This past weekend I did something that I hadn’t done since I was in college: I read the constitution. Not just the Constitution of the United States, which was drafted in 1787, but also the Mexican Constitution, which was drafted throughout the Mexican Revolution from 1911 to 1917, and the Brazilian Constitution, which was drafted from 1986 through 1988 and has been amended 70 times since. I wanted to read all three constitutions to have points of comparison, to better understand how perspectives on governance change across borders and across time.

If governance is the way a society makes decisions, then politics is the process through which that structure takes shape. What I perceived in all three constitutions is a noble, idealistic pursuit toward the equality of all citizens in spite of our sober understanding that power is inherited and politics favors the powerful.

It has been over 225 years since 55 delegates traveled to Philadelphia to debate a new system of governance for a relatively new country. They ranged in age from Jonathan Dayton, 26, to Benjamin Franklin, 81, who, unable to walk, was carried around in a chair.

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Birch Street, Philadelphia, 1799

The world has changed quite a bit since 1787. The US Supreme Court does its best to guess “what the founding fathers had intended” when faced with such challenging issues as how to decide the governance and legality of abortion, gay marriage, intellectual property, and corporate giving to political campaigns. But the world has changed in ways that go beyond our evolving viewpoints on, say, homosexuality and privacy. At the signing of the constitution, the US population was four million. Philadelphia, then the nation’s most populous city, had 40,000 residents.

Today the metropolitan areas of New York, Los Angeles and Chicago have 19 million, 13 million, and 9.5 million respectively. At the signing of the constitution, there were 13 colonies, 90% of the population lived on a farm, and each farmer grew enough food to feed three to five people. Today 80% of Americans live in cities, while only 1% live on farms. Each US farmer feeds about 155 people. Today the US population (and the world) is more educated, lives longer, consumes more energy, is more diverse, and is vastly more mobile than ever before. (The average American moves 14 times in his or her lifetime.)

At the time of the signing of the US Constitution, each senator represented, on average, around 150,000 people. Furthermore, the first article of the Constitution stipulates that “the Number of Representatives shall not exceed one for every thirty Thousand.” If that still held true today, the US would have more than 10,000 members of the House of Representatives. Instead of representing 30,000 citizens, the average Representative today makes policy on behalf of 700,000 people.

There is a increasing sense among some political scientists that our system of governance is no longer working, that it has not managed to adapt to a world that is radically different in its economy, demographics, and technology. Future historians may look back at Barack Obama’s comments at last weekend’s Correspondent’s Dinner — couched in alleged comic theater — as official recognition that the US system of governance was broken.

Seeking Solutions

Last Friday I joined 55 futurists, activists, and political scientists to re-imagine a system of governance not just for the present, but for the future. (Yes, 55, the same number of delegates in the US Constitutional Convention.) Most of my professional work deals with how we can tweak current systems of governance to improve government responsiveness to citizens and to improve the quality of public services — especially for the poor. But at last week’s ReConstitutional Convention, we were asked to step outside the constraints of today’s reality in order to imagine what could be.

We broke out into working groups to re-imagine specific elements of governance. I participated in the group that dealt with metropolitan governance. In recognition of the world population’s continued migration to metropolitan areas that transcend municipal, state, and even national boundaries (think San Diego/Tijuana or Phuntsholing/Jaigaon), we discussed a system of metropolitan governance that both creates more opportunities for civic participation at the local level while encouraging a global network of cosmopolitan exchange across metropolitan areas. (The sociologist Saskia Sassen has called this network “The Global City.”)

In practice, what would such a system of governance look like? There are many options. First we discussed Paul Romer’s model of Charter Cities, which aim to create autonomous urban regions that attract investors and promote greater economic growth. (Think Hong Kong or even China’s Special Economic Zones). While there was support for greater autonomy in how a city governs itself, we shared concerns that Romer’s vision ultimately leads to social exclusion, where the poor and disadvantaged are kept outside the gates to prosperity. (Rather than, say, the vision for inclusive urban development promoted by UN-Habitat.)

We discussed Dunbar’s Number, the suggested maximum number of meaningful relationships that any one person can maintain. Various research studies have found this number to be somewhere between 100 – 300 individuals. Yet, my closest political representative here in Mexico City is responsible for a community of more than 500,000 individuals. There is no way for 500,000 people to come to consensus — or even deliberate — on how we want to be governed. The task is even more daunting when applied to the larger Mexico City metropolitan area and its population of more than 20 million individuals.

So here is what we proposed: 1) A neighborhood-based system of urban governance that encourages participation and deliberation within communities of around 300 individuals. 2) A flexible system of “citizenship/residency” to ensure the lowest possible barriers to political participation. 3) A system of “metropolitan governance” with appointed city managers and community managers in charge of coordinating services and public works across neighborhoods. 4) A UN-like network to establish and coordinate global norms around issues such as carbon offset, sustainable transport, next generation electric grids, participatory budgeting, and more.

This all may sound slightly utopianist, which was exactly the point. However, it’s worth noting that there are many groups working on the above issues. Next month representatives from the world’s 40 “megacities” will meet in New York to discuss their progress in reducing greenhouse gases. While Rio+20 failed to establish serious commitments from federal governments toward sustainability, the C40 has been cited as a success story. UN Habitat, the International City Managers Association, and the New Cities Foundation have varied approaches to increasing collaboration among city governments. Benjamin Barber’s forthcoming book, If Mayors Ruled the World, advocates for greater autonomy in urban governance and the establishment of a global “League of Cities.” The International Conference on Participatory Budgeting brings together representatives from cities as diverse as New York, Mexico City, Porto Alegre, and Hamilton to share their experiences.

Citizens feel disenfranchised from the political system because participation still favors the wealthy and powerful. However, there is another, equally important issue, which is the scale of governance. No one feels represented by an elected official who allegedly makes policy on behalf of 700,000 individuals. And no one can keep up with the vast scale of information that federal governments produce. Urban neighborhoods, though challenged by the highly mobile and diverse nature of their constituents, offer the opportunity to restructure governance to incentivize both more participation within neighborhoods and more coordination across them.

You can explore the work and view the presentations of all eight working groups at the ReConstitutional Convention website. And, of course, you can follow the project on Twitter at @GovFuturesLab. If you’re based in Mexico City, you might be interested in following Wiki Constitución, a crowdsourced effort to draft a constitution (or “city charter”) for Mexico City, which currently has an extremely low level of political autonomy.

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