I’m just back from my favorite neighborhood cafe, where poets, artists, and whining leftists all come together for that special feeling of community. All along the back wall are stacks of La Jornada and posters supporting El Peje. At the bar sipping on diesel-strength espresso in between long drags from an endless chain of cigarettes was a twenty-something kid in a black leather jacket. “This country is a lost cause. The government is a bunch of narcos, thieves and liars. It’ll never get better. We’re fucked.”
He went on like this for twenty minutes. I considered getting up and offering him my own point of view. The problem, I would tell him, is that this country is too full of people like you who give all their money to alcohol and cigarette corporations only to list dozens of complaints without coming up with a single solution.
This country is quick to draw on a grab-bag of grievances, but starts to stutter when the basic question is asked: what is to be done? The dark, empty pocket of ideas makes the shining stars all that much brighter. Like the group behind Pase Usted and Genera. Or the architects, designers and urban planners at Tomo. Legal activists like Leon Felipe Sanchez, Jorge Ringenbach, Roberto Hernández, and Layda Negrete. Or social entrepreneurs like Andrés Bianciotto, Jorge Soto, Oscar Salazar, and Eva Sander. And the thought leaders, the young philosphers – people like Maite Azuela, Andrés Lajous, and Onesimo Flores.
I never hear these people complain. They are too busy working passionately on projects to improve Mexico City and the country at large.
One of my favorite young Mexican intellectuals is Geraldine Juárez, a new media artist and activist who also frequently contributes to Crítica Pura. “What if we think of our cities as if they were wikis, where we all are editors and we modify our infrastructure by means of deliberative consensus?” asks Juárez in a recent post. It sounds just like the type of 1990’s so-called cyber-utopianism that is so popular to rail against today. But Juárez’s post was far removed from the fellowship circuit of new media theory. She was documenting a project by the Guadalajara-based urban mobility group “City for Everyone” to create bicycle lanes without the government’s permission. Through Twitter and social networks the group raised $1,000 to paint a five-kilometer bicycle lane along Santa Margarita road.
For years the group has been advocating to the municipal and state government to improve planning of sustainable mobility in the region, but there was little to show for their efforts. So they took from city hall to the street and created their own infrastructure. I expect to see more of this. More guerilla gardening, more public street art, more unlicensed farmers markets. The government, of course, could respond, but it’s tough to shut down good ideas.
When I speak about the role of technology in governance and transparency I try to distinguish between holding governments more accountable and empowering citizens to self-govern. As I wrote in April:
The thirty case studies we have collected so far illustrate both the potential and the extreme difficulty in bringing about accountability (either answerability or sanctions) by shaping civic engagement about public information. But, then again, accountability isn’t the only stated objective of several of the projects we’ve reviewed. In addition to demanding better performance from government, platforms like Cidade Democrática can also facilitate better community self-governance that does not rely on public officials or understaffed agencies. Like other complaint websites we have reviewed, Cidade Democrática enables Brazilian citizens to list problems related to their municipality. Other users are then encouraged to list potential solutions to the problems and draft strategies and action plans. So far successful solutions have depended on government involvement, but in the future one can envision that communal gardens, walking paths, and even recycling programs can all be coordinated by citizens without government involvement.
Guadalajara’s new bicycle lane is a clear example of the use of online networking to bring about and popularize greater self-governance. Here in Mexico City hundreds of us risk our lives daily as we ride up Sonora Avenue to cross Chapultepec and make it safely to one of the city’s few bike lanes on Paseo de la Reforma. I would love to get a group together here to raise $200 to paint a guerilla bike lane. And if I see the chain-smoking, chain-complaining kid in my neighborhood cafe again I’ll make sure to invite him to the project.