Friday, October 21, 2005 | Mayor Ray Nagin of New Orleans announced a 17-person commission almost two weeks ago to begin thinking about how to rebuild the city from the bottom up. If all proceeds according to the mayor’s announcement, the commission will reach out and involve hundreds of people with a stake in the city’s future: experts from every walk of life, state and federal officials, as well as many local community leaders and average citizens.

It could be a heroic effort to galvanize widespread interest in the city and region, and could serve as a model for the country in the global age of the Internet. San Diego can learn something from all this as, in a sense, after a new mayor takes the reigns, we are starting over, too. And we have a lot to do.

In New Orleans and San Diego, this is the time to rebuild as a “city of the future” replete with broadband information highways, or perhaps a totally wireless, broadband infrastructure with community-wide portals for shopping, travel and tourism, and arts and culture. There is no doubt that these technologies represent the new infrastructure of the most vibrant and successful regions in the world in the new global economy.

However, becoming a city of the future requires acknowledgement of two critical, but often overlooked, principles. First, that deployment and use of IT is vital as a tool to transform everything about the way we live and work and play, and thus to ensure our personal and economic success in this new age. We must begin planning how best to use these new tools of our age now to transform the way we do all our business. Let our IT wants, needs, wishes and dreams be expansive and uninhibited. Invite all who are willing to help in this effort come forward and get involved.

Second, and perhaps most importantly, little can or will be accomplished if agreement isn’t reached upfront, that widespread citizen involvement and participation is essential. Achieving broad-based ownership of any new idea is everyone’s responsibility and to do so effectively and consistently requires creation of a new decision-making mechanism for the digital age. We simply cannot do the people’s business any more by voting in a mayor every four years (or less) or passing various referenda. We need somehow to change the democratic process or else the democratic ideal of “the city,” and the communality it represents, will atrophy and die.

Similar to Mayor Nagin with his call for widespread “collaboration,” Golding formed a committee with community-wide representation including business, government and non-profit sectors, as well as ordinary citizens, to help create a new model for our age. As her press release put it, San Diego would be the “first fiber-optic wired city,” not that fiber optics was necessarily the answer. It happened to be the technology du jour.

The committee examined in earnest the role such a wired infrastructure would mean to the city and concluded “that while cities of the past were built along railroads, waterways and interstate highways, cities of the future would definitely be built along broadband wired and wireless infrastructures connecting every home, office and school to every other throughout the region.” Importantly, the committee began exploring what life, work and play might look like in a time when networked telecommunications systems – remember this was before the Internet was commercialized – would affect every sector of our economy and society.

Goodkin was skeptical however. He had observed and worked in local government perhaps for too long. While intrigued, he was well versed in the politics of city government, and said such a futuristic and laudable concept could occur only if it was “built on the moon,” a place where nothing essentially exists and the politics would allow for the kind of change that for most cities – then and now – seems insurmountable.

New Orleans is now such a place – a wasteland where almost everything has been destroyed except the human will to rebuild and recreate a great, historic and cultural landmark. Fortunately, its future is also clearly the focus of our nation’s most altruistic thinking.

Of course, solving some of the city’s most basic housing, water and transportation needs is critical as is finding a solution to the levees and the region’s feeble eco-structure. So, too, is the planning for its economic future – a challenge all our cities face in the wake of the globalization of the economy.

Key to the success of this effort is collaboration. Mayor Nagin is off to a noble start, but like so many other commissions and government committees, his too could end up as just so much “window-dressing.” New Orleans must organize a “collaboratory” to create a bold new vision, a well-funded plan of action and a new decision-making mechanism to lead the effort and fight the bureaucratic tendency to cut short new egalitarian initiatives. At the heart of the “collaboratory” is recognition of the importance of cooperation, collaboration and consensus decision-making.

As we go about the business of reinventing our communities for the creative age, we must do so fully cognizant that one of the basic and unique things about our system is that it is our freedoms, expressly provided by the Constitution, which enable us to enjoy such a robust information economy. It is also our tolerance for dissent and respect for the individual rights of the minority that have spawned generations of entrepreneurs and, collectively, provided the creative force that produces more books, movies, music, technology and software of every kind and quality now permeating the 21st Century global economy.

The opportunity to do the people’s business in New Orleans in a way that will renew our faith in government, rekindle citizen interest and ownership in their communities, and prepare the region for meeting the challenges of globalization and the age of the Internet represents a potential turning point for another great American Century. In San Diego, we too must never again turn our backs on the process of renewal and reinvention. We, too, must put in place the collaboratory to renew our community’s faith in our future and work together to forge a new vision for our region.

John M. Eger, Van Deerlin Professor of Communications and Public Policy at San Diego State University, was Chair of San Diego’s City of the Future Committee and is cofounder of Envision San Diego, a media partnership for civic engagement.

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