December 4, 2012

Toward a 21st Century Social Contract

In a small office on East 20th Street in New York City, Reboot is working toward a social contract for the 21st century. We’re driven in this work, because the rules of the game are changing. An emboldened global citizenry, empowered by increased connectivity, is demanding more from its leadership: justice, accountability, a shot at a decent life, and a livelihood with dignity.

And, frankly, because we can do better.

Too many of the world’s people live in difficult, debilitating circumstances. Some factors are beyond our control. We cannot prevent the occurrence of droughts, floods, and earthquakes. Luck of the draw dictates whether we are born into a rich country or a poor one, with fertile soil or famine, with clean drinking water or waterborne diseases.

But many disasters are not random acts of fate. They are man-made, the products of bad decisions and ineffective systems that compound the negative effects of unpredictable events. Hurricane Katrina was unavoidable. The socio-economic breakdown in New Orleans that ensued from an inadequate, poorly planned government response was not. As development practitioners, we share a responsibility to mitigate what factors we can, not just out of a desire “to do good” but to actively minimize harm.

The good news: we already have the tools to do so. Technological innovation has made contributing to the processes of governance a more easily understood and accessible affair. New channels for constructive engagement are redefining the relationships between service providers and their users, opening myriad opportunities to deliver better outcomes. This is the promise of open governance, and the foundation of a 21st century social contract.

Reboot is working on the frontlines of these transitions.

We partner with the world’s leading organizations to develop, design, and deploy platforms for inclusive and participatory governance. By helping these powerful bodies become more responsive to the communities they serve, we build on existing structures to affect positive change sustainably and at scale.

Our focus is largely on service design and delivery. We view services as the regular interactions—the relationships—between individuals and institutions. While the right policies are important, ultimately services are where ‘the rubber hits the road’. The most concrete means of improving livelihoods, good services allow people to lift themselves out of poverty, to make their voices heard, to live better lives.

Technology is an important enabler of good services. A recent United Nations report estimated that 86 percent of the world’s population—some six billion people—now uses a mobile phone. These are exciting statistics when considering the deployment of mobile-based systems for political participation, social accountability, financial inclusion, education, health care, justice, and more.

Still, the key word here is “enabler.” The provision of better technology is not an end in itself. The most state-of-the-art systems, fastest computing, and best mobile apps offer no guarantee on a better tomorrow, nor do they resolve a more fundamental chasm between institutions and the individuals whose lives they hope to improve: service providers and their users often inhabit two very different worlds.

Reconciling this disconnect requires innovation of a different sort: empathy.

Reboot believes that good services are rooted in ground realities and driven by human needs and aspirations. Discovering these qualities is a process that foremost begins with humility—toward both users and service providers—to understand people and the environments they inhabit. In the age of Big Data, we advocate face-to-face interaction to surface actionable insights on human behavior that the bias of statistical certainty might otherwise overlook.

Ours is a time-consuming, difficult process. But a “people first” approach ensures that the services we deliver are well calibrated to the organizations that aim to implement them and the communities that hope to use them. Nowhere is this more apparent than our current efforts in Nigeria. Working with the Government of Nigeria and the World Bank, we have engaged individuals at all levels of civil society—from farmers’ community groups to traditional village leadership—to design a social accountability program that is both innovative and realistic. The program allows citizens to input on the quality of public service delivery via basic mobile phones, and creates incentives for government to provide timely, tangible responses.

This is one example of the work we do globally and among our contributions toward a more open, inclusive, and participatory tomorrow.

The challenges plaguing our world are many, and the search for solutions is difficult. But a 21st century social contract offers the promise of individuals and institutions engaging each other to collectively produce better outcomes. This is a vision of the future where we all have a fighting chance, because our voices have been taken into account. This is a future where we are stewards of our circumstances and not prisoners of fate. And this is a future that should be available to all of us, irrespective of whether we are born into a rich country or a poor one, with fertile soil or famine, with clean drinking water or waterborne diseases.

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