One of my most meaningful experiences as a graduate student at The University of San Francisco was the Economics and Finance course that I took during my second year.  The instructor, a widely respected authority in public government, took a real interest in my burgeoning interests, suggesting at one point that I might want to explore, among other possibilities, a career as a City Manager.

While my professional aspirations have taken me in other directions, I do from time to time ponder the “What would I do as a City Manager if I were faced with the fallout of our nation’s economic and fiscal crisis. Given that I have been recently engrossed in Jeff Howe’s eye-opening book entitled Crowdsourcing: Why The Power of The Crowd Is Driving The Future of Business, its no wonder that a profound insight occurred to me recently relative to this question. The insight was:

Why Not Seek Input From The Crowd
Just so you know, the crowd is defined as you, me, anyone who has a bright idea or solution to problems that ail our urban areas. And certainly during these turbulent economic times, cities have plenty of these issues to address.

Author James Surowiecki in his book The Wisdom of Crowds was among the first to explore the superiority of collective intelligence over a few supposed experts. Now Jeff Howe has taken this concept to another level suggesting that the power of many can be put to good use in achieving breakthroughs that only a specialized few previously had control over. Crowdsourcing as defined by Howe involves taking something performed by a designated agent and turning it over to a group of people–a sort of open call to solutions that produce more efficient, better outcomes.

This is where the private sector is light years ahead of the public sector in terms of applying these principles. Many of the science and technology innovations of the past ten years or so have come to us by way of a concept called open source where the collective intelligence of the masses is embraced over the often self interested, myopic plans of a select group of individuals. This movement is largely being driven by a new breed of web portals on the Internet that serve as gathering points for information shared by the masses. Perhaps the most well-known of these is InnoCentive, a website that began in 2000 as an in-house incubator of knowledge for the pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly. It has now morphed into a world wide organization that links companies seeking innovative ideas from grassroots contributors–individuals who participate for personal reputation, financial incentive, and pure “love of the work” reasons.

So the operative question is whether cities in a similar vain can capitalize on ideas offered by groups of people to create new solutions to urban issues such as housing, transportation, and schools? I would suggest that a city like Vallejo, California, located 35 miles northeast of San Francisco, whose fiscal woes sent it into bankruptcy, certainly could. And what about New Orleans, stilled mired in a rebuilding effort after Hurricane Katrina. Once the nations third largest city a century and a half ago, it has now lost one-half of its population since Katrina’s wrath.

What’s unfortunate about these and many other urban problems facing our nation is that the seeds of the solutions lie in the collective intelligence of our citizenry–ideas that could yield a positive outcome if the mechanisms were in place to give them credence.  For example, a retired business leader from the private sector may have a innovative new way of looking at economic development. Or local residents in a distressed area may have witnessed inefficiencies in city services that could serve as a catalyst for addressing ballooning city expenses. Even our urban youth may have a congruent thought or two on how to address the social issues that plague their demographic.

As Howe and others have suggested, the Internet provides an ideal laboratory for collecting and disseminating information thereby fostering new solutions to the pressing issues we face. Fueled by the belief that city governments can no longer resist broader participation from its citizens, web organizations are sprouting up at an unprecedented rate, engaging users in their efforts to offer creative ideas. And on the coattails of President Elect Barrack Obama’s accendancy to the White House online collaboration is exploding as citizen increasingly are seeking to have their voices acknowledged and heard.

The National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation and America Speaks are among those organizations successfully utilizing an online presence to foster a more participatory climate–one that supports our urban and regional centers. There is also the Portland, Oregon based Charrette Institute that has long been on the forefront of promoting public participation on a local and regional basis.

So here’s the bottom line: America can no longer afford to squelch its citizens. Extending the open call for participation through crowdsourcing  is vital to our urban future for it allows us all to ask, “what can we do for our cities versus what will our cities do for us?”

Will you accept the call?