Filed under: Governance Guest posts

Young Europeans are having trouble completing their transition towards full independence. The problem is deeper than it seems because our social model is based on the status of full-time, long term employment that unlocks important social and economic rights (in France, where I live now, if you don’t work you have no right to health care).

This generates tensions, because it forces young people to fight for this status at all costs, even as it becomes more and more difficult to obtain and even if many of them would like to explore different options. The result: 20% of 15-34 years old, in Europe,are not in employment, education or training. It is not even a matter of being young anymore. Young people are in the line of fire, but citizens of all ages are losing autonomy.

The paradox is that the current generation of young people is probably the most creative, generous, idealistic and collaborative ever. Everywhere you look young people are creating, seemingly out of thin air, their own jobs in entirely new businesses (take for example my friends at CriticalCity or the extraordinary twentysomethings at Blackshape Aircraft); they experiment with new ways to share resources, from their couches to motor vehicles, they live off the beaten track; others still are building a new way to meaningful activism, making their voice heard and matter in an age of crisis for representative democracies.

Blackshape are a for profit company. They certainly invented a very interesting business (carbon fiber ultralight aircraft?), but experimenting way to share resources is not something they do!

These people don’t know each other, and they act independently, yet one can’t help but get the feeling that their projects are somehow coherent, as if they were pieces of the same emerging future. This OpenStreetMap 2008 video  makes for a great metaphor of this emerging future and it gives me the same feeling of elation and hope.

The Council of Europe has an idea: try to dig out all of these experiences, aggregate them, validate them through peer-to-peer assessment and use them to propose a new strategy to the European Commission and its own member states. We might call it “adaptive” and it is ultimately about:

  1. Figuring out what the young people of Europe are already doing to build the world we will inhabit in twenty years. The proof of the cake is in the eating: if they are struggling so hard to build something, it means they really want it. So that gives you a goal for your policy.
  2. If possible, help them achieve their goals, in the sense of creating the conditions for these strategies. That requires a lot of resourcefulness and self-sacrifice in today’s world.
  3. If it’s not possible to help them, get out of their way, by refraining from projecting onto them the social and economic model of the 70s, the time that most senior European decision makers grew up in. That does not make it the best suited to this day and age.

This will be done through a web project, characterized by fully open and constructive interaction as well as some gaming elements to add a little fun. Its final result will be presented in a high profile conference, targeted for May 2012. I have the honor of managing this project and the good fortune of having been able to put together a stellar team, quite daring for the standards of a large governmental organization (a French Canadian open government crusader, a British-Italian social innovation entrepreneur, an African-Swedish engineer/designer, and an Indian-British state collapse expert…). We will use a web platform to gather ethnographic data and augment this with information on the respondents’ position in the social graph of the platform (for example, measures of network centrality to signify authoritativeness). We will then synthesize this data and push it out to the community for wiki-style validation. This should give us a picture of the world that the young people of Europe are trying to build based on what they are actually putting their time and effort in to. These results will be presented at a conference in Brussels. I need to credit the Social Cohesion Research and Early Warning Division of the Council of Europe for believing in the project, and for the courage demonstrated in rolling out such an open, courageous initiative.

The project is called Edgeryders. We have a blog and a platform (still in beta).  It is a small project for a big problem, and not a likely candidate for game changing. But it does embed a feature that could be interesting for organizations like UNDP: it uses the web to connect citizens and a large, impersonal international organization like the Council of Europe in a direct fashion, without the intermediaries of national, regional and local authorities. This could be a way to mitigate the democratic deficit that typically affects organizations of this kind, and these types of organizations are taking notice: for example, on November 29th we will present Edgeryders at an event called “The Internet vs. Democratic Deficit” that is hosted by the European Parliament. Come say hello, and, if you believe in what we are doing, pass the word around. Better still – get involved. There is a lot of room for collaboration and we will need all the wisdom and all the help we can get.

(The views in this post are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect UNDP’s own view)