Let's crowdsource a better Melbourne …..

Thou hast a concern about this, thou should do it….Quaker saying

The public interest blogs I receive every week urging me to sign petitions and spread the gospel grow in strength and conviction; and this takes no account of all the personal blogs like this one, quietly attempting in their own modest and erratic ways to influence hearts and minds.

They all help in moulding public opinion in the long term, and more power to them all, but they are also easily ignored and I'm dismayed at their low political impact. 

In particular I'm concerned about the new Metropolitan Planning Strategy (MPS) that the Victorian Government is proposing to introduce to try and control the urban growth of Melbourne. 

Comments have been invited on a PR 'motherhood, truth and beauty' document, but 'ambit claim' proposals will be announced eventually and given their stated free market ambitions to reduce planning restraints, I'm sure the public interest will need to be defended. 

But how can we ensure that public comments and objections will really influence what happens?

How can we ensure that Fishermans Bend doesn't end up another Docklands?

In my first draft of this article I had written, 'How can we ensure we get the Doncaster Rail Link rather than the East-West Toll Road,' but since then the State budget has ignored all the rail options and put its money into the East-West toll road-tunnel; roads before rail every time. 

This is a purely political decision; the Liberal government has a wafer thin majority and the road proposal serves areas where they hope to win seats at the next election.

This new MPS is a deliberate, ideological move to lessen the voice of the community, and by removing planning restraints to bypass the community so larger developments can be approved with less controversy.

I'm concerned that most of the objections will be scattered in the different local government areas and their broad impact will be able to be ignored.

Community groups need to appreciate that their multiple small efforts are totally outnumbered and outfunded by ongoing influential pressures from right wing think tanks, property developers and their industry organisations. These well-funded pro-development bodies see their roles as being broader than specific issues and they never stop trying to loosen the planning reins behind the scenes between elections.

They believe in a free market approach to everything and accompany their actions with substantial financial donations to the political parties.  So it's not paranoia to be concerned about the undue influence developers and real estate interests have on the shape and development of our cities.  We would all probably be a bit more paranoid if we only knew half the concealed political influence they exert over breakfast with the Minister.

They have every right to lobby for what they believe of course, but in the face of this continuing, single minded and powerful force for unrestrained growth, community groups will simply not get their views heard unless they combinein such a way and to such a sizethat politicians of either major party are unable to ignore them.

Community and environment groups have to get smarter and beat the political parties and the development/roads lobby at their own game. To start with they need to co-operate more, and one option for doing this might be to use new techniques like crowdsourcing and crowdfunding.

I've paraphrased Wikipedia's formal definition of crowd-sourcing as follows:

"Crowdsourcing is a participative online activity in which a coalition of community groups proposes that as many citizens as possible voluntarily undertake to work out the most desirable urban future for Melbourne and to get this view accepted by the government.

This undertaking is compounded by many complex issues, like increasing population, denser housing and new commercial development, car traffic and public transport, and the provision and protection of open space and parks, all compounded by difficult social issues like the ageing of the population, the homeless and the lack of economic rental housing for lower income groups.

It is one in which the crowd would participate by bringing their time, money, knowledge and experience to the aspect to which they can best contribute and piggyback improvements on the contributions of others.

The users will receive the personal satisfaction of contributing in what ever way they best can, while the community crowdsourcer will obtain the information to propose practical policies that will influence the planning bureaucracies, and in the process acquire the political power through the voices of such a large numbers of citizens to ensure that the community is listened to by the government.         

We need to develop a version that will allow people to build on other peoples suggestions in the way crowd-sourcing has been used to solve mathematical problems, win chess games, and develop the mapping of outer space by this sort of collaborative action. 

In one case a mathematical problem that had defied solution for hundreds of years was solved in a world-wide piggyback search in a fortnight by someone proposing a solution, the next person adding to it, another person re-phrasing the question and so on, everyone adding some suggestion or view depending on their particular expertise until a solution was brought about through this collaborative action.  Something that no one person could solve, was solved by free wheeling group action; one person couldn't solve it, but a group of people each contributing to some aspect of the problem were able to find a solution.

To some extent it's a fancy name for what we have been doing one way or the other for years, except it aims to harness the enormous power of computers through the internet in order to get hundreds of thousands of responses rather than hundreds.  And because our situation is unique, a response tailored to the Melbourne situation is required.

It's a technique ideally suited to ensure that real political force is acquired through this collaborative process.  Everyone would be able to provide and build on ideas and suggest preferred outcomes for the growth of Melbourne and the associated social problems in a non-threatening way, contributing in whichever way they best can.  

And as Obama showed in his campaigns, associated crowd-funding can raise large sums from many small donations to fund a campaign like this.  While something similar has been developed in Finland (seehelsinkidesignlab.org), as far as I know this would be a new urban application for crowdsourcing but it's one to which it seems eminently suited.

It's a sad commentary on the state of our politics that it's necessary for citizen action like this, but with both major parties in thrall to the development industry and the roads lobby it has become necessary. The important planning decisions at issue have to be taken out of the normal government-run public consultative process, and all the small citizen objections combined in a collaborative way in order to acquire more political clout; different thinking is required.

A parallel example of the way creative thinking can find unconventional solutions is demonstrated in NO, a Chilean movie  being shown in Melbourne; make sure you see it!  To get international recognition and to improve his image, dictator Auguste Pinochet was persuaded to hold a plebescite to confirm himself in office for another eight years; he was sure he couldn't lose!

The opposition was convinced the referendum was a fraud and was sure they would lose and wanted to concentrate their TV ads on all the bad, undemocratic aspects of Pinochet's regime.  But a young 'creative' from an advertising agency who went to work on a skateboard, was asked to assist and he identified two key voting groups; young people who thought it was all a set up and couldn't be bothered voting and older people who were a bit scared of voting.

The Left wing opposition are eventually persuaded by his conviction that rather than being negative, they should be selling optimism about change to win over these voters.  His positive slogan was that 'Voting No is Happiness' and his TV segments ignored Pinochet and his dreadful past and were full of wholesome people having picnics on the grass, attractive girls, laughing children and smiling older people.  Despite the odds, the No vote won and Pinochet was forced to step down.

It's not an exact parallel of course, but what it does show is that the conventional wisdom has to be overthrown in some situations like the MPS one, where the old way of consulting the public can easily be ignored by a government with an ideological agenda.

Crowdsourcing the best urban future for Melbourne would be an ambitious undertaking needing lots of energy and the development of new computer techniques; but it would also be good political learning experience and great fun for young 'creatives' with or without skate boards!

The simple democratic aim should be the adoption by the government of whatever consensus Melburnians show that they accept; like higher densities without high rise towers, something much better than Docklands for Fishermans Bend, better rail transport rather than more freeways and …. you can finish the sentence with your own wishlist!

Some of those who believe that higher densities are not only necessary and could be planned in an acceptable and lively way, are concerned that nimby forces will simply oppose all change because they are too scared of what might happen.  I have more confidence in my fellow citizens and the democratic process; I'm convinced that if people are given the facts in a non-threatening way, they are perfectly capable of participating and making difficult decisions.

Through this process I believe a yimby consensus will evolve about an acceptable density and a way of allowing Melbourne to grow in numbers without any further physical expansion into the green open wedges.  And furthermore I believe that Melbourne could grow in a way that would allow the character of our older suburbs to be improved not destroyed.

I envisage that the major community bodies that take an overall view of Melbourne's planning and environmental problems  (bodies such as Protectors of Public Lands Victoria Inc, Environment Victoria, Australian Conservation Foundation and GetUp) would all involve their members.  They could provide their data bases and support the process however they could, while still retaining their own separate identities and maintaining their own particular campaigns.  Local groups like unChain and CAPP in the City of Port Phillip, and their equivalents in the other local government areas could concentrate on the special problems in their own areas.

The planning bureaucracies in each of the local government councils should be required to state their own views on what-ever is finally proposed so we'll know exactly where all the council planners stand.  This is no time for hedging, these bureaucracies are not by-standers, they are active players with strong views about what should be adopted, and the community deserves to know exactly where they stand.

Sounds great, right, but first a personalmea culpaas to why at this point I'm not inviting you to the inaugural meeting of theMarvellousMelbourneMovement (3EM) dedicated to bringing about this desirable change.  My first reaction in situations like this is always to quote that old Quaker saying back to myself,

'Thou hast a feeling about this, thou must do it!' 

Adoption of this attitude in the past has helped to bring about the conservation zoning of the 600 acre terrace house area of Paddington in Sydney, and the creation of Martin Place and Circular Quay as traffic-free pedestrian zones in the same city.   And if Mr Valiant-for-Truth didn't have eighty-four years behind him he'd probably do the same with the MPS but alas, he doesn't even have a mobile phone; it needs a younger generation to lead the charge.

What we need are a few champions with enough street smarts and a good public presence to head up and create a large 3EM citizen movement, and some open minded IT, planning and fundraising experts to help them create what ever it takes.

So start crowdsourcing all you people, send me your ideas about how to start this process and I'll piggyback them until our champions emerge.

Don Gazzard LFAIA
Mid May 2013