Social Capital: Citizen Tech Filling Gaps Where States Can't

Having recently given a talk on how activists are becoming superempowered through technology, a recent post by Patrick Meier on how information and communication technology can enable a new form of governance when states fail to do so caught my attention. In it, Meier recounts some recent thinking in this area, citing collaborative efforts around crisis mapping as an example of how, when due to incapacity, corruption or unwillingness, a government can't provide adequate assistance to its people, technology provides tools for the people to take on this role themselves. 

Meier recounts his colleague Gregory Asmolov's example of the Russian wildfires of 2010, where groups used the Ushahidi collaborative mapping platform to track the fires as the government failed to keep up with their spread. Using these maps, local residents were able to pinpoint, and even taking on fighting, these fires. Meier notes:

"...the resulting map is often not as profound as the social capital generated between the dozens, often hundreds, of people collaborating on a live crisis map. In turn, this social capital facilitates mass collective action. In other words, social capital is fungible. As [James] Scott notes, “this transformative power resides not in the map, of course, but rather in the power possessed by those who deploy the perspective of that particular map.”

It isn't hard to see how this dynamic will grow stronger over time, in a period where governments at all levels are increasingly diminished by both lack of resources and growing complexity—not just in the fragile and failed states that have taken so much of our attention in the past decade, but in developed countries rocked by globalization's effects. The phase of waiting for governments to open access to data is already being overtaken by citizen collection, reporting and action, from Kabul to Kyoto.

Rachel Sterne's talk about New York City's efforts in this area at the PSFK NYC event this past week demonstrated how this is happening in one major, stable city, in what Anthony Townsend calls combinatorial local innovation in his recent study, A Planet of Civic Laboratories. But in places where there is no partner to combine with, but where the innovation capability can be generated through creation of this social capital, citizens won't just step in where the state can't, but will take over the role of the state. It has happening in a negative sense where parasitic terrorist organizations inhabit shells of failed states, and now we may be seeing a more positive strain emerge in situations like the Russian example, or the citizen-driven collection of radiation data in Japan via Pachube. How long before we see this kind of effort creating bottom-up governance in a place like Detroit?