CriticalCity‘s victory at TechGarage was simply incredible. For one, it was overwhelming: the Milano-based crew won all three prizes (the first prize; the Wired award; and the users’ award. In fact, several VCs in the room improvised a pool of seed money for funding the startup! This sounds like an urban legend, but it is actually true: read Marco’s report – he was there). On top of that, their project is uncompromisingly not-for-profit (“we can’t and won’t monetize our player’s commitment to improve their cities”, they said), while TechGarage is a sancta sanctorum of for-profit enterprise. Somehow, this coalition of investors and business angels perceived CC as too good an idea not to make it happen.
There is a third reason why this story is incredible. CC does not come out from one of the many startup incubators built by the private sector, like Telecom Italia’s Working Capital. It comes from an environment for designing creative projects launched by the Italian public sector: Kublai, that I have the honour to have designed and to manage on behalf of the Ministry of economic development (presentation in English here). Even Gianluca, Dpixel president and TechGarage patron, got in touch with CC as a member of the Kublai Award jury.
1. Communities, if they are oriented in the right way, can single out the best ideas. Kublai aggregates creative projects, not lolcats videos: they are complex, and their assessment is multifaceted and multidimensional. CriticalCity’s project document is more than 30 pages long with attachments. The Kublaian community’s consensus on CC predicted with great energy and effectiveness what happened at TechGarage and elsewhere.
2. The public sector, traditionally more public goods-oriented than the private, finds itself in a strategic position. Artifacts like Wikipedia, Delicious, Flickr, Twitter have public good nature, i.e. they are resources for everybody to use. Now, public goods are great, but being public means there is no rivalry in their consumption, so they are by definition difficult to monetize. Consequently many great web 2.0 out there have business model problems. This is an opportunity for the public sector, whose very mission is to produce public goods. After the tragedy of the commons started in the 1700s, digital technologies allow today to invert the trend and start creating new commons.
It seems to me that an extraordinary opportunity open up, such as I did not think I would see in my lifetime. We have democratized creativity, so that thinking up ambitious projects like CriticalCity and trying to make them happen has come to be a course of action available to normal young people like Augusto, Duccio, Chantal and the rest of them; we have web 2.0, a very powerful tool for aggregating ideas and people, and maybe now also for selecting the best among them; we are beginningto have a first generation of people that work on the side of public administrations, and understand the language, and can use the tools.
This first generation has today a new mission: rewire the economy to enable the production of new commons. Wikipedia and the rest may have shaky business models, but their value to the collective well-being and global competitiveness is undisputable. A government worth its salt must enable these things. And it can, because it wields very large resources that are normally used in very low productivity efforts: it has been remarked that all projects showcased at Public Services 2.0 put together had the same budget as a single project of the e-participation European programme. We need rewiring the economy to funnel attention and money towards people like the CriticalCity boys and girls, who dream (realistic) dreams of building resources for everyone to use, that for this very reason are difficult to monetize. It is difficult, but not impossible, and we need to do it. I’m going for it. I hope – and I believe – I will not walk this path alone.