Author Archives: Alberto

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.

Love kintsugi: how polyamory is making me better at dealing with heartbreaks

Kintsugi is a Japanese technique for repairing broken pottery with seams of gold. Kintsugi-repaired objects are often achingly beautiful. The break is not only made visible, but, in a sort of reversal, becomes the most precious part of the formerly broken object, ennobled by the precious material. As a practice, it implies embracing imperfection and mutability, a commitment to keep on cherishing the object after it lost its pristine-ness.

We all carry a precious item in our earthly journey: our own heart. And almost all of us have had it broken at least once. Polyamorous folks, perhaps, more than most. To me, that’s inevitable: polyamory amplifies everything, the good and the bad, the peaks and the slumps, the joys and the struggles. The good much more than compensates for the bad, which is why many of us are happy with being poly. But that does leave us with the problem of dealing with heartbreaks. Picking up the pieces. Shaking off the dust. Licking your wounds. And moving on.

The question is how to do it. You could aim for perfect healing (“I’m totally over her”), or even immunization (“that was a mistake. I will never repeat it”). You could attempt a cleanup and removal (“get her out of my system”, “out of sight, out of mind”).

I don’t want to do any of that. I don’t want to get over the people I love, or ever be immune to what, in them, made me fall in love in the first place. And certainly I do not want them out of my life. I want an arrangement where each one of us can still have feelings for the other (if that is what she or he wants), without anyone getting hurt.

Which leaves me with a Kintsugi-like approach. This always felt the most natural one for me. As I progressed through my love experience – which was fairly troubled, as you might expect from someone who is trying to live monogamously, while tending to fall in love with more than one person at a time – I noticed that I kept very good relationships with my ex girlfriends. It made sense: below the layer of grief, they were still amazing women. The fact that it had not worked between us did not make them any less amazing. And yes, some of them might have not done everything super right by me – but so what? I, too, am very far from perfect. Any wrongdoing seemed small and unimportant compared to what we had shared. We could go on and be friends, and generally we did.

As I became aware of polyamory, I learned that poly people like to say that “relationship don’t end, they just change”. Maybe so, but recasting a romantic partner as a friend is a deep change, one that contains many ends. Many thing you will never more share. Every polyamorist I know can testify that “change” can break your heart as bad as  “end”.

But here’s the interesting thing: the polyamory framework taught me that romantic relationships are not necessarily a package deal. Human connection has many dimensions, from romance to friendship, from sex to living together, from co-parenting to shared finances. You can connect with your partner in all these dimensions, but you can just as well connect only in some of them. What was going on with my former lovers, I realized, is that my romantic feelings for them had unbundled from those other practical dimensions of coupledom, except friendship. But they were still there: I still loved them.

This has not changed, and by now I don’t think it ever will. As I consider these wonderful women I have had the good fortune to be in relationships with, I can, still now, see exactly why I fell in love with them. Whatever it was (and it is different for different people), they still have it, even if we have changed so much. So, it makes perfect sense that I still love them, even though I can no longer be with them. Some of them I have loved for twenty years after the actual breakup. I will love them until the day I die. There is admiration for them in there, and some longing too, a sort of sweet ache in the place they once occupied in my heart.

This means my heart is no longer broken, but neither is it whole. It got broken by our breakup, and then it healed,  but not perfectly. I will always wear the scar. I want to wear the scar. It is a way to honor what we had, and honor the breakup itself as a step towards a new life, and keep both in my heart going forward. And if she is happy now, that helps – it means the breakup was for the better, it brought good things to her.

I expect that my heart will get broken again. Polyamory is difficult to get exactly right, and there is no book to do it by. It would be foolish to expect a 100% success rate going forward. But I am no longer afraid of breakups. I know they will feel awful, of course. But I will be ready. Like a Kintsugi master, I will pour molten gold in the fissures in my heart. This way, I honor the relationship that was, and accept and embrace its new phase. The heart itself – it won’t be whole, ever again. But it will shine.

The Somerville files: a dyadic approach to legislating on polyamorous domestic partnerships

The city of Somerville, Massachussets, has recently been in the news. It appears to be the first city in America, and possibly in the world, to have made legal provisions for polyamorous domestic partnerships – what most Europeans would call “civil unions”.

This story is fascinating, one of the less expected outgrowth of the SARS-COV-2 situation. The new regulation appears to have been rushed through because Somerville had no provision for civil partnerships at all, even for monogamous couples. As COVID hit town, the city council moved to make sure that non-married people in de facto couples could access each other’s health insurance. As the council was drafting the ordinance, a councilor called J.T. Scott suggested that it could be made more inclusive by tweaking the language to include polyamorous live-in partners: for example, replacing “both partners” with “all partners” as appropriate. The move went through.

This is great news for poly people everywhere, and Mr. Scott earned himself plenty of kudos; but I won’t be discussing the Somerville story in this post. I have a more urgent concern: I have come across a brilliant analysis of how to write effective legislation to implement polyamorous domestic partnership. We owe it to a longtime polyamory activist that goes by the nom de plûme Infinity_8p. I read it in the PolyAmory Researchers mailing list,  which is members-only. Infinity_8p graciously granted  me the permission to reproduce it.  In a nutshell, the author thinks that polyamorous partnership are best implemented as multiple dyadic partnerships, and not as a single multiparty partnership.

It is evident from the legislative history and the final result that little or no deep thought was given to the task of finding the best way to extend domestic partnership to the poly community. Nevertheless, it appears to me that under Somerville’s ordinance, users can correctly create accurate legal representations of their own polycules by 1) limiting each domestic partnership to two participants, and 2) executing as many domestic partnerships as needed in order to correctly represent their polycule. Thus a “N” polycule or a triangular polycule would execute three domestic partnerships and a “V” polycule would execute two. Attempting to use a single domestic partnership to cover the entire polycule is inappropriate, as it would result in unwanted effects. Suppose we have an “N” polycule: A-B-C-D, where A is directly linked to B but not to C or D. With multiple DPs, only B can make life-or-death decisions on A’s behalf if A is hospitalized, which precisely follows A’s preference. Under a blanket DP, C and/or D could make those life-or-death decisions about A, regardless of A’s wishes. Furthermore, consider the termination provision of Somerville’s ordinance. If any participant in a DP dies, the DP is terminated immediately and its participants may not create another DP for 90 days afterward. Under a blanket DP, the rest of the polycule is left without any legal representation if a single member happens to die. With multiple DPs, the death of a single member only affects the DPs linking the deceased member to specific other members of that polycule, and all DPs between living members of the polycules remain fully intact, without interruption.

Infinity_8p thinks that the Somerville ordinance is compatible with both models. If Alice is a partner of Bea who is a partner of Connor, who in turn is a partner of Alice, and the three of them share the same address, they could:

  1. Implement one single partnership involving the three of them;
  2. Implement three partnerships involving, respectively, Alice and Bea, Bea and Connor, and Connor and Alice.

Infinity_8p thinks that the second solution is more robust and in the end more appropriate. I tend to concur (network scientist here!). Full analysis in this guest post.