"Rather than raising taxes to replace aging infrastructure, my administration is looking for efficiencies."
Those are words often spoken by North America's new millennium politicians. Of course, they're pandering to the still politically powerful, but none-the-less on its way out baby boomer generation. That charmed demographic had a very good urban life—thank you very much—because of the long-term infrastructure investments made by their depression-surviving parents. The boomers conveniently ignore the truth that after a point "efficiencies" is just another word for doing nothing and doing nothing may well mean the death of our modern, livable cities.
But why should they worry about what future generations will have to deal with? To them, urban life is pretty good as it is.
"Invest in urban infrastructure? Well, I'm retiring soon so why do I need more efficient highways, sewers, and transit systems? What I need is lower taxes so I can afford to move out of the suburbs to a gated community in Florida or Arizona. Any politician who gets in the way of that Freedom 55 dream won't get my vote."
We all know or suspect that riding a populist, demographically-driven wave is the essence of electability. This era's politicians (generally) know it's best not to think too big in terms of urban-improving expenditures. Time is better spent learning how to deftly kick the can of crumbling infrastructure down the road—increasingly potholed though that road may be. "Let my successor manage the impending crisis," their inner voices might be heard to say, "I'll lose the next election if I raise taxes to fix x,y, or z let alone build something new."
This attitude is closely related to the one that causes well-established, successful companies like Nortel to go from world leaders to market flameouts almost overnight. Why improve something that the investors think to be a world beater? Behind the scenes, however, key players are running for the exits with whatever spoils they can carry before the whole operation collapses due to inattention.
There is an alternative to the destructiveness of this self serving, near-term thinking about our cities: Crowd funded urban innovation.
It is not a fantasy. Some cities are already doing it.
Why is crowd funded urbanism different than what we've seen in the past? In a way, it isn't. It is fundamentally old school thinking brought into the digital age. In the farming communities of our parents' parents, when people saw something that needed doing they pitched in to get it done. That's the way crowd funded urbanism works. See it. Fix it. New communications tools are shrinking our complex world to the point where direct action is possible even where political action is an oxymoron.
Even better, in a connected world we can assemble best-practice solutions in one easily accessible place for everyone's use. Talk about efficiency.
Take a look at I Make Rotterdam for one example of a crowd funded pedestrian bridge that is a prototype for this nascent, city-changing movement. The public in that city cared enough to invest real money in the project after being inspired by New York's High Line Park (good ideas are contagious). What's more interesting is that their commitment spurred local government to get behind the project as well:
Yesterday evening mayor Aboutaleb and alderwoman Korrie Louwes announced the winner of the Stadsinitiatief 2012. From the selection of five projects the citizens of Rotterdam could choose their favorite. The Luchtsingel won with 48% of the votes.
That's the power of this idea. It is not about finding new ways of taxing people. What it is about is unequivocally showing where people want their communities improved so governments can act.
Another example is the U.K.'s Space Hive. Broader in scope than I Make Rotterdam, Space Hive offers opportunities to tackle the needs of communities across the U.K.
Are these projects reinventing the way representative taxation will work a generation from now; or, are they just another example of online art projects that capture our collective imagination? We will find out, but our guess is that the future of cities demands better forms of community representation. These just may be the early models that will evolve to greatness.