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there are no new ideas

Having just joined govloop this past week, I have been thinking about what I would share here. Today, after a meeting with Bowen Moran (@bxmx) and my colleague Devin Serink (@dserink), I have a bit more direction.

As a short introduction I am a consultant working with the City of Edmonton. I used to work for the City as a full-fledged employee with the Office of the Environment back in 2009, during which time I dreamed up the idea of a city blog that would tell the story of how the City was working towards its six strategic goals. This was back in March of 2009. Almost exactly a year later, this blog, www.transformingedmonton.ca, is a reality and I am the lead for the project. I also help to support a number of other initiatives that fall under this concept of open government.

I am particularly keen to share my experiences with these projects. I plan to add more here, both new material and posts from my archives. I hope they will be of some value.

Originally posted October 6, 2009

Sometimes the ‘internets’ bestow on us a gift. It’s a gift of timely information, evidence that we’re not the only ones to have come up with an idea – evidence that can be both frustrating and comforting. Depending on the nature of the information, or more specifically, how it correlates with our own ideas, we will either respond with an Archimedes-type exclamation of Eureka! or like George Michael Bluth, dragging our feet in the dust of undeveloped lots. It’s best to react in the more positive fashion, accepting that your ideas (although new to you) are not always new to the rest of the world. At least that way you can still try to be innovative instead of being the inventor. I embrace convergence.

Let me explain.

I first started blogging about five years ago. A student at the time, I was pretty enthralled by this relatively new form of sharing information online. I spent a fair amount of time studying and observing how people were using blogs as a tool to inform and influence opinion. This fascination extended to other online tools as well (Wikipedia, Flickr, Facebook, more recently Twitter). As use of these tools began to increase and our participation in these online communities became more ubiquitous, I started to wonder, how would we bridge our participation with our existing physical communities and online communities in meaningful ways? This is the question that drives me. I don’t think it’s a question that I will ever be able to fully answer, but its the pursuit of this answer that fuels my work both intellectually and creatively. Over the past five years I’ve begun to examine this question. In addition to my personal use of these new media tools and participation in these online communities, I researched blogging in the academic community and how it might work to eliminate ivory towers, I wrote a paper about community being established through the folksonomy (tagging structure) of flickr, I attempted to establish a blogging project in an elementary class to improve literacy skills, I lobbied to get a local volunteer organization to start blogging and using other social networking tools to engage and motivate their members. I read dissertations, studies and communications theory in my spare time. I love this subject. I talk about it, I write about it, I try to incorporate it into my every day life (but I am no expert).

It is because of this that I tend to respond with delight when I come across some new information that supplements the projects that I have been working on. Most recently these projects have included some really exciting ones with the municipal government, including developing a blog that would share with citizens how the city is working towards the goals outlined in the 10 year strategic plan. There are other projects as well, but this one is perhaps that most exciting to me, mostly because I feel I have been part of it from the beginning. Now I won’t take sole credit for the idea of this blog (if the title of this post suggests anything, you’ll know there are no new ideas), but I did propose the concept and with the help of some other really motivated individuals, work to get the idea approved. And now I have the opportunity to continue to work on the project and move it from concept to reality. A serious dream come true for me.

But back to the subject of convergence. The other day I was browsing my feeds and I came across an announcement of the new Knight Commission Report on Informing Communities – Sustaining Democracies in the Digital Age. This report could not have been more timely, being one week into my new position dedicated to the development of the blog, which is essentially an experiment in finding new different ways to share information and engage citizens. I was excited to read this report, as I hoped it would help to articulate some of the issues that lead to the development of this blog, namely, how could we help to promote democracy or citizen engagement using the new tools made available to use through the Internet and other technological advances. I was particularly interested in seeing how this report might be able to shed some light on some of the questions that had come up over the course of the initial development of the blog.

I first wrote about these questions back in May, in a post about the faustian bargain of technology,

So as I work on this project – a project with the lofty goal of using of online tools as part of a solution to break down barriers between governmental departments and help communicate to the community what is happening at a programs level – I have to wonder, what will this new technology undo? How can we achieve a balance between participation online and participation in the physical realm? How can we use these tools to help change attitudes? To what level do we serve to inform? To what degree do we seek to influence?

I’m still reading through the report and gleaning from it what I can. So much of the report is of value to this project. But what I was most motivated by was this quote from the Conclusion and Call to Action of the report, which provides a realistic yet still positive outlook on the the challenge of sustaining democracy in the digital age.

The Commission, however, understands “informed communities,” like democracy itself, as a vision always to be pursued, not as a final state of perfection ever likely to be achieved.

This fits well with my view of the blog project, that it is a work-in-progress, much like Edmonton. We will be sharing stories about the City, how it works, the types of things that are going on in the community, finding ways to provide citizens with more information, helping establish links between resources available online and in the “real” world. We want people to participate in the community – and not just from behind a computer screen.

There are other examples of convergence. Today the City of Edmonton announced that they would begin working with the University of Alberta to pursue participatory democracy with a Centre for Public Involvement. On the 17th of October, Edmonton is hosting its own Change Camp to discuss re-imagining government and citizenship in the age of participation. These ideas are not new, but they are innovative. Other groups have been meeting to share ideas about creativity, art, design, business… all with the same goal. They are examples of a common trend in our population, we want to improve the ways we participate in our communities. We seek to create informed communities, engaged citizens, and generally make our lives better.

This idea of a better life is not new at all, but it is no less important today than it was when a better life was still considered a new idea. But something else to keep in mind as we strive towards this goal… excellence does not require perfection (but the pursuit of it wouldn’t hurt).

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Bernard D Tremblay (ben)

Centre for Public Involvement?! *wh000t!* thanks for that.
When I ponder how I might roll out my “participatory deliberation” system I keep coming up with something like that … I imagined the Lois Hole Center for Civics and Communications, something along that line.

/me cheers!!

p.s. http://www.edmonton.ca/for_residents/public_involvement/17377.aspx => http://www.edmonton.ca/error/404error.aspx != joy


Searching for “City of Edmonton” “University of Alberta” “participatory democracy” “Centre for Public Involvement” brought some results … all 404 save one: “MUNICIPAL EXCELLENCE network Practice Collection Form … text version, cached on google. The original (DOC). I don’t know if it’s also 404 or not; I don’t download DOCs.


Found: Centre for Public Involvement. (The “Related Docs; Prospectus” is self-referential; it points only to the page it’s sitting on.)