Large scale citizen protests in Tunisia, Egypt, and earlier in Iran and Mayanmar (aka Burma), are symptomatic of very deep-rooted social diseases. Problems like corruption, neglect of infrastructure, abuse of police and political power are too complex to be handled by one-dimensional solutions, no matter how well intentioned.
However, in each case there is a vicious underlying theme. The citizens have been screaming for several years. Their complaints and grievances are not new. But nobody is listening! Nobody is actively engaging the common citizen in conversations about programs likely to increase the economic well being of those deprived the most. Not surprising, therefore, that not much that needs to be done gets done; the pace of change and economic growth continues to be frustratingly slow, erratic, piecemeal, and hyphenated.
So, what can the governments around the world do to reverse this cycle of absence of listening, leading to inaction, resulting in alienation and helplessness, ultimately leading to violence? Without getting ultra-philosophical, they can start by looking at their populations differently. Rather than view them as a heap of incessant problems, they can start viewing them as a resource, and hence as a part of the solution.
This was also the theme of my last blog, wherein I discussed the excellent opportunities that social arenas and agendas, generally in the care of government and nonprofit bodies, offer for the application of collaboration and co-creation technologies and thinking. This is also how the government of Scotland is thinking. Rather than view their aging population merely as a burden on the exchequer (a problem), the government launched NESTA, a series of investments and programs, that views the aging population as a resource to help create incremental economic value, thereby increasing social well being (a solution).
Programs that listen to citizens and engage them in meaningful conversations on issues involving social and economic welfare, like NESTA, work because they are based on sound psychology and behavioral economics thinking. Listening to citizens and making them part of the solution triggers the following positive consequences:
- First, it lays the foundation for change by bringing into question current practices and forcing both citizens and authorities to look for alternatives.
- Second, by listening and inviting collaboration, citizens are more likely to find new empowered aspects to themselves; aspects that go beyond whining and complaining to doing, to looking for solutions.
- Third, by visibly displaying and acting on their different selves, small groups of empowered citizens are more likely to attract and build relationships with others like themselves, leading to broader community-driven action thinking.
- Fourth, these actions are likely to bolster a sense of efficacy amongst citizens, proving to themselves and others that average citizens can make a difference if allowed to, even if the direct consequences of their efforts are small.
- Fifth, citizens who believe they can make a difference are more likely to be on the lookout for opportunities to do so, and by definition are more likely to find them, merely because they believe and because they are looking.
There is no rule that says that change has to come in big and huge chunks. In fact, it is this preoccupation with hitting the ball out of the park (sixes if you are a cricket fan, home runs if you are a baseball fan) that prevents governments and citizens alike from acting and making a difference; the mountain of problems seems insurmountable because the preoccupation is with moving the entire mountain all at once.
Structured collaboration activities overcome this problem by focusing on finite gains, small tasks and achievable goals that are valuable and relevant to average citizens. Philanthropy-by-design organizations, like Philips (who co-created an eco-friendly cooking stove for the Indian rural poor; chulha in Hindi) and FINISH (who are working to design a toilet suitable for all types of conditions and environments encountered in rural India) have a lot to teach us in this regard. In the communities these organizations serve, they have very successfully channeled the energy of average citizens towards creating economic value, by focusing on achieving small gains through collaboration. The amount left over for anger and violence is significantly lower in these communities, compared to those where listening, engagement, and the co-creation of relevant economic value are non-existent.
I am not naïve. I do realize that the issues being discussed transcend the mere availability and application of collaboration and co-creation technologies. They will also require a change in heart and mindset, most notably that politicians start viewing themselves as custodians, as opposed to entitled looters. However, this should not detract from the realization that the platforms of collaboration and co-creation can serve as agents of change if implemented authentically, as they offer an opportunity to both citizens and governments to see with a different set of eyes, and hear with a different set of ears.