Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Future Issues for Urban-Rural Regions

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Aug 25, 2000

I live this new Internet age. I've telecommuted from a small cabin in northern Alberta. I've worked in offices. I've done distance education for 15 years. My community was recently denied sidewalks. Why is that important? Well, I can do everything on-line. But I'm not going to do it from inside my house.

My neighbourhood has value to me. In my ideal world, I can do my work in the coffee shop. I know the waitress. She knows what kind of coffee I like. I hang out. I do my job. Maybe I will cycle to the university, and maybe I won't. But that will be up to me. That redefines community.

The trend is inevitable: In five to ten years we should look at a two-times magnitude reduction in the cost of information. To put that into perspective, a university course that costs $100 today will have a value of $1. Now, it might not be sold for $1 - a lot of artificial constraints will be placed on the distribution of information in order to maintain that price as high as possible for as long as possible, but the trend is there.

Gradually these barriers will be overcome largely through private industry. We are seeing this already happening in the field of education. The private sector is supplanting everything, except perhaps janitorial services because you can't digitalize that; although, with fewer buildings you don't need that. Colleges and universities are under increasing pressure to contract out aspects of their services (grade maintenance, personnel records, up to and including the actual offering of on-line courses).

Columbia University recently signed a deal with a private company that provides all of the infrastructure. Columbia provides two things: the name (which is still worth something) and the actual content. Similar sorts of pressures are going to affect municipal governments. There are companies with the technology and expertise who can do things that (especially small municipal administrations) could never dream of doing. The field of municipal government now is where learning was about three years ago. In the last six months, there have emerged at least ten virtual town hall STET (software packages which allow you to put all of your services on-line). That's one trend.

Another trend is a lowering of threshold for access to information. It used to be if you wanted to find the demographics of an area, you would hire a marketing consultant. A marketing consultant would go out and do some research, and maybe actually look at physical documents. It was a costly process and was therefore restricted to only a few people. This information will gradually become more available to more people and groups, meaning you don't need to be KPMG to get good marketing data.

The consequence of that, and of vastly improved communications, is a more aware and more capable citizen population. We have seen instances of cyber-activism already, cases where political campaigns spring out of nothing and they become this massive wave that sort of emerges, does its damage and leaves. Maybe I shouldn't say "damage." The election of Jessie Ventura is an example of cyber-activism. The WTO protest in Seattle is a consequence of cyber-activism. The MAI protest. The campaign of John McCain. John McCain would have been a fringe candidate except for cyber-activism. Expect this over and over and over again.

These trends, local community, reduction in the cost of information, empowered citizenship, lead to massive fragmentation. There will be no top ten issues anymore. You will have many different topic-based communities (or communities of interest) who can mobilize on a moment's notice who will go from region to region, if you will. It's entirely possible in talking about whether gas prices are a civic matter, the global community that's interested in gas prices could focus on Edmonton city government for some reason. We don't know why. Who knows what the issue would be. But picture that. It could happen. It will happen.

People won't get their information from only one source. Today, to get your information out you tell the newspapers, the radio stations, the TV and you're done. And those instruments dramatically influence public policy. But their capacity to influence an entire city population will decline because that population is not getting their information only from these few sources, they are getting this information from a variety of sources. They have software which can filter that information to pick up on the topics that they want. They can get a very deep knowledge and a very broad knowledge because they get information planet-wide on that topic and they will do that.

The consequence of all this is that we are seeing a shift from control being in the hands of providers, to control being in the hands of consumers. This mostly works in areas of surplus (especially in information). In areas of scarcity I'm not so sure it will be the case. That's what generates the market economies that we see emerging in a lot of areas. And in education, we have market economies for courses, for student registrations, and so on, and I can go across the board. Market economies for civic services.

The major challenge facing government, whether municipal or regional, is to establish their own relevance. Increasingly, people will want to be able to manage the civic process, civic governance themselves without the intermediary of government. And technology will make the case that they can do so. People might want, for example, a mechanism whereby the civic budget is a piece of software which can be accessed by all citizens and which reflects the combined input of all citizens. You won't need a planner to create a city budget. People will do it themselves without an intermediary. That's down the line. And that's an extreme example. But we will see lots of smaller examples like that.

The role of government, municipal or regional, will shift from being service providers and will move, to a large degree, to a market economy. The role of government will be as an enabler and a regulator. Enabler in order to make sure that the infrastructure is in place; and a regulator to control the excesses of a pure market economy. The pure market economy, as I mentioned, doesn't react as well as it could to scarcity. It reacts a lot better to surplus.

The full session is available online here (PDF file).

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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