates, this one started with a general presentation of projects on both parts, from the Deputy Mayor of Thessaloniki talking about the development of policies in his city to improve both economic growth via several venues (promotion of tourism and regional products) and the inclusion of youth as a central part of the city (via, among others, the creation of a creativity hub), to projects and initiatives developed by Edgeryders on their own or with the help of institutions (like the impressive Access Space in Sheffield or the occupation of vacant theatres in Italy to create citizen-driven cultural spaces).
So far, little debate, as presenting each project takes time and the institutional representatives already have a flair for speeches. It must be noted that Francis Gosselin, as debate moderator, took notes during the whole session, and posed some heavy questions on the table, as will be seen further onwards.
As indeed was expected by all, the appearance of Open Government and ICT was one of the first issues on the floor, and was answered mostly with platitudes right off the book. Yes, government can be a platform upon which to build applications, and yes, it should increase accountability and transparency. That, of course, remains to be seen, as all experiments on Open Government have been limited so far and in most cases quite local, and in difficult times it is rare the government that is willing to lose control to empower citizens.
The already mentioned case of Access Space was taken by Emma Toledano-Laredo as an example of the kind of initiatives that are looked for by the EU in general, and most of its states in particular. Not specifically for its inclusion, no-one-left-behind approach to social intervention, but for its low cost. One for the community, indeed. The problem came a bit later, when asked by Francis on EU policies on collaboration with non-established collectives. There is no plan to work with emerging communities that do not have the possibility (or need) to become an established citizen association or other type of “acceptable” group (i.e., NGO). If this looks short sighted, well, it is, just as much as it is unavoidable due to the amount of administrative red tape that covers all EU official collaborations with the citizens in a joint venture.
In comes the community at large (and the twitterverse)
Edgeryders is, foremost of all, a community-centered think tank to provide knowledge to the institutions of the EU so they can enact successful and actionable policies. But this is not your run-of-the-mill US-style think tank (it is unlikely the community will have brilliant ideas such as those that brought to the invasion of Iraq).
From the Edgeryders point of view, it is first and foremost a community, a platform where to exchange and publish ideas, experiences and forethoughts. And of course, the agreement inside the community on goals, procedures to make them happen and personal experiences is non existent. That creates little conflict in the community itself, used as Edgeryders are in having online disagreement (and a certain ease of managing offline disagreement as well), but can seem baffling to those not used to online, constant interaction.
The most clear example of this was the Twitter wall projected behind the table. While the Q&A part of the session was running, having usually at most one thread of conversation at a time, Twitter was exploding in comments, ideas, exchanges of information, planning and whatever else can be imagined.
Compared to that, the session itself was an excellent kickstart for the real (virtual) conversation that took place online, but it could not keep up. Nonetheless, the community started launching ideas during the Q&A, with mixed results.
As an example, a question about the EU implementing a model of equity crowdfunding (where a startup is owned by the community who has donated to create it) was basically unknown by most present (both Edgeryders and policy makers). And no wonder, as crowdfunding in general is something that has been approached very recently by the usually subsidies-based administration, and equity crowdfunding is such a US-born initiative that it shows itself as allergic to state intervention. However, for local projects such a scheme might relaunch the local economies without taxing the local administrations, at a moment when their budgets are being reduced day by day.
Another idea that came along, and may be unrealistic considering the way institutions do their work, was the creation of a “make everything better” fund, instead of dividing the funds among different areas. This holistic approach has some merit: social inclusion policies without health care (as can happen with separate budgets) are quite ineffectual. Of course, to be able to apply such a scheme the whole of the EU administration should be rebuilt from the ground up, and that usually incurs such costs that probably there would be no money left for such a fund.
Another proposal quite like to be immediately forgotten was the creation of a startup support programme similar to that established by President Obama in the US. That was quite easily (and frighteningly) turned down with a single sentence: Society is changing. Quite an interesting choice of words, as what it meant was that there is no intention of funding programmes to promote innovation via startup creation, which in turn would likely increase employment and, thus, European countries’ internal markets, making the economies of the EU in general a more solid and survivable model than the current “all you need is austerity” trend. But such is life, sometimes you win one, sometimes you don’t.
Some other ideas went straight to the marrow: the open sourcing of food production (considered impossible by some and as an ongoing project by others), the problem with squatting criminalization, taking into account the incredible quantity of vacant residences in Europe (which was, quite understandably, conveniently set aside, as the right to private property is there, in the European Convention on Human Rights, as the first Protocol), along with hundreds of ideas more that appeared on the Twitter wall, showed the muscle of a community brought together to be a think tank.
Ah, the Twitter wall. For many present it wasn’t such a big deal, after all the basis of any conference or unconference is having the tweets right there so one can follow several conversations at the same time, but... to see a Twitter wall in the Council of Europe, where everyone feels absolutely free to say whatever comes to mind. That is an idea the European Parliament might want to adopt, with just the right touch of bravery.
And the public did feel comfortable with it. Just to give an example of something no one would have said out loud but had no problem tweeting:
Now, not what you usually see in a Council of Europe conference, right? Exactly.
And it showed as well the main problem with these think tank, citizen-driven models: we don’t speak the same language.
Many of those present in the session were doers, people who see something wrong and just go ahead and fix it. The talk in these cases is very direct: we have problem A, and for that we need to do B and C. Once there is an agreement with that, you go ahead, carry out your part of B or C, or both, and if everyone is on the same wave the problem gets solved.
This engineering approach is fine and good, but the way of expressing A, B and C is direct and solution-based. Policy making works on a completely different level, and for a hacker approach may seem inefficient. At the same time, policy makers think of the processes needed to apply precisely that, policy, which is often an indirect approach to the problem, and requires much fine tuning of a certain word in a specific article, or the use of a specific term in another, to make the law pass, not to mention strategic voting and lobbying. All these techniques are alien to Edgeryders at large, and can mean the difference between a successful engagement of the two groups and failure.
If Edgeryders must be the think tank for Europe, we better start getting some translators soon, who can articulate the hacker discourse into something understandable by the institutions, and vice versa. Who can make the translation on both sides?