Category: Agoras in the World

Global Agoras reflects a movement to restore the ideal of Greek Democracy. The Institute for 21st Century Global Agoras does this by promoting technologies that support authentic democratic process.

The Irony of the Predicament of Detroit

In a recent blog titled “Detroit and the Temptation of Ruin,” Tufts University civics scholar Peter Levine speaks of art, poverty and hopes for renewal. The story, as Levine notes, is tragic in the Aristotelian sense – local art and architecture documents a rise to power, a celebrated era, and a collapse to “700,000 people who live amid the empty shells of its industrial past, while the nation looks away.”

There is a rather contemporary irony in the decline of Detroit, for its uncertain future was foreshadowed in the minds of its local champions a half century prior to its demise. Human artifacts persist as statements made in powerful moments – they are aspects of an extracorporeal memory that is interpreted anew by each generation if not by each new observer. When the wind blows from the right direction, whispers from history breathe depth into the newfound meaning.

In 1965 a decision had been made to conduct a 5-year study of the Detroit area with the objective of anticipating needs for sustainable growth and a high quality of life. The research was intended to link perspectives on the economic, social, cultural and physical problems facing man in communities like the Urban Detroit Area.  The effort was championed by the Chairman of the Board of The Detroit Edison Company.

To lead the research efforts, Constantinos Doxiadis – a then world renowned philosophical architect and urban planner who had served as Minister of Housing and Reconstruction during the challenging post-war recovery in Greece – was engaged to apply the emerging science of complex human settlements (“ekistics”).  Doxiadis worked alongside researchers at Wayne State University, and for generations the implemented designs were celebrated.

The back story is that during this period even within Doxiadis’ close circle of researchers a gnawing truth was cutting its teeth.  Design which is catalyzed, led and owned by the elite layer of a society – regardless of how well intentioned – will be unbalanced unless specific provisions are made to include all distinct community perspectives in authentic participation with the designers.

Doxiadis Detroit Plan

I am not making the point that greater citizen input might have foreseen the way with which Detroit collapsed, but rather that greater representation of the future from those of us who live life upon the sidewalks that we travel may have called for greater resiliency in the plan. It is, of course, unfair to kick or criticize a man or a community when it is down. All of the then understood precautions were taken to assure that the best of available thinking was drawn into the design of the urban area.

In the short term, good things happened in Detroit, and from within Doxiadis’ team at that time emerged one of the founding members of the Club of Rome who subsequently developed and validated an approach that now does allow individuals of all levels of skill to participate equitably and fully in complex civic planning. This individual —- Dr. Alexander (Aleco) Christakis, left the Club of Rome when it found itself unwilling to deal with the challenge of broad-scale citizen engagement in its newly adopted design practice. Aleco subsequently founded the Institute for 21st Century Agoras.

The Greeks today may still glorify some of the ruins of the past – however, like citizens of Detroit, they also are obliged to take up the struggle to discover new futures. As a statement of hope for the human condition, we might recognize that the experiences gathered during the golden age of Detroit do continue to influence the future even as the city struggles to rediscover itself.

Detroit’s artifacts might well be seen as glorified ruins in a poet’s maudlin and peripatetic eyes, yet in at least this one case the wisdom that flowed through and beyond those specific artifacts is alive and evolving.




Elinor Ostrom’s Legacy of the Commons

At this time in history, 78 is still far too young an age to be swept into the future. For four decades, Elinor and her colleagues have been slaying a myth that was breathed into life by Ecologist Garrett Hardin‘s misunderstanding of the nature of “The Tragedy of the Commons.” The myth is that people cannot self-govern … and yet that, somehow, a higher mortal authority is imagined to have the elusive capacity to govern with humane wisdom.

This myth brings us to where we have come today. The upturned eyes of hope and blame are focused on national leaders and diverted away from our immediate neighbors. “We the people” was never intended as “They the people” – even in representative democracy. The lazy and simplistic dodge of abrogating citizen duties for understand complex issues has led to a situation in which even our elected representatives now no longer deliberate for purposes of shared understanding. Our elected representatives mirror us and they too dodge the duty to collectively understand situations — and in doing so they yield themselves and our futures up to the influence of forms of veiled thinking that speaks most loudly into their ears at the moment that decisions must be made.

Elinor’s life work teaches us all that things do not have to be this way. Her work tells us again and again that throughout the world, things are not run this way.

Elinor’s message to us is far, far too powerful to be interred into the archives of human thought simply because her living voice can no longer prick us. The story that she and her colleagues brought forward has the power to slay myths and to open up new vistas for humanity. We can self govern. The evidence is in. And yet there are prerequisites for effective self-governance. It is this exploration that should and must become the living legacy of Elinor’s work.

There are many facets to Elinor’s teaching that speak directly to the practice of participatory democracy. She is best known perhaps for her systems view of the ecological Commons, polycentricity (there are multiple centers of agency in governance), and design principles for institutional renewal. One that is of central concern to us is the necessity for people in a self-governing population to clearly see and deeply feel the necessity for working together to sustain themselves. It is a matter of local, community perception. In a culture that looks for top-down guidance, bailouts and salvation … and a culture that offers individual mobility and fosters community disinvestment … we who choose to once again feel an authentic connection to place have our work cut out for us.

It is through a connection to place – what Cynthia Nikitin of the Project for Public Spaces calls “Place Capital” — that we forge our social capital. And as Craig Lindell of the Institute for 21st Century Agoras says, ‘All fiscal capital comes from social capital.’ So, those of us who are worried about the future of our grand experiment in democracy and its twin experiment in capitalism need to reflect on what might be passing from us at this moment.

There are many who might still look at Elinor’s work and claim that she has studied exceptions that only serve to prove a larger rule. There are those who will look at self-organized democratic communities as somehow being quaint or maybe primitive. There are those who will simply resign themselves to the myth that direct democracy is not scalable, and that representative democracy – with all of its contemporary flaws – is the only way. Yet there also is much agreement that the bridge that we are crossing today is crumbling beneath our feet. Just recently, Professor Klaus Schwab, founder and Chairman of the conservative World Economic Forum, was reported to have conceded that “Capitalism in its current form has no place in the world around us.” This is a critically telling utterance because capitalism and its unbridled individual accumulation of wealth has done much to shape contemporary American democracy – and arguably has done even much more to distance governance from the efforts to control influence and corruption which inspired the invention of democracy by the ancient Athenians.

Elinor’s passing is a trumpet call to us all shouting that now is a critically important moment to attend to each other’s business — for the sake of the foundations of the future itself.