Planning ahead for a new breed of "public" spaces

Think about a public space. Maybe it’s a park, or a public library, but some physical space owned by government. We have different expectations about public spaces, and our freedoms in them, compared to private spaces.

Think about a place where civic happenings go on, where dialogue and delivery of services occur. What comes to mind for me is the (maybe nostalgic) notion of a bustling city hall. People go there to interact with government and each other, and accomplish something. In theory, at least.

Now, imagine this public space is virtual.

Things may be different, depending on what technology the government deploys or what vendor they choose. To gain access to the space, citizens might have to go through a private vendor. The underlying technology might be proprietary software owned by that company, and walled off from eyes other than their own. The government may understand what the space does, but have limited knowledge about how it works, its design, or its integrity. In some cases, the technology may just be a service, without ownership (or control) over the virtual real estate, and without the ability to give assurances to participants.

Citizens can be locked out, data and content locked in. Would you put up with it in the physical world if city hall kept changing addresses, hours, methods of access, physical layout, or in some cases up and disappeared without a note left behind?

Just using the United States as an example, there are 87,525 local governments (National League of Cities 2002 Census of Governments). If you discard special district governments and school districts, that still leaves around 20,000 municipal governments, 16,000 town governments and 3,000 county governments.

In the physical world we have to start from scratch, to some extent, and use materials that obviously can’t be used elsewhere. Why do we resort to that limitation in thinking virtually? The opportunity to find some commonality among how we govern and the virtual infrastructure is huge.

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