Cities: The Original Social Platform

John Reid, GMA President

September 5, 2012

John Reid
 John Reid
When I became GMA President in June, I challenged us to think of cities as more than just a service provider and to acknowledge our role as the platform and connector for our civic life.

Let me explain.

We live in an age of instant communications, on-line collaboration and where the sharing of data is commonplace. Each day there are more than 3 billion entries posted on Facebook, 175 million tweets on Twitter, 17 million visitors to Pinterest and over 800,000 videos uploaded to YouTube. These social media platforms played an important part in the Arab Spring uprisings last year and have significantly impacted our traditional news media. At the same time, social media has moved power away from organizations to the individual.

The basic purpose of these different platforms (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) is to create connections between people, thoughts and ideas (and to make money). The people using these social platforms, or networks, do so to find information to base decisions on, communicate with each other, to be entertained or to solve problems together.

To me, that sounds a lot like what happens in a city.

The key to a successful platform is when it lets others create something of value. Think about the interstate highway system. The federal government built the network of roads that tie our centers of economic activity together. The private sector then benefited from the highway’s existence to build or expand its business and commercial activities.

The same thing happens at the city level. Cities have made large investments in water/sewer infrastructure, roads and bridges, electric and gas utilities, parks and recreation facilities, broadband and housing. Those investments have allowed individuals … our constituents, neighbors, and friends … to innovate, create and expand businesses, tackle the challenges we face and enhance their quality of life.

However, city government isn’t the most important part of city, though it probably is the most influential. Columnist and leadership expert Otis White said it this way:

“If local government isn’t the sum of a city, it is surely the most influential part. That’s because only government has the mandate, platform and most easily mobilized resources for addressing the issues facing a community. Think of government, then, as the rudder of the ship and some of the sails.”

What’s the most important part of a city? That’s pretty simple. It’s the citizens; the same folks that are logging onto those social media platforms and changing the way we communicate and participate in democracy.

Is the social media revolution changing the way we operate at the local level? You bet it is. But I think it’s a back-to-the-future type of thing. In my mind cities are the original social network platform. And it is in our neighborhoods, schools, civic organizations and in our city governments where our civic life plays out and democracy flourishes. We’ve just got to listen, collaborate and be willing to steer the rudder.