Citizens or Mayors?

Citizen-generated Contexts

I welcomed the Maastricht Treaty as it signalled the moment I finally grew up from being the mere subject of a sovereign to a person with equal rights who could be active within a democracy. Unfortunately it also unleashed the Hobbesian anger of those who thought that life really was nasty, British and short and which ultimately resulted in Brexit for a multiplicity of reasons.

Since Web 2.0 came along we’ve been thinking about how new digital technologies might help with both new more active processes of learning. In 2006 we decided we were interested in enabling learners to “generate” their own contexts for learning and became the learner-generated contexts research group, promoting the open context model of learning which fused subject pedagogies, collaborative andragogy and creative heutagogy so people might learn where they choose, beyond the classroom.


In the City of Manchester  we tested (MOSI-ALONG) the idea of having many contexts available for learning across a city and quickly realised we needed both new metaphors to frame people’s learning in new contexts, as well as a new social media based learning process, Aggregate then Curate, to help shape how that learning might evolve from learner-generated activities. We didn’t transform Manchester but we did transform our own understanding of how to support learning in non-traditional contexts with new digital tools.

Citizen-generated Contexts was an idea Nigel and I floated as we tried to help UK online centres move from Community Grids for Learning to Community Grids for Information as part of a community-based response to e-government. We think we can create new participatory processes of democracy by “positively designing to allow for new forms of citizen engagement to emerge” We think we need to a) identify new complex social practices such as “Transition Town open space meeting agendas” and b) enabling new extra-institutional structuring, the liminal processes of WikiQuals, or Young Mayor teams in local authorities, and absorb them into mainstream politics.

New Mayors in the UK are now being elected as a new form of hierarchical local representation. Central government has defined away whatever local government can do ever since (old mayor) Ken Livingstone used County Hall to publicise the rising unemployment caused by the Thatcher government in 1981-1984. New (American-style) mayors, now exhibiting what my friend Roxanne terms the “pathology of office”, are free to make their cities world-class (building skyscrapers) as part of a new and shallow celebrity politics of spectacle. 30 years of property-driven speculation has meant communities no longer know how to define themselves and self-organise. We need to invent new ways of doing this (complex social practices) and also of recognising them (extra-institutional structuring). Citizen journalism, hyper-local blogs and Facebook groups all represent different ways of doing this.

As ever with new technology the affordances for transforming social discourse, as either citizens or learners, are there but people are more concerned with e-enabling existing processes as we are generally neither comfortable with redesigning existing institutions nor looking at how we might use. As Ben Hammersley put it, the Network Society is waiting to be born but those who grew up in hierarchical society keep recreating their comfortable pasts. We think social transformation can be better defined in context by citizens rather than in absentia by officials in office.

Here’s a new toolkit, have a play – Citizen-Generated Contexts; 

(Fred Garnett)

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