Category Archives: Open government

Regional policies in the EU: from convergence to exploration?

I took part in a super-interesting session at the European Week of Regions and Cities. We debated citizen engagement in a refreshingly hype-free way – no one even mentioned any magic app or technology, it must be a first in the 21st century. I took home a number of points from my fellow panelists, that I detailed elsewhere. This post presents in written form my own opening remarks, and the question I asked the panel.

Citizens’ participation to the definition, implementation, and monitoring of public policies is perhaps my central interest. I have a background in regional development, and that led me to look into citizen engagement with a lot of attention. If you have done any regdev at all, you will know how important it is for the local people to support what you are doing. Getting anything done in the presence of substantial opposition is impossible, of course: but many projects lose steam and ultimately fail just because there is not enough positive will to make them happen. In my country of origin, Italy, there is a landmark study by Luigi Bobbio, who followed 100 local development initiatives over five years; by the end of the study, only 5 had been completed, with all the others being mired in procedural complexity, NIMBY fights, polemics.

So, in the early 2000s, I started to think we could use the Internet, that at the time was becoming a mass commodity, to engage citizens on our work. Over the following years, I built up substantial experience, mostly while working for the Italian ministry of economic development. In 2010 I felt that experience was mature enough to become a book on “government by wiki” and collective intelligence.

In the 2010s, I left government and became more of a researcher, but I kept following this idea, within the context of my current home, Edgeryders. Over the years, we have become quite good at engaging citizens on large online dialogues, which we think of as networks of social interaction carrying content, and performing sophisticated analysis on it.

It’s not easy, but it can be done. And when people ask us “How do you get people to engage?” There are always two answers. The first: have a fair social contract underpinning the participation. Someone asks you “what do I get for the time I put into participating?”, you need to have an answer. The second: ask interesting, relevant, mobilizing questions. And this brings me back to regional policies.

The principle driving regional policies in Europe is called convergence. It is inspired by maps like this one – that you have seen it million times in one version or another. The idea is that what is different should be made the same. Moreover, there is a clear ranking: Thessaly should become like Bavaria, not vice versa.

Convergence is there for a reason: it reduces the scope for competition between low- and high-labor costs regions, and this way makes transitioning to the Single Market less traumatic. However, I think it is not a mobilizing issue for citizens. For two reasons.

The first one: the model underpinning convergence needs to be changed anyway. If we take seriously a transition to low carbon, the idea that more growth is better needs an overhaul. At a minimum we need to refine our definition of what should be growing.

And this brings me to the second reason: Europe is a mosaic of cultures, traditions, lifestyles, and people do not like theirs to be considered inferior to another along some arbitrary scale. It’s a bit like looking at a cat and saying it’s a lousy dog: it is not false, but it kind of misses the point of that a cat is, and what it brings to the table. And indeed, convergence does not work very well. Many peripheral regions have been struggling for decades, only to find themselves the eternal laggards. This breeds not engagement, but cynicism and resentment towards the European project.

On top of that, despite very substantial effort being invested into it, it is not clear that the model is working that well. The EU and its member states invest roughly 100 billion EUR per year on cohesion policies. Despite this, the Commission’s own analysts report that convergence slowed down or stalled after 1995. I have my own thoughts about how and why this happens, but let’s leave them for another day.

So, what if used citizen engagement to ask a very different question?

What if we asked European regions, especially at the periphery, not to try to “catch up” with Bavaria, but rather to lead in experimenting with different economic systems? Maybe Thessaly does not want to be like Bavaria after all. Maybe it wants to be like Bhutan, promote harmony and “gross national happiness”. Maybe Pomerania wants to try a high-efficiency, low-GDP economy based on public goods. Maybe Sicily wants to try being a solarpunk utopia of mostly self-sustaining communities. As these regions move up the learning curve, their learning benefits us all – we can copy from them. the former laggards, what they have found to work. They would also, presumably, learn from each other, and those running on the same economic operating systems would form inter-regional alliances. The map of EU regions would no longer be shades of one color, but rather a mosaic of different colors, like this:

If you are a science fiction reader, this will look familiar. It’s how I imagine a map of Phyles in Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age, or of  Hives in Ada Palmer’s Terra Ignota novel, or again of Centenals in Malka Older’s eponymous cycle. This is no coincidence: these authors all explore the real-world idea that nation states are no longer fit for purpose. The EU itself has no small part in making this idea attractive to speculative minds.

It might sound radical, but remember it’s how China did it. In 1980, president Deng drew a curve on the map around Shenzen and said “Let’s make a capitalist economy, but only in this special economic zone”. When that proved to work, arrangements in Shenzen were debugged and scaled to the country, with the results you are seeing today.

My hunch is that a radical, honest approach to regional policies would lead to much more, and better, citizen engagement, ultimately boosting the moonshot of the green transition. And we need that boost, as time is running out. If you, like me, are up for exploring this notion, get in touch. It would be really nice to have an experimental programme where regions would be encouraged to explore alternatives to our current economic paradigm.

The Black Briefing. Why well-intentioned policies fail so often, and what you can do about it

The Salzburg Global Seminar turned out to be a starter for many interesting conversations. We will follow up on them in the months to follow.

Halfway through the seminar, I realized that many people assumed that their main problem was to have the ear of the policy maker. If they could do that, policy makers could just effect change in the desired way. I find that to be a dangerous oversimplification.

Therefore, my contribution to the Salzburg deep dive was the Black Briefing. It was a rather bleak talk on what government really is (an agent, subject to evolutionary pressure to survive and grow). I also briefly covered what would-be reformers and change makers can do to factor the nature of government into their plans.

You can download the Black Briefing slides and text. Credit for the title goes to the mighty Vinay Gupta.

Photo: Greg Goebel

Can politics be collaborative?

In Edgeryders, we study  and practice collaboration, especially online. Time and again, we find it the most powerful force that people with next to no wealth and no power, like us, can evoke. We are getting good at it, though much work remains. Proof: we are a mutant company with no office, no investors, no business plan. We have nothing but each other – a tiny core of founders, and the Edgeryders community. And yet we are out there, with top-notch global organizations among our clients, and we are growing. 2016 has been a good year for us – we’ll be blogging about this soon.

2016 has also been a year of uncertainty and discontent in world politics. Many people dear to us are sad, angry or scared. Almost no one seems satisfied about their politics and their leaders. That goes both for the losing camp and the winning one. We consider this contrast, and wonder. As a culture, we are getting better at working together in diversity. Why does this not translate into more constructive politics?

As we looked into this, we realized that our default frame for politics is combat. There are opponents and allies. Its protagonists focus on winning. This is understandable but useless, except maybe as a spectator sport. What happens if we drop this frame and adopt a collaboration frame instead? What would happen if a political entity were run like a collaborative project? What would happen if lawmaking worked like Wikipedia? What if policy happened like the next release of Apache or Ubuntu?


  1. Enabling as core mission. A state, or city, or region, exists only to enable the people who live there to do what they want to do. It does not need a vision, because people have their own. It only needs to enable the largest possible outcome space for the largest number of people. In return, it gets compliance and tax revenue. This would be the only focus of collaborative politics. Compare with political visionaries, who try to sell you their way of seeing things.
  2. By default, do nothing. When faced with a proposal for radical reform, the community around a collaborative project discusses it. These discussions can last a long time. Then, almost always, the radical reform does not go ahead. This is because, whatever its other flaws, the project in its current form works. Its next version might be much improved, but no one can guarantee that it will work, and when. Reform needs a rock-solid case to go forward. Compare with I-need-to-leave-a-mark-on-my-term.
  3. Focus on infrastructure. Collaborative software projects do not make things, but building blocks that people can build things with. Enabling, remember? The point is not to decide which color is best for people’s web pages, but to write code that allows anyone to easily choose any color for their own page. In the policy world, this means building infrastructure– and infrastructure is hierarchical. The more general, the better. Aqueducts are better than hospitals. Hospitals are better than arts centers. Arts centers are better than exhibitions. Compare with bullshit pet projects of elected representatives (“Let’s make an incubator for social innovation”).
  4. Unglamorous leaders. Narcissistic, flamboyant personalities do not do well in collaborative projects. People’s attention needs to be on building, so attention seekers are a liability. The most respected members of these community are nerdy, reliable people that won’t waste your time. Compare with modern politicians near you.
  5. Avoid controversy. Any successful open source project has lots of controversial proposals for moving forward. But it also has many on which everyone agrees. Controversy is a waste of time, so people go for the low-hanging fruit first, and build the things everyone agrees on first. This builds mutual trust, and might take the project in directions that make the controversy disappear altogether. Compare with politics-as-combat.
  6. Do-ocracy, not stakeholder representation and deliberation. Stakeholder representation has served us well when societies were simple and hierarchical. In those salad days, a dozen people around a table could make decisions, and depend they would be acted upon. This no longer possible. In a collaborative project we don’t discuss what to do. Within the (broad) core values of the project, you can do whatever you want as long as you have the capacity to deliver it. Who does the work calls the shots. No one gets to tell others how they should contribute.  Compare with endless debates and cross-vetoes everywhere.

You get the idea. This how we work when we build online encyclopedias and web server software. Or companies like Edgeryders. Could this be how we work when we build our cities, national parks and energy grids? Could we do that not in the name of an ideology, but simply to build our own happiness, and that of those we love?

Could there be another space to get down to building? A terrain so hyperlocal and fragmented as to be too expensive for narcissistic strongmen and Machiavellian schemers to enter? A move so lateral that it will not even exist in the same space as post-truth politics?

We don’t know, yet. But, in the wake of the dark tide of 2016, we see people in our network asking new questions. Something new, something big is on the move. As always, we will stand by our community, and help as best we can. If you, too, have been waiting for something to get in motion; if you want to be a part of building it, and figuring out where it takes, get in touch. Nadia will be revealing some of our immediate plans at AdaWeek in Paris, on November 22nd (info): if you can’t make it there, get in touch with her or join our mailing list.

[written with Nadia El-Imam]