This is the last of the series of research papers based on the community’s experiences of transition. And I have to say it is the one that resonated for me the most. I’ve been quite sceptical of mainstream politics for as long as I can remember and Magnus does a great job of making sense of the political reality in which our experiences in trying to affect change live. I found especially the analysis of the Occupy, Los indignados and Anti Acta movement very interesting and a few important things have fallen into place for me. Below I have not tried to summarise it, but to make sense of my own thoughts using Magnus’s research. And to map out a way for us to maybe move forward as individuals and as a collective.
All constructive input is very valuable. Remember that it’s these papers and feedback that will feed into the Transition Handbook for Policymakers, edited by Rebecca Collins and up by the end of the year.
How policymakers understand landscape of young peopleThere is a widespread notion that life for youth today is radically different than it was for previous generations fueled by information technologies, media and markets. Another dominating theme is the notion of crisis and uncertainty- cuts in education affect who is able to access higher studies when the job market for young and educated is poor with result that more young people become part of group of youth hardest hit by crisis. You could even go so far as to state that people are being excluded from being able to afford access to jobs. This is connected to education as a sorting machine & it's function having morphed from ticket to social mobility to minimum requirement to access labour market (recommendations include open school to world). Another dominant theme is the idea of “new opportunities and possibilities” supposedly offered to young people in our “knowledge societies”.
What is meant by “participation”?Both on the Edgeryders platform and beyond it is evident that there is a growing gap to bridge between how political institutions work and how political participation is perceived and practiced by the citizenry, especially younger people. The decline in memberships in formal organisations reflect the failure of policy-makers to align the work of political institutions with the expectations and practices of todays young people.
Where is Participation taking place?It used to be that youth policy around participation was focused on bringing youth into the institutional forms of participation. In Edgeryders we are seeing how youth are active in creating their own initiatives and spaces that work with different kinds of procedures and practices than institutional politics. And civil/ political participation is not some separate activity or engagement separate from the rest of their lives. E.g. in a personal discussion about dilemma of choosing between getting paid for doing a job you’re uncomfortable with and doing what you want without being rewarded financially for it. Discussion turns to one about the political situation that brought about the dilemma and which political actions and alternative economic systems which solve it e.g. time banks, alternative currencies, ways of sharing resources. Magnus divides the different forms of participation found in Edgeryders into 3 categories which he calls “Protest”, “Systems” as well as “Social Innovation & direct improvements”.
Protest: street protest movementsAnti Acta protests: In Anti-Acta in Poland you got a 7 hr long debate between activists and the Polish prime minister...How did this happen? While primarily directed towards influencing decision makers within political insititutions, they target a part of the political process that rarely interacts with citizens and this opens up space for the unexpected. More specifically they target issues normally perceived to be just an administrative matter and turn them into contested political issues.
Both Occupy protest & Los Indignados movements have captured and directed currents in society that previously where unarticulated and could have been captured by far right movements. They are exploratory movements: clear problem space is identified but no formal demands directed to any decision-makers. How? First they experiment with new ways of tackling political problems ie. new forms of participation and new ways of connecting issues and struggles. Then try to articulate in practice & theory alternative ways of being and acting politically.
Systems: invention of new kinds of political procedures and systemsThis involves constructing some formal procedures and rule sets for enabling participation. Some, like Kyopol, are primarily concerned with participation in formal political process of political institutions (city to European level). They can be seen as a response to the failure of e-participation systems promoted top down widely regarded as inefficient, costly, technologically backward and unable to fulfill the real needs of users: “This is why the EU has not obtained much results, despite having invested more than 100 million euros in the last 10 years”. Others are primarily concerned with structuring participation among peers. These Often involve digital technology + software such as the experimental systems dealing with money, currencies & value.
Open Government initiatives see participatory potential in governments opening up information databases for the public to use & engage with as this allows citizens to engage directly with core of political institutions instead of interacting with only their representatives. This enables enables real cooperation between governments and citizens to create better services and use of data, especially as bottom up initiatives tend to be more agile and can lead the way if the data is made accessible in clean and appropriate formats.
Social Innovation and direct improvementsI discuss this in detail further in the summary.
Who sets the Agenda?The way open government movements seem to be born based on accounts on Edgeryders is that a loose group of citizen enthusiasts get in touch with some insider knowledgeable about software or just enthusiastic about idea and start collaborating. The keyword here is collaboration. Processes that place too much focus on improving the work of political institutions and not on citizens own initiatives do not ensure that the right issues, and how they are perceived by the citizens, ever make it onto the agenda. Participatory Budgeting, , has been criticised for this reason.
The key term is influence- simply participating in process that is already defined does not guarantee real influence; the youth active on edgeryders would hardly settle for being included in taking part in decisions at the end of processes where the problem has already been formulated. In fact many of the issues that e.g. participants in Edgeryders engage with are issues that in the mainstream politics are not considered political issues. Examples include the massive mobilisation of young people in Europe against the ratification of the ACTA treaty. Institutions and traditional political stakeholders treated were taken by surprise by young people’s engagement in what they incorrectly perceived an administrative matter: they hadn’t realised that for young people ACTA was a contested political issue. This is far from an isolated incident. Youth policy focuses on fostering participation in decisions within areas already defined as influencing the lives of young people. The result is that 1) wrong decisions are made and 2) no policy addresses issues that young people are discovering as important. Many initiatives e.g Los Indignados aim to establish new procedures and forms of interaction where political discussions & actions are made possible. This process orientation is often criticized by outsiders as weakness but from within movements it is seen as an indication of trying to address the roots of the political situation rather than try to superficially address the consequences. This is consistent with broader societal trends of moving towards open-ended forms of participation correlated with the rise of networked communication technologies enable users to create new forms of organisation and information exchange.
A new role for institutions?Youth policy tends to rely on a perspective where participation equals participation in formal political processes and stable memberships in organisations. Edgeryders neither act alone nor are interested in participating in already established structural participation. Actors- individuals, groups- form clusters that use their force to act on an issue. Once the act is performed they disperse only to form again if another act is needed. The act can be anything from working on documents, spreading information, sharing knowledge to actually gathering physically for demonstrations or to participate in conferences. They do not need to know that they are in a cluster performing a particular act together. Institutions are not used to dealing with this kind of activity and these forms of association but they stand to benefit from them. By participating in youth-led initiatives rather than in formal decision-making processes young people learn many things. They learn how the world works and how political processes are structured today. They also learn how it could be structured and learn to critique the current models for political participation. Learning from and participating in promising new ways of embarking on collective process to change the conditions of society offers many opportunities for institutions to evolve, adapt and re-build legitimacy amongst the citizenry.
Facilitating Prototyping culturesMany of the initiatives displayed on Edgeryders are about creating new social infrastructures based on commons and sharing as creative responses to the trio of ecological, economic and political crisis.They are trying anything and everything all at the same time, engaging in radical innovation and ground-breaking work often outside any formal spaces. In fact social innovation and direct improvements are the category of political participation that is most hard to distinguish from other ways of simply improving living conditions together with others. Through direct improvements of living conditions, they enable new forms of participation and political relations to emerge. Characteristically these initiatives
- start in single but radical issue or demand
- present an achievable solution which poses a challenge to existing structures
- involve multiple stakeholders, tend to go viral and are based on building a community
- practice design in use: they adapt, improvise and expand issues as more stakeholders become involved
Examples in Edgeryders include:
- Occupation of Teatro Valle in Rome is part of series of Theatre occupations across Italy- what started out as occupations to try to prevent closure of theatre turns into hub for social experimentation in neighborhoods where they are located.
- Addiopizzo initiative in Sicily is an initiative kind of like a fair trade motive supporting Sicilian restaurants who refuse to pay “protection” money to the maffia.
In fact many people are doing innovative, ground -breaking work completely out of any formal space. From initiatives that directly address perceived short-comings of existing political systems by building software to facilitate alternative ones, building operating systems for the planet, looking at the banking systems from a new perspective, monitoring the global net for restrictions to online freedom of expression and privacy in order to restore them, building software to facilitate collective sense-making and decision-making processes all the way to developing response kits for communities to keep health care systems going during economic meltdown. In the process they are prototyping the new society, trying anything and everything all at the same time to address common challenges. They are like society’s distributed Research and Development lab, trying everything and anything all at the same time to address common challenges. What seems to drive these form of poltical and civic participations is a combination of many different factors that are place and context specific: Young people’s attitudes towards the political sphere are influenced by many areas outside of the traditional concerns of youth policy including: education, employment, inclusion and health, finance, housing, transport and growing environmental concerns. What is omnipresent is a gap between what are perceived as distant social forces and the influence of institutional bodies: a sense that institutional politics is incapable of, or unwilling to, address the complex issues that the world is facing today. This is not as simple as to say that governments should “move out of the way and let youth determine their own lives”. Edgeryders are prototyping the new society but they can’t do it without institutional support. Challenges to youth and volunteer-led initiatives outside formalised organisations include:
- Continuity: Lack of continuity due to lack of resources: process oriented practice based on time and resource consuming volunteer efforts can easily lead to individual and collective burn out before reaching stage where political gains are institutionalised and secured. Corporate world have abundance of resources to throw at this so rarely problem for them.
- Sustainability: Successful at getting things started, gathering people, spreading information and working up energy for new form of participation at beginning of a project. Also problem with funding structures: Recurring problem between social design intervention in people’s lives that require long-term commitments to achieve desired impact, and funding structures that premier short-term contracts suggestion: more focus on mapping and making use of networks that already exist in communities.
- Scalability: Big impacts more likely to be achieved through multiplying small local initiatives and engaging enough people to be involved in them. But for this to happen it is likely political institutions like the state will need to provide the resources or assistance with the information load of coordination. And they will have to bear the cost of reducing complexity, flexibility and speed of reaction and adoption. Motivation: Edgeryders like most people are most engaged in what is immediately relevant to them and their communities. There is skepticism that the scale necessary to solve issues tied to e.g regional waste management, global climate change or melting of polar ice is a viable path. In some cases it’s because the option of working with the state perceived as being closed (government not interested, open or accessible). In others it’s because there is suspicion that the larger networks and supply chains necessary for action on a massive scale are not resilient. That they will break down in case of strain to the system and local communities will end up having to manage on their own resilience anyway.
While institutions are slow and not prone to experimentation and taking risks, when they turn to action they have an impact that small grassroots initiatives have a hard time aggregating. Here institutions could carve out a new role in providing support- by allowing young people to lead and supporting them by trying to 1) create policy that fits these new values, ways of working and lifestyles and 2) devise suitable support structures to make initiatives more resilient by improving their continuity, sustainability and scalability. Here the Edgeryders project can serve as an example to the policy-making community as an experiment in policy-making based on a new kind of political participation:
- individuals citizens are treated as experts in their own lives and involved in the policy process as experts.
- participation is self selected and no special invitation or permission is required to participate
- defines itself against passive representation of youth as category for whom policymakers should come up with policies for- platform lets young individuals speak for themselves about topics they care about.
- takes active stance against a disempowering image of generation left out of society, excluded from participation, influence and possibilities of self-realisation- listens to stories from young people themselves about how they are building a common future and trying to influence world around them.
So what next?It is in the context of social innovation and direct improvement that I personally think we can really push and make an impact as a community. It is where I am putting alot of my energy and pretty much all my spare time at the moment. A while back I did a TEDx talk in which I tried to make a case for taking this last form of participation especially seriously. And drew together ideas that have been shared by community members in different conversations into a coherent narrative. Especially Demsoc's "letter to funders", the Unmonastery conversation, Discussions about Commons and value of cultural production and the discussions around whether we should set up an official Edgeryders organisation.
Coupled with argument that Alberto and I are putting forward at Social Media Week in Berlin on September 24 I think we are starting to build a compelling case which I would like to invite more Edgeryders into fleshing out into more detail. And exploring how to build into a second iteration of Edgeryders. In this first Iteration we have focused on trying to find the challenges many of us have in common, and would need to collaborate around addressing. The next step for me would be more focused on collective action around realising projects that come out of our collectivity. This seems to be in line with what other Edgeryders are thinking. Many voiced this desire after #lote and #edgecamp and I think we’re coming close to a point where we might be able to move forward and think about the next steps…