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We Need a Citizen Maker Movement

Here's the issue our nation is facing: The inability of the non-military side of our public institutions to process complex problems. Today, this competence and especially the capacity to solve technical challenges often exist only in the private sector.
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It was hard to miss the giant mechanical giraffe grazing on the White House lawn last week. For the first time ever, the President organized a Maker Faire--inviting entrepreneurs and inventors from across the USA to celebrate American ingenuity in the service of economic progress.

The maker movement is a California original. Think R2D2 serving margaritas to a jester with an LED news scroll. The #nationofmakers Twitter feed has dozens of examples of collaborative production, of making, sharing and learning.

But since this was the White House, I still had to ask myself, what would the maker movement be if the economy was not the starting point? What if it was about civics? What if makers decided to create a modern, hands-on democracy?

What is democracy anyway but a never ending remix of new prototypes? Last week's White House Maker Faire heralded a new economic bonanza. This revolution's poster child is 3-D printing-- decentralized fabrication that is customized to meet local needs. On the government front, new design rules for democracy are already happening in communities, where civics and technology have generated a front line of maker cities.

But the distance between California's tech capacity and DC does seem 3000 miles wide. The NSA's over collection/surveillance problem and's doomed rollout are part of the same system-wide capacity deficit. How do we close the gap between California's revolution and our institutions?

  • In California, disruption is a business plan. In DC, it's a national security threat.
  • In California, hackers are artists. In DC, they are often viewed as criminals.
  • In California, "cyber" is a dystopian science fiction word. In DC, cyber security is in a dozen oversight plans for Congress.
  • in California, individuals are encouraged to "fail forward." In DC, risk-aversion is bipartisan.

Scaling big problems with local solutions is a maker specialty. Government policymaking needs this kind of help.

Here's the issue our nation is facing: The inability of the non-military side of our public institutions to process complex problems. Today, this competence and especially the capacity to solve technical challenges often exist only in the private sector. If something is urgent and can't be monetized, it becomes a national security problem. Which increasingly means that critical decision making that should be in the civilian remit instead migrates to the military. Look at our foreign policy. Good government is a counter terrorism strategy in Afghanistan. Decades of civilian inaction on climate change means that now Miami is referred to as a battle space in policy conversations.

This rhetoric reflects an understandable but unacceptable disconnect for any democracy.

To make matters more confusing, much of the technology in civics (like list building petitions) is suited for elections, not for governing. It is often antagonistic. The result? policy making looks like campaigning. We need some civic tinkering to generate governing technology that comes with relationships. Specifically, this means technology that includes many voices, but has identifiable channels for expertise that can sort complexity and that is not compromised by financial self-interest. Today, sorting and filtering information is a huge challenge for participation systems around the world. Information now ranks up there with money and people as a lever of power. On the people front, the loud and often destructive individuals are showing up effectively. On the money front, our public institutions are at risk of becoming purely pay to play (wonks call this "transactional").

Makers, ask yourselves, how can we turn big data into a political constituency for using real evidence--one that can compete with all the negative noise and money in the system? For starters, technologists out West must stop treating government like it's a bad signal that can be automated out of existence. We are at a moment where our society requires an engineering mindset to develop modern, tech-savvy rules for democracy. We need civic makers.

Some tech opportunities are simple sound and stagecraft challenges. Look at Congress. Hearing rooms have the production capacity of a basic television studio. How can we use the new equipment-- LCD screens and computers-- to help Members evaluate data while they make decisions? How about predictive modeling in hearings using relevant, high reputation data from the chair's district? That would be a way to use transparency, strategic location and big data on behalf of accountability.

One other civic challenge for the maker movement is how to be truly inclusive. Like Silicon Valley itself, these brilliant inventors are too often white, wealthy and male. A citizen maker movement is one way to broaden the appeal.

Throughout history, the public square is where we contribute to the common good. Our future public square is in a garage somewhere in the USA and we need to get it out. America's "value-proposition" to the world is that we re-invent our reality time and again. Today, democracy stands at an impasse almost everywhere. How are we going to re-invent hands-on, interactive government? This is the decision we'll need an entire movement to make.

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