Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Last night I attended the 2012 Citizen Summit. See, we're trying to make Columbus a better place by its Bicentennial in the year 2012. It was an interesting summit, or at least the idea of the summit was intriguing. As the participants arrived, we were each given a name tag with a table number on it. The city was expecting at least 1500 people, but there were clearly a lot of no-shows. My 10-top table had only 4 people at it by the end of the night, and at the beginning of the night there were only 5 people. Upon arriving I quickly realized that most of the people there looked like me and the vast majority of the people there were professionals. From the early demographic questions, I could tell the Gen X and young Boomers were well represented. There were a few a Gen Y hipsters strewn about the floor, but the senior population was largely absent, although I did see one nice couple shuffle out early in the program.

Actually, there was a lot of shuffling out early. The program was long and it was cold in the exhibit hall. The program began with an overview of the 2012 commission and the work they're doing to gather responses from Columbus citizens. Since to attend, we all had to sign up on the web site, I expect most of the audience was fairly familiar with the efforts and this part could have been skipped. The Mayor then took the stage to highlight that it wasn't Christmas and the work we would like to see done for our city wasn't going to come free, but overall he was upbeat and positive. Then James Surowiecki came to the stage. He was hired as the special speaker because he has researched something he calls the Wisdom of Crowds. His stories were interesting and his points were well taken - you need a diverse group to come up with the right answers. He argues that a crowd can rise above the intelligence of even it's smartest member. It's a powerful message and for me was interesting to hear (since I tend to distrust crowds and think of them more as mobs), but he simply spoke too long in an already jammed pack evening.
As we were all jazzed up that together we could come up with the correct answer for Columbus, the polling started. At each chair there was a little remote control looking gadget. When a question flashed on the screen, each audience member would key in their answer within 10 seconds. At the end of time, the results were displayed. It will be interesting to see what all the answers were, it all happened very quickly so it is a little bit of a blur. What I saw come out of the night was that we're desperate for some usable type of mass transit to connect our neighborhoods. We are also a population who value our Midwestern sensibilities, but are looking to rise to the next level with a more active urban center. We're here because of families and jobs and because we're comfortable. And as a city, we might have some self-esteem issues.

Other than the night being too long, my main critique of an otherwise intriguing evening is that the polling and types of questions asked were underwhelming. Anyone who has lived in this community and has plugged into any type of media knows the issues we're dealing with. I was hoping we could get to the next step. It was a chance for true grassroots crowd thinking at work, but I think instead of new answers we ended up with some of the same questions we have had all along.

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