• 01.29.13

Crowdsourcing The Future Of Citizenship

How can we make people more civic-minded in the future? More transparency, participation in the budget process, and a cap and trade system for everything in your life.

Crowdsourcing The Future Of Citizenship

“What if, together, we could imagine hundreds of civic innovations to improve our communities?” That was the question facing players of a recent game-cum-global-brainstorm called “Connected Citizens.” And, its participants certainly succeeded. During a recent 24-hour period, 516 people produced more than 6,700 “microforecasts” covering everything from the future of public funding, to new ways of incentivizing socially beneficial behavior.


The players used something called a “Foresight Engine“–-a clever online tool developed by the Institute for the Future. It works as follows: Players gather at a web site, watch a short video (see below), then submit ideas, and respond to them. You get one “card” to start with–positive or negative, depending on your idea–then as many response cards as you like (there are five types). Players attracting the most responses win–though the spirit is (mostly) collaborative rather than competitive.

“It’s a great way of getting lots of responses to a topic in a very rapid manner,” says Jake Dunagan, IFTF’s research director. “In 24 hours, we can go once around the world. The sense of urgency means we maximize the intensity, and there’s a lot of efficiency working with small, nugget-sized ideas.”

Dunagan says a few themes struck him as particularly interesting; below are a few.

Participatory budgeting + crowdfunding

Several players explored ways to combine existing technologies and concepts: for example, mashing up participatory budgeting (where communities spend parts of local budgets) with a crowdfunding mechanism. “People could submit civic ideas and then maybe people could get stipends to spend in a Kickstarter-type way,” Dunagan says. “It would have a market basis, and people could use tax money for things they want. It’d be quicker and more fun than regular government.”

Incentivizing good behavior

Players wondered if it might be possible to incentivize good civic behavior–for example by creating alternative currencies or a time-banking exchange. “Could being a good citizen be rewarded with some kind of in-kind reward structure? Everyone wants to contribute and see their community get better. But is there a way of rewarding that directly?” Dunagan asks.

Cap and trade

In a similar vein, you could allow people who behave in a socially beneficial way to trade away surplus allowances. For example, if someone sends less waste to landfill, they might get a tradeable credit. The idea is a bit like carbon trading, but for local public nuisances. “There would be a ration for things that take away from society, and you could trade off some of the bad things we do with some of the good things,” Dunagan says.

A civic dashboard

Looking into the future, many participants expressed concern about a lack of data privacy. This requires more openness about how our information is used, Dunagan says. One solution would be a dashboard for every citizen where you could check on how data is being employed. “You could allow people to maintain a semblance of control over the data they’re producing and enable them to pull it back. You want to create a feedback loop where people can see their contribution, and have visibility of the cost and benefit.”


Transparency and voting

There were plenty of ideas for improving democracy and access to information. For example, players explored ways to open up the lobbying process–perhaps by drawing up better Wiki-style maps of relationships, or crowdfunding advocates who could work in our interests.

Dunagan says all the microforecasts are available for public downloading (he encourages people “to take them and do something great”). IFTF will also be publishing reports based on the data in due course.

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.