Culture Hacking

Recent experiments in robust civic innovation are proving substantial. This last week of April, Governance Lab, a part of Wagner School of Public Service at New York University, and the Governance Futures Lab, a new initiative at the Institute for the Future, each staged experimental events focused on redesigning governance. As an attendee representing Hawai’i, these two events were inspiring as much as they were energizing—the call to action is clear, something isn’t working in governance. This is my reflection on the processes and possible result of these events.

Though their home base organizations are on opposite coasts, the GovLab in New York and the Gov Futures Lab in Palo Alto gathered under same the premise that our current government is dysfunctional. Over two days, these separate communities tried to reimagine our global problem of governance and propose new solutions for improving individual citizens’ daily lives.


Beth Noveck (@bethnoveck) of GovLab

Taking a more conceptual approach and bringing policy to futures thinking, the Institute for the Future’s (@iftf) Governance Futures Lab (@govfutureslab) held their “Reconstitutional Convention” (#reconcon) on April 26-27. Based in Palo Alto, nine global nodes participated in the event. Drafting preambles and crafting artifacts from the future, Gov Futures Lab brought together the tools of social inventors, strategic planning, and futures thinking to address the age old problem of governance.

Coming from the flip side by bringing innovation to government and policy, the GovLab (@thegovlab, #govlab) hosted “Making Engagement Work: Improving Lives by Changing The Way We Govern” on April 18-19. They also took an interdisciplinary approach by combining thought leaders from law, policy, business, economics and computer science.

On the first day of the GovLab—”Defining and Designing Change”—we met in the trendy offices of NYU’s Center for Urban Science and Progress in Brooklyn. After opening talks, six groups divided into different conference rooms to tackle challenges such as sourcing what people (and communities) care most about, creating smarter cities from the bottom up, and making government data more accessible. Toys, colored pens, notepads, fact sheets, and name cards littered the tables.

Participating in the event as a “Lab Rat,” students at the conference joined the sessions to tweet, live blog, and take notes on everything discussed. Strictly unattributed, ideas were communally owned, and organically emerged in the group memory and in the records of the event. There was a palpable intellectual safety in all discussions.


Participants included Sir Tim Berners Lee, founder of the World Wide Web Consortium; Jim Hendler, artificial intelligence researcher and Editor in Chief Emeritus of IEEE Intelligent Systems; Jean Philbert Nsengimana, the Minister of Youth and ICT in Rwanda; Kris Kobach, Secretary of State, Kansas; Nick Sinai, Deputy CTO at the White House; representatives from the Gates, MacArthur, Knight, and Rockefeller foundations, the World Bank, Google, MIT Media Lab, Harvard, TED, the Omidyar Network, the Economist, ICANN, Code for America; not to mention a range of civic web and app developers.

After focused brainstorming, the group turned design concepts into workable prototypes. The outcomes ranged from a citizen engagement platform built around open data with Change Agent Kris Kobach, Secretary of State of Kansas to an updated version Philly311, the city information and helpline, with Change Agent Mark Headd, Chief Data Officer in Philadelphia. Designers and programmers created beta versions for these social inventions.


On the second day, the group came together in the Wagner School of Public Service, a light and airy space, to stage a more reflective conversation. Small groups rotated through different rooms, where a facilitator lead topics like what a new generation of problem solvers will need, evidence and metrics for success, and the dimensions and definitions of open government. Finally, each group composed a single tweet representing their consensus. Students continually tweeted, live blogged, and took group notes. After the conference ended, we shared food and drinks, continuing the conversation and making plans for future projects.


Talking with Jim Hendler (@jahendler)


Kathy Sachs, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Kansas

From collaborative design to action to reflection, the event succeeded in further building the community around open government. This intangible ethos is measured through new friendships, network connections, and a common parlance created with open dialogue between leaders, social and computer scientists, designers, researchers, professors and students. The platform for this problem solving workshop, developed by Beth Noveck and her team, can function as a scalable tool for communities looking for discourse that produces felt results.

On the other side of America, in the foggy Bay, Governance Futures Lab kicked off their program with an exercise in constitutional design. Addressing the inability for our current governance system to deal with planetary challenges in this so-called Anthropocene era, Institute for the Future experimented with “the basic architectures and processes of governance.” Participants included over fifty leading experts in social and political change—Hawai’i local James Dator, Jane McGonigal, Stephen Duncombe, James Fishkin, Hélene Landemore, Micah Sifry, Sanford Levinson and many others.

The first day of the Re-Constitutional Convention brought together these game designers, futurists, social inventors, civil engineers, civic innovators, and developers to worldscape future scenarios of governance—eight groups crafted one future scenario each. Working within the parameters of their scenarios, the groups drafted a preamble for a global constitution, and defined societal perspectives on values, cosmology, human nature, the political subject, territory, and metrics of success.

Moving from broad strokes to concrete details, the second day activated the nine global nodes, setting off the challenge to design artifacts for these eight future scenarios, or come up with their own. Birmingham, AL, Chicago, IL, Honolulu, HI, London, UK, Los Angeles, CA, New York, NY, Singapore, Washington, DC, and Yangon, Myanmar all participated.

The Honolulu node, sponsored by the local Code for Hawai’i Brigade and the Hawai’i Research Center for Futures Studies, consisted of political scientists, a nuclear engineer, Futures Studies graduate students, Political and Computer Science undergraduates, developers, the board members from Hawai’i Open Data, data analysts, economists, and more.

After introductions and a little background about Institute for the Future and futures methodologies, we began our design sessions in two empty classrooms, brainstorming prototypes and artifacts for the scenarios.

Governance Futures Lab

Ono grindz, bento lunch!

Governance Futures Lab


Governance Futures Lab

Fearless leaders Ali Musleh (@ahascha) and Aaron Rosa (@rorosoro).

Governance Futures Lab


My group, which coalesced around “Team Polisphere,” included Nicole Hori, a nuclear engineer at Pearl Harbor, Brian Gordon a University of Hawai’i (UH) Futures Studies graduate student, Kimo Schreiner, a UH Political Science undergraduate, Jared Kuroiwa, President of Hawai’i Open Data, and Alex Bergo, a researcher at the Hawai’i Research Center for Futures Studies, and Charlie Willson.

Choosing “Team Polisphere” meant we were designing our prototype within the frameworks of a global network of autonomous metropolitan regions with flows (material, knowledge, people) in between. In this scenario, there are multifaceted degrees of “citizenship” in an inherently social world where cosmopolitanism is viewed as a process. In response to a world of metropolitan nodes of networks within networks, we came up with the Polisphere Passport—a Global Governet Platform to give citizens the ease of traveling networks within networks, virtual and physical, in an ubiquitously connected world.

Polisphere Passport

Polisphere Passport “Ora”

Governance Futures Lab

Teammates Brian C. Gordon (@beetstweets) and Nicole Hori (@nkhori) help me mock up our prototype.

In the London node, there was resistance to precisely these networks. Refuting the premise of all eight scenarios, Simon Ings exclaimed at one point in his group video, hilarious and British, “What’s all this with networks? What’s so great about networks? Networks are a mess, networks clog up, networks jam information databases, they’re the beginning of the problem, not the solution!”

In addition to the panacea of networked living, the group (Simon Ings, David Chatting, Yosuke Ushigome, and Lydia Nicholas) added shrewdly to their list of contentions that democratic principles are generally an assumed good, something that wasn’t questioned, at least formally, at the Gov Futures Lab.

One could hear strong echoes of Huxley in the awakened ideal society dubbed the Empathy Farm in the portrait of this London group’s conclusion.  Pointing out the importance of a Moksha-like psychedelic substance in a citizen’s spiritual education, “It does nothing more to your head other than throw the switch,” Simon Ings ended with a British scowl.

Island by Aldous Huxley

In the deepest “out there” (or “in there,” depending on how you look at it) realms of Gov Futures Lab, just as in the most pragmatic, robust think tank approaches at GovLab, we can identify two concurrent drivers:

 1. The questions, which drive us and bring us together.

2. Change, the only constant.

Gandalf once told a frightened Frodo, “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

In this time of global challenges as we attempt to ride the tsunamis of change, we should understand exactly what our preferred futures mean to us. How can we use foresight methods to explore all our possible futures? And most importantly, how can we leverage participatory systems to make our ideal futures tangible and actionable?

Balance is somewhere on the continuum between a catered business affair and a block party with a keg shaped like a spaceship. Imagination is more important than ever, but so is developing working definitions and metrics to measure our experiments in our neighborhoods. There should be no limits of design, but rather a requirement for rapid prototyping to catalyze change. There lies the ethical sweet spot precisely between collectively imagining and working through “ridiculous” scenarios about our futures, and taking measurable steps to collaboratively redesign our governance system.

As more communities begin dialogues around open data and open governance, connecting networks to include increasingly diverse groups around the world will deepen our knowledge resources on these topics. What’s the best way to go about all this? We’re united in the fact that no one knows. There is no roadmap for innovation, but that doesn’t mean you have to do it alone.

Precisely the opposite.


Check out your local National Day of Civic Hacking event on June 1st. What a riotous mass collaboration celebration! Citizens, software developers, and entrepreneurs will create, build and invent—Hackathon style—using publicly released data, code and technology to crack codes and solve challenges relevant to our neighborhoods, cities, states, country, and world.

I think the message is indeed clear. Rest easy, experimental governance labs everywhere, the seeds are planted and the message’s been received. This is the future—redesigning governance one party at a time.

2 thoughts on “Culture Hacking

  1. Pingback: Culture Hacking | Peer2Politics |

  2. Pingback: Gov Futures Lab USA and Millennial Trains Project | Open Gov Underground

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