Peter Mansbridge came to town and for a few hours it was all people were talking about. Accustomed to presenting the news, he found himself in the rather uncomfortable position of making it.
He was brought in by the City of London staff to launch the grand kick-off to ReThink London – a year-long visioning exercise that will consult widely on how local citizens want to see their city in the future. Mansbridge was direct without being too pointed, challenging but not confrontational.
Central to his message was the requirement of London’s citizens to wake up and realize an opportunity like this doesn’t come along very often. He noted its low voter turnout and the distinct sense that the city itself is underperforming despite having some clear advantages.
City staff have spent their time well, organizing a community engagement initiative that makes a sincere effort at being inclusive. No one yet knows what the politicians will do once the results are in, yet the presence of Mansbridge not only drew 1300 people for the launch but also convinced those present that staff meant business.
Yet for this exercise to truly be successful, there has to be an understanding that this isn’t just about issues or interest groups debating them. In a very real way it is about whether citizens actually have the maturity to hold the fate of their community in their hand in a responsible enough fashion to convince the politicos that they are now ready to co-lead the London of the future.
There’s an old Biblical tale about the Tower of Babel and how the population sought to bring itself together in one special project – an elevated tower that reached the heavens. They all spoke one language, so the task should have been straightforward. Yet they were a people filled with the kind of pride that was more arrogant than accomplished. Their community was going to be more about a physical edifice than the people who lived there. The old scriptures say that God was displeased with this kind of self-adoration and inflicted them with numerous languages where they had great trouble communicating with one another. The dissension that resulted led to conflict and the tower itself was left unfinished.
ReThink London isn’t about a few leaders attempting to co-opt people into supporting their personal plans; it’s about citizens pulling that vision out from within themselves. Despite scepticism about politics and politicians, citizens will now get their chance to show what they are capable of, or even if they are capable of getting beyond disagreements and forging a consensus. It’s all about a community doing together what it has envisioned and willed together. This is all about the language of movement – the ability of citizens to find a common vocabulary, a shared historical knowledge that can serve as a base from which to build.
There will be numerous groups in the community that have been at this for years, attempting to lobby, to persuade, to educate political representatives on proper policy. They have been active on files from fluoride in the water to making London a more integrated community as opposed to an endless sprawling one. But ReThink London isn’t actually about dedicated groups – the “usual suspects,” as they are often referred to. This is about drawing in a wider audience of people who don’t normally engage. If it becomes a turf war of one interest group attempting to seize the agenda over others, it will not only crowd out needed voices, but will also permit the political agenda to proceed as if it’s business as usual.
Personally, I wish the City had gone just a bit farther by having Mansbridge return at both the halfway and concluding point of the exercise. He is someone the public has obviously taken to. Part way in, he could assess whether average citizens are actually able to break through the regular citizen clutter and have their ideas heard. At the end of it all he could pull everyone together again and remind the politicians that they now have the responsibility to implement what they heard.
It might very well be that a new language can give the disenchanted back their voices. If viewed as valid, it can also challenge present paradigms and break through into a new future. It will be the language of practical vision, of engagement, of the kind of community we want, instead of having it dreamed up for us by somebody else. It will be the re-creation of the public interest and will, for a time, take primacy over the jaded art of politics. It will be about genuine public thinking and the advancement of prudent public politics.
Or it will be about the competition for space, the desire to have one voice ascend above all others, to dominate through techniques already practiced in the field of advocacy. Should that occur, it will be more about pride of possessiveness than participation in partnership. And the tower will remain unfinished, in the full view of later generations who will realize we had our moment but wasted it through pride of position instead of passion for community.
There will be many kinds of languages and concepts brought to this exercise, but the secret will be to forge a new democratic vocabulary, a citizen lexicon that speaks of shared purpose as opposed to elite agendas. A true test of ReThink London will be if we can develop the new community language of tomorrow.