TEDxMontreal Talk – It’s time to upgrade our democracy

This year, I had the great privilege of being invited to give a talk on the future of democracy at TEDxMontreal. The event was wonderfully organized and the other speakers were all fantastic. Below is the talk and the original text, from which I deviated a bit due to fatigue, stress, and talking too slow. Overall, I think it went well, but I am very keen for your feedback. Was my point clear? Was it convincing? Are you ready to upgrade our democracy?

Many friends ask me why I work on Open Data initiatives at Montréal Ouvert, Québec Ouvert and Open North. This is why:

Jonathan Brun says it’s time to upgrade our democracy.

Do you remember the future? I am talking about the future we used to dream of: The flying cars, the miracle cures, the smiling families, spotless streets and monorails. What happened to it? Where is it?

I mean, part of it is here. We’ve sent a man to the moon, we’ve got devices that allow us to talk with anyone in the world, and we can easily procure the most exotic foods. In fact, anyone of of us can walk out of this room, down the street and for twenty bucks you can buy spices from India and vegetables from China. And even at minimum wage that’s only a few hours of labour.

Yet, if your city is any I know of, on your walk to the supermarket you’re likely to cross a person asking for money and possibly needing medical and psychological help. So, while we still have homelessness in our wealthiest cities, we can purchase 3$ spices from India. Let’s face it, our imagined future is not yet here – we still so many of the problems we thought we would have solved by now – poverty, access to education, affordable healthcare or equality between men and women. These problems we have failed to solve are communal failures, it’s not a single person or group’s or political party’s fault, it is our fault. If we all agree homelesness is bad and we don’t want it, why can’t we get government and society to act? We need to start talking better.

In 2011, a borough in the city of Montreal tried something new and innovative. They created an online budget simulator. Citizens could modify the budget, reduce certain services such as library hours and increase others, like pothole repairs. However, before submitting their budget, they had to balance it. This exercise played two important roles. First, it educates citizens about the costs of services. Secondly, it put the citizen in the same shoes as the public administrator. The borough received over 500 balanced budgets that allowed them to make representative decisions on behalf of the citizens. This hard data from the citizens was structured around facts, making the city administration accountable.

Contrast that to an in-person budget consultation, where people physically go to a consultation, maybe a dozen people in this room have been to one. They typically cost 10 times more and receives far less valuable data. The people who come to in person consultations often are the most outspoken, engaged and vocal. They all seem to unicorns and money trees, who doesn’t!

How do you reach that single mother of three working two jobs? You certainly can’t ask her to travel 45 minutes to speak for two minutes during a four hour town hall meeting. The barrier to participation is just too high for her.

This budget simulator allows her to participate and voice her priorities. And that’s the key, we need to get government and all citizens, from the single mother to the bike riding hipster, talking in a constructive manner. We need social feedback loops. The private sector has great feedback loops, they’re called products. You like something you buy it, you don’t you dont. Companies that sell products prosper. In democacy our best feedback loop is voting and we know how well that works.

Many municipal elections only get 30% participation, that is 1/3 people – just in case the math wasn’t clear! How many of us can say we voted at your last municipal election. Democracy advocates promise various solutions to this problem – changes to the electoral system, education, awareness, or instilling civic responsibility, etc – they aim to bump those participations by 2, 3, or 5%. I’m sorry, that’s a pathetic goal. I will not be satisfied until everyone in this room feels they can have an impact ont heir communities.

Not so long ago, we were debating if women should vote, I mean they’re only half the population. Emma Goldman was a militant feminist of the late 19th and early 20th century. When that debate was going on, she wrote an essay where she stands against woman suffrage. Not because women are incapable, or uneducated or too emotional, but because voting is a distraction from true democracy. She worried giving the right to vote would lead to apathy. I often hear, “Hey I voted, I participated, now let me watch TV!” But democracy is not a 20 minute exercise every 4 years.

The main reason people seem apathetic is simple is not because they don’t care, they do. People feel they don’t have an impact.

People tell me all the time – they’ve tried, they sent a letter to their elected official, participated in a consultation and nothing came of it – they go home feeling government is this massive structure of immovable size and even if they spent all of their spare time trying to affect it, they’d fail. The feedback loop for government is too slow. And that apathy is born out of perceived powerlessness.

Occasionally, we do rally together for change – most often in movies where we’re attacked by aliens or our when our underdog sports team wins the championship. With those external threats and victories, we become one, we engage in a common project, look in the same direction, our differences melt away and we focus our energy on the task at hand. But the real hard problems are not external to us – it’s not the Taliban, communists, or an alien race that threaten us; it is our own shortcomings, our own crime and injustice done upon our neighbours.

Recently, here in Montreal, a high school student was severely beaten by a classmate. The fight, or rather the pounding, was announced in advance – by text message. The time and location were set – everyone knew what was coming, except the victim.

The students, friends, congregated outside, and waited. The bully, twice the size of the victim, grabbed him and then proceeded to punch and kick his classmate until blood stained the cement school yard. The kid’s eye was shattered, his jaw broken and everyone just stared. This vicious violence was not done by a gang, or a criminal, it was done by a classmate, a neighbour.

And while this student’s face was being smashed in, fifty of his classmates looked on and taped the savagery on their smart phones, all eager to upload to Youtube. This spectacle of unbelievable apathy happens all the time at schools around the world.

I was picked on at school, called names, pushed around – discussing democratic reform in second grade was not as popular as you might think. My guess is many of us were bullied, or saw it happen, or even participated in it. When bullies strike, we can blame the school for a failure to intervene, or blame the bully for hitting the classmate or blame the onlookers who dont intervene. The answer of course is that everyone is to blame.

Injustice always starts at the personal level, but it can quickly become intitutionalized and grow – like a cancer.

My jewish name is Joseph, I’m named after my grandfather, Joseph, who I am told was a strong Polish man with a thick neck and a mean temper. He was born in Poland in 1920, in 1939, with dark clouds descending over Europe, his father Moishe and mother Clara decided to emigrate from from south eastern Poland to Canada, just east of Winnipeg. They fled Poland just in time.

The situation for jews in Europe in 1939 was so bad, so dire, that my great grandfather’s family was willing to give up all material possessions, board a ship, travel to a land they did not know – simply for the hope of escape. We all know Europe’s tenuous democracy completely disintegrated in the 1930s. But, it did not collapse in one night or with one man, it crumbled under collective apathy. The rights of many of its citizens were slowly and then quickly removed – the feedback loops that I spoke about earlier, that are essential to strong democracy were methodically dismantled. And people stood by.

Cities with 25% jewish populations, that is 1 out of 4 people, again – for your math, emerged from the war with nary a jew in site. With the exception of two of his cousins, my grandfather’s entire polish family was killed.

Killing 6 million people is hard; much harder than you might think. In case you were thinking about it. These 6 million people had to be identified, categorized and transported from throughout Europe to extermination camps where they were methodically sorted, worked to the bone and killed. That is a complex task and the only way to do it, is with computer technology. In fact, the use of IBM punch card technology was absolutely essential to finding, moving and killing these innocent citizens of europe. It was so important that the founder and CEO of IBM, Thomas Watson, received the Merit cross of the German Eagle, a high honour from the Nazi Regime.

So, let me be very, very clear. Technology is definitely not our saviour, it can be used to either end – good or bad.

Clearly, technology is not THE solution, it is just a tool, it is amoral. In many ways, we have avoided using technology for bad, instead we have used it for entertainment. But if we use our technology for 3D movies, never-ending video games or social check-ins won’t solve poverty. They are closed feedback loops that have no impact on real life.

Not only is it entertainment. We’re surrounded by technology – HD Tvs, the internet, cars, text messaging. When i can text my friend in China and get a intentateous response, I have different expecttions. Consequently, people’s expectations have changed. We demand instant gratification from our technology and government bureaucracy is anything but instant.

How can we ensure our technological innovations are used to improve democracy? You see, the opposite of war or conflict is not peace, it’s dialogue. As long we’re talking we can’t be fighting. And talking can change things, words matter.

Just as Emma Goldman had said, a truly democratic society is not one that votes every 4 years – it’s one that cares. Cares about the disenfranchised, the poor and the criminals. To solve our hard issues, our common problems that we talked about earlier, we must hold a continuous discussion that allows us to make constant adjustments to our policies and traditions. Yes, definitely easier said than done.


How do we focus that lost energy, that human potential spent watching TV into something productive – something that make’s society better. How do we help thousands of homeless people get off the streets and into jobs, how do we ensure a clean environment and a balanced budget. How can we get you engaged in solving our common problems?

Because civic engagement’s competing product is not apathy, it’s entertainment. As long as it’s easier to come home after a day’s work and sit in front of your TV than to improve your community, we’re gonna fail. So making it easy to engage is part of the solution.

Not only does it have to be easy, but people need to feel rewarded for participating. They need to feel the same high when greening their neighbourhood as someone does when they attain level 54 Magic Orc in the online video game World of Warcraft. What no warcraft players here?

Until we close that gap of reward, we cannot solve our communal problems. No amount of education is going to change that.

Because, we live in a competitive world, our attention constantly drawn to the shiny new toy. Clearly our capitalist feedback loops work great. We get a new iPhone every year. If the metric for capitalist success is money, what is government’s metric?

Data. Hard information on our environment, our prisons, our education – that is how we will measure our success. We need government to open up their data so that engaged citizens and organizations can see what is happening. whats broken and whats working. We need Data about budgets, contracts, infrastructure, services, immigration and everything government touches. This is the currency of society, it represents something deeper and more meaningful than money ever can.

We need to change the default setting of government. Today, governments are still in the 20th century. They are closed by default. They don’t publish information unless they feel it is essential, easy or have to by law. We need to switch government from a closed by default position to an open by default position. That is the beginning of a real conversation that matters.

All non personal, and I mean all, data needs to be made accessible in an open and digital format so it can easily be processed, visualized, digested and fed back into society in a way that allows us, the citizens, to mobilize, dialogue and close that feedback loop.

Once we all have access to the same knowledge, structured around the cold hard facts, we can begin to have a real conversation. We can remove government procedures and formalities that inhibit true conversation, remove red tape. We can ask our elected officials to enter the discussion on equal ground.

Now organizations around the world are working to make this happen. I mentioned an interactive budget earlier that is done by Open North here in Montreal. But groups are also building databases of elected representatives so other non-profits can mount advocacy campaigns.

These groups also work with media organizations to expose government contracts and route out corruption. They help citizens find clean restaurants, safe neighbourhoods, and easily file access to information requests. In short, these groups are laying the demoractic infrastructure of the 21st century. And it’s already changing things.

In 2007, Kenya had a contested presidential elections, which erupted into ethnic violence. Some intrepid Kenyan hackers built Ushahidi, an amazing tool to mobilize the public. The Ushahidi platform allows people to text in reports of violence, issues or anything really from their mobile phones – the information is then aggregated and displayed on an interactive map. This tool helped limit the ethic violence in Kenya and is now being used around the world for everything from clean water issues in native reserves to violence in the slums of Haiti. It is a tool, built by activists, that mobilizes citizens against the excesses of hatred. Is genocide possible with mobile phones and Ushaidi?

So that’s a start, but we need to spread these solutions to from rural villages in Bangladesh to the upper east side of New York City. We need to build a dialogue inside communities and amongst communities.

As technology and society’s expectations continue to accelerate, it is clear traditional forms of centralized government cannot keep up. People’s expectations are far ahead of what traditional government structure can provide.

The budget simulator I mentioned earlier helps public administrators understand their citizens needs in a simple, tangible and actionable way. What’s great about that example is the data you get, you see citizen profiles: drivers, cyclists, families, singles and then see issues where over 85% of the population was in agreement. This is what society is made up of – variety. We can see correlations between priorities, identify statistical significance and find many, many areas of agreement. The areas where we agree are the low hanging fruit, no government should hesitate to act on them.

But that is one thing, to get our flying cars, our monorails and our clean streets we need a new social contract between citizens and between citizens and government. Information, data, and therefore power, has to be handed back to the people.

Because, the next democracy is not some sort of new governing form based on an iPhone app. It’s a deep and fundamental opening up of government using techology. We go from a suit and tie periodic committee to an ongoing conversation with our elected officials and public services. It is a return to the roots of democracy, where apathy is the exception, not the rule, and where we can all meaningfully contribute to our communities.

So, no matter your day job or your interests – whether it’s security to clean water to a robust economy; wether you’re left and right wing, government matters, collective decisions affect your life and your children’s. We need to embrace techonology to close our society’s feedback loop and start meaninfgul dialogue amongst ourselves and with government. Because, we are the government, it is our and no one else’s to build that society of tomorrow. It’s time to upgrade our democracy.

Thank you for listening.

Published on June 22, 2012