Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Pre-Release Announcement! Civic Intelligence's Greatest Hits

Although I grew up with "The Greatest Hits" of various rock and roll icons like, say, the Byrds or the Kinks (in the form of vinyl records), I have the uneasy feeling that the designation has lost its luster over the past 3 or 4 decades. But "greatest hits" seems to be the sort of thing I'm looking for.

So within the next couple of months I hope to come up with a list of "Civic Intelligence's Greatest Hits" — or at least the first draft. Maybe it's time to dust off the greatest hits meme and test it for virality. I'll be soliciting candidates soon and we'll see what happens.

For now I'll just list a few books that I think should be in contention for a Greatest Hit designation. Other things — apps, events, institutions, public policy, comics, graffiti, etc. — can come later.
  • John Dewey is one of the earliest — and one of the most significant — commentators on the idea of civic intelligence (although he did not use the term). Dewey stresses the inseparability of thought and action as well as the need to reason together. Intelligence in the Modern World: John Dewey's Philosophy contains a particularly pertinent selection of his writings. I also found Understanding John Dewey: Nature and Cooperative Intelligence by James Campbell to be extremely useful.
  • From neighborhood mapping to little theater and citizen epidemiology Twenty Years at Hull-House, by Jane Addams demonstrates a unbelievably wide range of civic intelligence. Addams, along with Ellen Gates Starr, founded the Hull House in 1889 where she lived until her death in 1935. Hull House was a vast incubator for civic innovation, an excellent example from history, from which countless more are likely to be found.
  • Learning to Manage Global Environmental Risks by the Social Learning Group is a well-organized look at how countries around the world have dealt with major environmental threats. Each threat, from the ozone hole problem which was dispatched relatively easily to climate change which is current stymieing the efforts of scientists, governments, and environmental advocates, is addressed by looking at the actions of 10 countries using the same framework. The statement from the book, "Global environmental management will therefore continuously be confronted with new challenges, requiring an ability both to utilize existing knowledge despite its inevitable uncertainties and incompleteness and to generate new understanding of unprecedentedly complex systems," captures key aspects of civic intelligence.
  • Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action by Elinor Ostrom though academic text brings out the major considerations of how groups of people from various times and places have managed to manage resources collectively. Traditionally these have included physical places like fishing grounds, wood lots, or pastures, but, presumably, Ostrom's insights will be relevant in thinking about the Internet.
  • Street Science: Community Knowledge and Environmental Health Justice by Jason Corburn presents several case studies including projects by El Puente and the Toxic Avengers where "ordinary" citizens used science and scientific methods to understand and pushback disease and environmental degradation in their communities.
  • Democracy as Problem-Solving by Xavier de Souza Brigg provides examples from the US and around the world of people working from civil society and the grassroots to build intelligent responses to wicked problems. Breakthrough Communities, edited by M. Paloma Pavel uses a similar approach by documenting how communities across the US are working together in broad coalitions to address important chronic problems.
  • Preparing for the Twentieth-First Century by Paul Kennedy and Ingenuity Gap by Thomas Homer-Dixon both lay out major problems for society and discuss ways of addressing them. While Homer-Dixon does acknowledge the problems of having inadequate knowledge there are assumptions that ingenuity in the form of new technology or new scientific knowledge will save us — an argument that I find unconvincing.
  • The Limits to Growth with the help of sophisticated computer modeling looked at a variety of "systems" issues including our various "stores" of natural resources and how fast we use them and degrade our environment was first published in 1972 and has gone through many printings. The latest version, "The 30-Year Update", by Donella Meadows, Jorgen Randers, and Dennis Meadows, contains World3 a more sophisticated computer model that builds on previous ones. Although its focus is an exploration of scenarios — not forecasting the future — the fact that so many of the scenarios end in collapse should definitely give us pause for thought. (And speaking of collapse, let's not forget Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond or The Collapse of Complex Societies by Joseph Tainter, both of whom undertake a systematic look at societal collapse and the factors that caused it.)
  • A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander and many colleagues, is about more than architecture. It provides a holistic view of human habitations and invites people to take charge of their own dwellings. It also provides a compelling framework based on "patterns" and "pattern languages" that have influenced people from a variety of disciplines, including Liberating Voices: A Pattern Language for Communication Revolution that I developed with the help of 85 colleagues.
  • Finally, Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming chronicles how a devoted and well-financed group of professionals can — and do — sow civic ignorance. Unfortunately we collectively don't always make the wisest decisions (and books and article that explore this are important candidates for this effort!).

The books listed above should help convey the scope of civic intelligence. Even then there are still a hundred gaping holes: the role of education, technology, the arts, or cognitive science, for example. The U.S.-centric aspect of this preliminary list is also a problem. Another thing to notice, finally, is that none of these books actually covers more than a portion of the civic intelligence territory. Perhaps that's because the territory is too large. Maybe it's because authors don't care to bite off that much. Maybe however it's not a sign that the territory is too large, nor that authors like smaller topics, only that nobody has really conceptualized this particular focus before.

So, please watch for the call. Hopefully you will have some suggestions. Maybe we'll identify the right categories. And maybe ultimately we can agree on the "greatest hits." At the very worst we'll put together a nice list that contains examples of both theory and practice, in short, a list that encourages more civic intelligence.

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