Issues that are considered global problems—climate change, the energy crisis, and poverty—are, in many regards, urban phenomena. Cities are responsible for 75 percent of global energy consumption; 80 percent of gas emissions that cause global warming arise from cities; and one-third of city residents in developing countries live in slums. Accordingly, if city residents become more engaged in improving urban policy and quality of life, we, as global citizens will have a better chance of solving the broader, and increasingly urgent problems around climate change, energy, and poverty.
The urban environment streamlines citizen action and allows individuals to multiply their impact by engaging with others, making cities ideal locations for effective political participation. However, city governments around the world are facing a representation crisis. For example, despite mandatory voting, Rio de Janeiro’s previous mayoral elections saw almost 30 percent of citizens invalidate their votes or refuse to participate in the election because of their lack of trust in the candidates and the process. However, shifting beyond an idea of democratic participation that is limited to elections will give citizens opportunities to re-engage with their representatives via direct, effective, and collective decision-making. This decision-making would confront inequality and social exclusion with its inclusive nature and change our cities—and the world—for the better.
Today, most municipal governments are unable to allow for effective participation in decisions that influence what matters most: the allocation of budgets, the occupation of land, and the management of resources. Decisions by municipal governments could lead to solving the global problems that manifest themselves in cities, but waiting for governments to create mechanisms for this kind of meaningful civic participation may not be an option. This is why we created Meu Rio (“my Rio” in Portuguese), a locally-focused platform and network for civic engagement and people-powered political action.
Meu Rio works to ensure that all of Rio de Janeiro’s citizens benefit from, and participate in, the decision-making processes that are changing the city’s urban landscape. We have built technological platforms that pool citizens’ ideas to help improve city life and urge Rio’s institutions to be more responsive and peaceful. Using our platforms, citizens put pressure on decision makers, collaborate to find solutions to urban problems, and share opportunities to volunteer and participate in collective actions. With the local focus of our work, citizens can see the outcomes of their efforts.
Meu Rio works to ensure that all of Rio de Janeiro’s citizens benefit from, and participate in, the decision-making processes that are changing the city’s urban landscape.
Rio has seen gang violence and drug trafficking, as well as a widening gap in economic disparity, but the work of community activists committed to peace and security has remained steadfast. Over the past three years, more than 160,000 of Rio’s citizens have become members of Meu Rio and our mobilizations have changed over 50 public policies in the city: from helping pass constitutional amendments to solving neighborhood problems. We help channel energy into these mobilizations by giving them an online home and by helping to organize offline actions related to the cause. Advances in technological tools for mobilization have increased the possibilities for online actions and allowed for the rapid aggregation of massive support. People’s close proximity in a city facilitates gathering to define common objectives and carry out impactful actions. New technologies provide excellent tools to build and maintain communication with a massive mobilized community, but this connection alone does not produce change. Tools for online organizing have enhanced activist efforts by presenting opportunities for massive scalability, but in order to produce a more connected and powerful citizenry to spark social change, they must help people go beyond clicking to help them instead meet in living rooms, libraries, coffee shops, and public parks around the world. Online activism does not work on its own and we risk wasting the huge uniting advantage that technology provides if we cannot find a way to for it to strengthen offline advocacy and activism.
Organizations like Avvaz, Change.org, and Meu Rio use online campaigning to effectively change public policies. Meu Rio’s campaigns have led to the creation of public policies and legislation, and to the protection of citizen rights. Take the example of Jovita, a mother whose daughter went missing over 10 years ago. Jovita created a campaign on one of our platforms demanding the creation of a police unit specialized in solving missing persons cases. After six months of direct pressure on government, the police unit was created and launched, tackling a structural problem in Rio that had been intensifying for years. In 2013 alone, almost 6,000 people were reported missing. As of September 2014, Rio now has a centralized intelligence system for solving these cases thanks to the mobilization of more than 16,000 people. A mobilization of this same community also helped bring about the adoption of an amendment to Rio’s constitution, forbidding people prosecuted for corruption from being nominated to positions in public administration.
In the summer of 2013, Meu Rio joined the fight for 100 percent availability of basic sanitation in Rio. We gathered nearly 11,500 signatures on a petition calling for the governor to limit the powers of the state water company’s president and another 2,200 asking for investments in Rocinha, Rio’s largest slum, to be made in basic sanitation rather than in a cable car system in the community. These campaigns, along with a few smaller ones, were the online hub for the larger “Summer of Sanitation” project, a group of campaigns that began online and ultimately achieved success with coordinated offline action.
Members met throughout Rio in a spirit of inclusive dialogue that culminated in a series of creative public events, from a small concert on a dock above polluted waters to an artistic representation of bacteria on the sands of Ipanema Beach. Meu Rio leveraged the collaborative power of technology to facilitate coordinated action. Coming from some of the richest and poorest areas of the city, and working across divides, the group of activists catalyzed around an issue that affected all of them and effectively implemented a strategy for creating real change. By the end of the summer, the events had been featured 75 times in national and international media, pushing the governor to announce that the state water company would be regulated by mid-2015.
From the “Summer of Sanitation,” we learned that one great advantage of using technology is that energy can be channeled to create communities of interest for specific causes. These communities grow over time and can be activated to bring about concrete change. In this way, technology helps activism become more organized and inclusive, allowing for a range of diverse voices to mobilize for causes. In cities where citizens lack of human security and feel alienated from the political process, working together for change can be uplifting and empowering.
In cities where citizens often lack of human security and feel alienated from the political process, working together for change can be uplifting and empowering.
Technology can work in the same way to facilitate participation in government decisions. Governments have both temporal and physical limitations to massive participation: there is no physical space for the majority of a population to participate in assemblies and conflicting schedules often inhibit this kind of widespread involvement. Virtual space removes these logistical barriers, facilitating collaboration among large numbers of people. Activism, both online and offline, can be the first step to an inclusive institutional participatory democracy, something missing in Brazil and many other nations around the world. Urban environments face layers of structural and physical insecurity challenges, but cities are the ideal place to implement collaborative, civic engagement and political innovations—which could lead to positive global change.
(Feature Photo Credit: Clément Jacquard via Flickr)