WHEN FACTS FAIL: MUNICIPAL POLICY IN THE DISINFORMATION AGE
In this one-hour panel discussion, three local speakers were invited to make short presentations about the influence of misinformation on public policy development. The presentations were followed by a moderated discussion and a rigorous debate.
Host: SFU Public Square
SFU Public Square, an academic initiative designed to stimulate and restore local connections, convenes meaningful and constructive dialogue through its annual Community Summit. The first Community Summit, Alone Together: Connecting in the City, (Sept. 2012) addressed the issue of isolation and disconnection in the urban environment. The theme of 2019, Confronting the Disinformation Age (10-18 April) invites participants to think critically about the “post-truth” era and its erosion of our trust in Canada’s public institutions, including the media and political systems.
VSIR Thinking Points:
- Canada has some the world’s most livable cities. The international prestige of Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal derives largely from their cultural vibrancy, institutional integrity, and relatively low vulnerability to external threats. Nevertheless, Canada’s municipal leaders face a diverse range of complex policy issues including those not traditionally defined as “urban.” The relentless demand for innovative solutions to seemingly intractable social, political, and environmental problems not only compresses the decision-making process, it requires interdisciplinary thinking, expedient evaluations of detailed technical documents, and the ability to make value judgments based on the broadest possible definition of the common good. That is precisely why misinformation (ie., historical erasures, chronic data shortages) and polarized political discourse (ie., “calling-out” culture, political entrepreneurs) that challenge our ability to make informed decisions must be confronted head-on.
- Today’s cities share many characteristics and qualities of the digital world. First, both entities function as multi-dimensional networks that extend their reach by integrating ideas and assets from different information sources. Second, their soft-power grows with the addition of every additional newcomer. Third, cities and digital platforms reduce the “friction” of information sharing which lowers the barrier to individual participation. This has great potential to inspire continuous improvement, experimentation, and risk-taking behavior. Finally, both are highly contested spaces which contain a multitude of rivalrous “power nodes” (ie., legacy institutions, change agents, service providers, business improvement associations) that shape the timing, volume, velocity, direction, and quality of information flows. The global rush to become the next “smart” city further complicates this situation.
- Still in the development stage, the smart-city “movement” is experimenting with various next-generation platforms, technologies, and public service delivery models. “Smart” cities place a high premium on data interoperability, open data governance, and interdisciplinary research approaches. Achieving successful outcomes will require urban intelligence, agility, and foresight. Urban intelligence is contingent on an in-depth understanding of how context-specific drivers such as placemaking, productive knowledge exchanges, and discovery-driven learning interface with broad-based technical, geopolitical, and economic disruptions. In that context, Vancouver’s city-wide planning exercise (the first of its type since 1929) provides an excellent opportunity to evaluate whether our public institutions are resilient to the scourge of willful ignorance (ie., large-scale money laundering), misinformation (ie., climate change denial), and alternative “facts” (ie., “data is the new oil”).
The City of Vancouver is facing rapid demographic, economic, technological, and environmental disruptions which are forcing a profound rethink of our “soft” and “hard” urban infrastructure deployments. In a dynamic and technologically-mediated operating environment, municipal leaders must resist the temptation to implement quick-fixes and over-engineered policy solutions. Vancouver decision-makers and planners must also take time to think purposefully about the next-generation institutions and managerial competencies needed to thrive in the 21st century knowledge economy. In that context, the city-wide planning exercise provides a convenient platform to imagine a more resilient city based on foresight, reconciliation, meaningful engagement, and productive knowledge exchanges.