Featured Catalyst Awards Proposal: Building Physical Infrastructure with Civic Infrastructure

NCDD’s Catalyst Awards process is in full swing, with 13 projects posted so far up at ncdd.civicevolution.org. Feel free to ask questions, share your reactions, and offer support here as well as at CivicEvolution!

Building Physical Infrastructure with Civic Infrastructure

Proposed by: Jack Harris
Project home: http://ncdd.civicevolution.org/proposal/10100

Q. Jack – tell us a little about yourself.

I recently finished my Masters in Communication and Information Studies at Rutgers University as a mid-career graduate student with a focus on organizational communication and public policy. I live in coastal New Jersey. Dr. Mark Aakhus served as my capstone advisor and I also studied with Dr. Jennifer Gibbs and Dr. Marya Doerfel. Professionally I have a strong background in communication advocacy and worked as a State Communications Director for Repower America, on multiple political campaigns and have nonprofit experience as a Board member with the National Child Protection Training Center and with the Minnesota Unitarian Universalist Social Justice Alliance. My D&D experience is on the ground, in public policy and advocacy efforts that seek to change the public dialogue around complex issues.

Examples of my work in building dialogue around contentious issues can be seen at www.theind.com/re/5255 and http://pocketfarms.wordpress.com/. The most recent posts from pocket farms are all centered around Hurricane Sandy and the aftermath.

My research explores the concept of “technopopulism”, how people use vast quantities of public information and newer communication technologies to participate in politics and engage in civic action. Underlying this analysis is a concern with the idea of collective intelligence and the ways in which people come together to solve intractable problems and advocate for particular solutions. I am presenting on this topic at the National Communication Association Conference in Orlando Florida, this Friday at 8am.

I am particularly interested in two aspects of organizational communication as it applies to policy-making and civic engagement; 1.) how communication activities shape the communicative structure of a controversy or problem and 2.) the organizational capacity and dynamics of the participants in the controversy or problem-solving activity.

As an engaged scholar my research takes place in real-world interactive settings, whether online, in a business, at a government agency, on a campaign, or in an advocacy or nonprofit setting. Using an interpretivist perspective and a sociomaterial lens, I use qualitative research and communication design principles to understand how the communicative nature of a controversy unfolds and what the collaborative possibilities for problem-solving or decision-making associated with the controversy or organizational setting are. I think that these methods have significant possibilities for understanding the design of solutions for intractable policy controversies.

Q. What project are you proposing, in a nutshell?

This project seeks to develop a civic infrastructure that connects local experts and citizens with local, state and federal stakeholders in the Fort Monmouth Economic Revitalization Process, a long-term process designed to transfer a Department of Defense facility to state and ultimately local control.

However, given the new on the ground realities following Hurricane Sandy and pressure to open the Fort up to mid-longer term housing for displaced New Jersey residents, we will explore the development of a D&D “Project Management Office” or PMO that would focus on ensuring D&D processes are in place that both complement and intersect with existing institutional processes at the local, state and federal levels. The goal is to extend citizen’s voices beyond formal meeting and hearing processes and move towards a policy-making process built on actual conversation.

A significant question for the study of civic deliberation and discourse, and civic engagement more broadly, is the role of Federalism and existing policy systems in shaping the possibilities of the communicative structure in a policy controversy. By designing dialogue and deliberation processes that intersect with local, state and federal agencies and processes we hope to both increase citizen engagement and to develop new digital and face to face processes that encourage effective collaboration.

Q. Can you provide any background info that might help people understand what you’re proposing?

In September 2011, Fort Monmouth was closed after a almost century of operation as the primary center of the U.S. Army’s Communication and Electronics Command , signal operations, and electronic research and development activities. Along with the Bell Labs facilities in nearby Holmdel, Fort Monmouth played significant roles in the development of the computer and communication systems that we all use today. Radar, space communications, meteorological balloons, FM Radio Relays, satellites and laser signals were developed or improved at Fort Monmouth. The first radar signals bounced off the Moon in 1946 originated at Fort Monmouth, as did the first laser transmission of television signals which were beamed between the Empire State Building and Fort Monmouth’s coastal New Jersey facilities. The Bell Labs facilities in Holmdel developed the Echo and Telstar Satellites and pioneered work in Microwave Transmissions.

Fort Monmouth and Bell Labs together turned central New Jersey into the sparkplug of the digital age. In 2005 the BRAC commission ordered the closure of Fort Monmouth, five years after Bell Lab’s Holmdel facilities were closed down. However, no economic development or regional planning processes have seriously taken into account the areas embedded local and technical knowledge, the region’s close proximity to Princeton and Rutgers Universities, to New York City’s burgeoning digital startup ecosystem and to its rapidly expanding scientific and technical capacities and capabilities. Nor has the area’s ecological sensitivity been taken into account. The main post at Fort Monmouth sits at the confluence of two creeks which form the Shrewsbury River, historically part of a major shellfish producing region which flows into the New York Harbor Complex.

A transition process for Fort Monmouth did take place from 2006 – 2010 resulting in the development of a transition plan and creation of the Fort Monmouth Economic Revitalization Authority (FMERA) out of two prior organizations, the Fort Monmouth Reuse Committee and the Fort Monmouth Economic Revitalization Planning Authority. FMERA, the successor organization, currently oversees the disposition of Fort properties in accordance with Department of Defense and State of New Jersey laws and policies. However, changing economic realities since 2008 have forced FMERA to reconsider and change intended uses of land and property at the Fort which were designated in the Economic Conveyance Plan published in April 2012, and in the Fort Monmouth Reuse and Redevelopment Plan published in 2008 following a public engagement process. While local governments do have representation on FMERA’s Board, information flows are tightly controlled and citizen access and input is limited to the formal monthly meetings of the FMERA board. Minutes and transcripts are sparsely detailed and not easily accessible in digital or machine readable form. Two significant changes to the plan have been introduced in the last three months, neither of which have been subject to a broad based public engagement process.

Q. Is there anything you’d like NCDD members’ help with or involvement on in particular?

a) Is it possible to design deliberation processes that directly influences physical infrastructure that is subject to strict institutional rules and involves multiple layers of the federalist system?
b) What is the role of citizens and local experts in this type of process?
c) How do we develop an open, fluid approach to dialogue and deliberation in a context such as this?
d) What does the optimal online/offline interface look like?
e) Are there lessons to be learned from the liquid democracy platform of the German Pirate Party?

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