As our society evolves so to should the services that we use. As we become connected in different ways, what will these changes mean for public service 2.0?
By Peter Hesseldahl
Historically, public services have been functions in society for which it was clearly in the general interest of society that everyone had access – but which would not be established if left to the market forces. The rewards of creating these service might be too long term, or the rewards might be in-direct, cultural, and hard to monetize. Radio and Television channels, libraries, postal service or the telephone network are examples of large scale services that were operated by the public sector. Being public services, they upgraded everyone to the next level of societal participation and thereby supported further development and a higher general standard of living.
Looking ahead, we will be going through as many and as deep changes in our way of living as ever. Digital technology will continue to rewrite the rules of the economy and of our social lives. We’re heading towards smart cities and the internet of things, where everyone and everything is intensely connected and coordinated in fine detail by using immense analytical computing power. In this scenario, what might be some relevant public services, that would ensure that everyone have decent access and opportunity to participate and benefit?
How could we ensure that the fundamental services in healthcare, education, transport or even democratic participation are not skewed to benefit a few investors rather than the many citizens?
The services in the sharing or collaborative economy may provide some inspiration. In the recent few years a great number of services for sharing have been started. There are service to share tools, meals, house, cars, gardens and parking spaces. There are digital platforms that connect people with the skills and a wish to help with users that need assistance with small tasks. There are electronic bulletin boards, that allow the inhabitants in a local community to announce or discover social and cultural activities.
And, as the work of Participle and other organizations have demonstrated, these services have benefits beyond the practical level, because they connect the community and build up social capital and coherence. The problem of course, is that most of these services are not commercially viable. ”We-economy”, a Danish research project examining the collaborative economy, has been collecting and analysing case stories for the past couple of years. One of the conclusions from the project is that very few of these services make a profit.
Services can charge a fee for coordinating well-defined and relatively large transactions like car-sharing or renting out rooms – but when it’s about lending a ladder or finding a baby sitter, there’s not enough money involved, and besides, introducing money into the interaction tends to get awkward. If you lend a power drill to your neighbor and then charge her 3 quid, you merely demonstrate that you don’t care much about helping out, and you lose a great chance to build a stronger relationship and some valuable social capital.
The sharing economy should make it cheaper to have access to use things we only need once in a while, and the word ”sharing” implies a certain altruistic, social nature of the interaction. In a sense, it’s only natural that it doesn’t really work commercially.
The important point is that while it may not be possible to build a commercial business operating these networks, they can deliver lots of value – whether it’s social cohesion or saving the environment from unnecessary consumption. We benefit as citizens and as society. All of this leads to the conclusion that it is entirely reasonable to explore if the next type of public service suitable for tomorrows smart cities should be a ”citizens network”, established and funded by the government. Clearly, these are functions that would benefit society if they were generally available and widely used – but which the market cannot create and support currently.
Talking about such networks in terms of public service allows us to be less apologetic for the fact that you can’t wring enough money out of them to make them work as business – and it allows us to think much more ambitiously about the functionality of the networks.
A citizens’ network can create better communication among citizens, it can make it much more transparent what takes place in the local community, it could create new ways of participating in local democracy, it could be the ”help desk” for the information society…
And the more functions the network would integrate (including private services and local media), the better chances are that it could indeed become the preferred app for interacting with all things local.
Peter Hesseldahl is the project manager of We-economy, a Danish research project, focusing on the consequenes for business of a more connected society.
Image by Nelson L., via Flickr Creative Commons.