Brook Dixon is an active advocate of the promise of digital democracy and the smart cities revolution. The Churchill Scholar is spearheading many of Canberra’s smart city and digital innovation initiatives. In preparation for our upcoming TEDxCanberraSalon event, Empower, we’ve spent some time getting to know a little bit more about Brook, and the promises – and potential pitfalls – of digital democracy.
While the term ‘digital democracy’ might all sound very technology focused, Brook is at pains to point out that the digital city is not about technology. In the paper published as part of his Churchill Fellowship, Brook notes that digital democracy is about better services, better experiences and better living. Above all else, it is about people.
Indeed, Brook lights up with enthusiasm when he is talking about the promise that smart cities innovation holds for empowering both citizens and visitors, .
“Canberra is leading the world in many ways in the smart cities and digital innovation agenda. We’re so well positioned to take full advantage of the benefits on offer and we can all be proud of the steps we’re taking as a community to do just that,” Brook says.
“At the same time, we have to make sure we don’t squander the opportunity by trying to make people fit the technology, and not the other way around. For a city like Canberra, with digital aspirations, it has to work like this: people first, then services, then technology.”
When we approached Brook about leading one of our workshops for Empower, Brook jumped at the opportunity.
“It’s like gold for someone working in my field to be able to engage with a curious group of critical thinkers to explore just what kind of smart city we could become. I’m also really interested in exploring how digital technology is already changing the face of contemporary democracy,” he explained.
And he doesn’t mean by Donald Trump tweeting policy announcements (although that, too, is significant). Rather, Brook refers to the ways in which digital capability is changing public governance and administration. By allowing the collection of real time feedback, for people to engage, on their terms, and with greater convenience, on issues that matter to them, administrators and public servants can have unprecedented access to the genuine views of the people.
“Canberra’s digital city 3D model is a great example of this. The model allows people to engage in a much more relatable way to planning proposals and visions for the future of their city. Rather than expecting people to read through pages and pages of boring and impenetrable planning documents, people can see themselves in a virtual city scape, and get a much clearer and more realistic understanding of proposed changes to their town.”
Of course, all this potential comes with an associated warning: to enjoy the full benefits on offer, and to ensure that digital democracies serve social justice outcomes, we all need to pay attention and be involved.
As Brook observes in his Churchill report, there are powerful digital forces moulding and shaping democratic processes and institutions, sometimes gently, sometimes with great violence.
“We need to engage with this change, positively and proactively, harnessing digital capability to better know and serve the people.”
As part of our Salon, Brook will be hosting #WeThePeople: Digital Democracy or Twitter Kakocracy? It promises to be a fun, interactive, informative and thought provoking session.
You can read Brook’s Churchill paper in full here.