Catching up: civic tech research, crisis of participation in Brazil, podcasts and more

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picture by tollwerk on flickr

The dream consultancy

The Hewlett Foundation is seeking consultants to help design a potential, longer-term research collaborative to study the application of behavioral insights to nudge governments to respond to citizen feedback. This is just fantastic and deserves a blog post of its own. Hopefully I will be able to do that before the EOI period ends.

Rise and fall of participatory democracy in Brazil?

In an excellent article for Open Democracy, Thamy Pogrebinschi and Talita Tanscheit ask what happened to citizen participation in Brazil. The authors note that “The two main pillars on which institutional innovations in Brazil had been erected – extensive institutionalization and a strong civil society – have not been enough to prevent a functioning system of social participation being torn to shreds in little more than a year.”

I have been asked for my take on the issue more than once. Personally, I am not surprised, despite all the institutionalization and the strength of civil society. Given the current Brazilian context, I would be surprised if the participatory spaces the article examines (councils and conferences) remained unaffected.

Playing the devil’s advocate, this period of crisis may also be an opportunity to reflect on how policy councils and conferences could innovate themselves. While they extremely important, one hypothesis is that these structures failed to appropriately channel societal concerns and demands that later exploded into a political crisis, leading to the current situation.

Provocations aside, it is just too early to tell whether this is the definitive death of conferences and councils. And my sense is that their future will be contingent upon two key points: i) the direction that Brazilian politics take following the 2018 general election (e.g. progressive x populist/authoritarian), ii) the extent to which councils and conferences can adapt to the growing disintermediation in activism that we observe today.

The Business Model of Civic Tech?

If you are working in the civic tech space, you probably came across a new report commissioned by the Knight Foundation and Rita Allen Foundation, “Scaling Civic Tech: Paths to a Sustainable Future.” As highlighted by Christopher Wilson at the Methodical Snark, while not much in the report is surprising for civic technologists, it does provide the reader with a good understanding of the expectations of funders on the issue of financial sustainability.

When thinking about business models of civic tech efforts, I wonder how much money and energy were devoted to having governments open up their datasets while neglecting the issue of how these governments procure technology. If 10% of those efforts had been dedicated to reforming the way governments procure technology, many of those in the civic tech space would now be less dependent on foundations’ grants (or insights on business models).

Having said this, I am a bit bothered by the debate of business models when it comes to democratic goods. After all, what would happen to elections if they depended on business models (or multiple rounds of foundations’ grants)?

Walking the talk: participatory grant making?

A new report commissioned by the Ford Foundation examines whether the time has come for participatory grant making. The report, authored by Cynthia Gibson, explores the potential use of participatory approaches by foundations, and offers a “starter” framework to inform the dialogue on the subject.

Well-informed by the literature on participatory and deliberative democracy, the report also touches upon the key question of whether philanthropic institutions, given their tax benefits, owe the public a voice in decisions they make. If you are not convinced, this Econtalk podcast with Bob Reich (Stanford) on foundations and philanthropy is rather instructive. There is also a great anecdote in the podcast that illustrates the point for public voice, as described by Reich:

“So, in the final days of creating the Open Society Institute and associated foundations, there was disagreement amongst the staff that Soros had hired about exactly what their program areas, or areas of focus would be. And, to resolve a disagreement, Soros allegedly slammed his fist on the table and said, ‘Well, at the end of the day, it’s my money. We’re going to do it my way.’ And a program officer that he’d hired said, ‘Well, actually Mr. Soros, about 30% or 40% of it would have been the taxpayer’s money. So, I think some other people actually have a say in what you do, here, too.’ And he was fired the next week.”

Democracy podcasts real-democracy-now-logo-jpg

Talking about podcasts, the Real Democracy Now Podcast is fantastic. It is definitely one of the best things out there for practitioners and scholars working with citizen engagement.

Although broader in terms of the subjects covered, Talking Politics by David Runciman and Catherine Carr is another great option.

Other tips are more than welcome!

And this is brilliant…

(via @oso)

Other interesting stuff you may have missed

Study analyzing Pew survey data suggests a “gateway effect” where slacktivism by the politically uninterested may lead to greater political activity offline

Seeing the World Through the Other’s Eye: An Online Intervention Reducing Ethnic Prejudice

Smartphone monitoring streamlined information flows and improved inspection rates at public clinics across Punjab (ht @coscrovedent)

The Unintended Effects of Bottom-Up Accountability: Evidence from a Field Experiment in Peru

Literature review: does public reporting in the health sector influence quality, patient and provider’s perspective?


Techniques and Technologies for Mobilizing Citizens: Do They Work?

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Techniques for mobilizing citizens to vote in elections have become highly sophisticated in large part thanks to get-out-the-vote (GOTV) research, with fascinating experimental evidence from interventions to increase turnout. Until recently, the use of these techniques has been mostly limited to electoral processes, often resorting to resource intensive tactics such as door-to-door canvassing and telemarketing campaigns. But as digital technologies such as email and SMS lower the costs for targeting and contacting individuals, the adaptation of these practices to participatory processes is becoming increasingly common. This leads to the question: how effective are GOTV-type efforts when using technology outside of the electoral realm?

One of the first (if not the first) efforts to bring together technology and GOTV techniques to non-electoral processes took place in the participatory budgeting (PB) process of the municipality of Ipatinga in Brazil in 2005. An automated system of targeted phone calls to landlines was deployed, with a recorded voice message from the mayor informing residents of the time and the location of the next PB meeting closest to them. Fast forward over a decade later, and New Yorkers can receive personalized text messages on their phones indicating the nearest PB polling location. Rather than a mere coincidence, the New York case illustrates a growing trend in participatory initiatives that – consciously or not – combine technology with traditional GOTV techniques to mobilize participation.

However, and unlike GOTV in elections, little is known about the effects of these efforts in participatory processes, the reasons for which I briefly speculated about in a previous post. We have just published a study in the British Journal of Political Science that, we hope, starts to reduce this gap between practice and knowledge. Entitled “A Get-Out-the-Vote Experiment on the World’s Largest Participatory Budgeting Vote in Brazil”, the study is co-authored by Jonathan Mellon, Fredrik M. Sjoberg and myself. The experiment was conducted in close collaboration with Rio Grande do Sul’s State Government (Brazil), which holds the world’s largest participatory budgeting process.

In the experiment, over 43,000 citizens were randomly assigned to receive email and text messages encouraging them to take part in the PB voting process. We used voting records to assess the impact of these messages on turnout and support for public investments. The turnout effect we document in the study is substantially larger than what has been found in most previous GOTV studies, and particularly those focusing on the effect of technologies like email and SMS. The increase in participation, however, did not alter which projects were selected through the PB vote: voters in the control and treatment groups shared the same preferences. In the study, we also assessed whether different message framing (e.g. intrinsic versus extrinsic) mattered. Not that much, we found, and a lottery incentive treatment had the opposite effect to what many might expect. Overall, our experiment suggests that tech-enabled GOTV approaches in participatory processes are rather promising if increasing levels of participation is one of the goals. But the “more research is needed” disclaimer, as usual, applies.

You can find the final study (gated version) here, and the pre-published (open) version here.

 


Catching up (again!) on DemocracySpot

cover-bookIt’s been a while since the last post here. In compensation, it’s not been a bad year in terms of getting some research out there. First, we finally managed to publish “Civic Tech in the Global South: Assessing Technology for the Public Good.” With a foreword by Beth Noveck, the book is edited by Micah Sifry and myself, with contributions by Evangelia Berdou, Martin Belcher, Jonathan Fox, Matt Haikin, Claudia Lopes, Jonathan Mellon and Fredrik Sjoberg.

The book is comprised of one study and three field evaluations of civic tech initiatives in developing countries. The study reviews evidence on the use of twenty-three information and communication technology (ICT) platforms designed to amplify citizen voices to improve service delivery. Focusing on empirical studies of initiatives in the global south, the authors highlight both citizen uptake (yelp) and the degree to which public service providers respond to expressions of citizen voice (teeth). The first evaluation looks at U-Report in Uganda, a mobile platform that runs weekly large-scale polls with young Ugandans on a number of issues, ranging from access to education to early childhood development. The following evaluation takes a closer look at MajiVoice, an initiative that allows Kenyan citizens to report, through multiple channels, complaints with regard to water services. The third evaluation examines the case of Rio Grande do Sul’s participatory budgeting – the world’s largest participatory budgeting system – which allows citizens to participate either online or offline in defining the state’s yearly spending priorities. While the comparative study has a clear focus on the dimension of government responsiveness, the evaluations examine civic technology initiatives using five distinct dimensions, or lenses. The choice of these lenses is the result of an effort bringing together researchers and practitioners to develop an evaluation framework suitable to civic technology initiatives.

The book was a joint publication by The World Bank and Personal Democracy Press. You can download the book for free here.

Women create fewer online petitions than men — but they’re more successful

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Another recent publication was a collaboration between Hollie R. Gilman, Jonathan Mellon, Fredrik Sjoberg and myself. By examining a dataset covering Change.org online petitions from 132 countries, we assess whether online petitions may help close the gap in participation and representation between women and men. Tony Saich, director of Harvard’s Ash Center for Democratic Innovation (publisher of the study), puts our research into context nicely:

The growing access to digital technologies has been considered by democratic scholars and practitioners as a unique opportunity to promote participatory governance. Yet, if the last two decades is the period in which connectivity has increased exponentially, it is also the moment in recent history that democratic growth has stalled and civic spaces have shrunk. While the full potential of “civic technologies” remains largely unfulfilled, understanding the extent to which they may further democratic goals is more pressing than ever. This is precisely the task undertaken in this original and methodologically innovative research. The authors examine online petitions which, albeit understudied, are one of the fastest growing types of political participation across the globe. Drawing from an impressive dataset of 3.9 million signers of online petitions from 132 countries, the authors assess the extent to which online participation replicates or changes the gaps commonly found in offline participation, not only with regards to who participates (and how), but also with regards to which petitions are more likely to be successful. The findings, at times counter-intuitive, provide several insights for democracy scholars and practitioners alike. The authors hope this research will contribute to the larger conversation on the need of citizen participation beyond electoral cycles, and the role that technology can play in addressing both new and persisting challenges to democratic inclusiveness.

But what do we find? Among other interesting things, we find that while women create fewer online petitions than men, they’re more successful at it! This article in the Washington Post summarizes some of our findings, and you can download the full study here.

Other studies that were recently published include:

The Effect of Bureaucratic Responsiveness on Citizen Participation (Public Administration Review)

Abstract:

What effect does bureaucratic responsiveness have on citizen participation? Since the 1940s, attitudinal measures of perceived efficacy have been used to explain participation. The authors develop a “calculus of participation” that incorporates objective efficacy—the extent to which an individual’s participation actually has an impact—and test the model against behavioral data from the online application Fix My Street (n = 399,364). A successful first experience using Fix My Street is associated with a 57 percent increase in the probability of an individual submitting a second report, and the experience of bureaucratic responsiveness to the first report submitted has predictive power over all future report submissions. The findings highlight the importance of responsiveness for fostering an active citizenry while demonstrating the value of incidentally collected data to examine participatory behavior at the individual level.

Does online voting change the outcome? Evidence from a multi-mode public policy referendum (Electoral Studies)

Abstract:

Do online and offline voters differ in terms of policy preferences? The growth of Internet voting in recent years has opened up new channels of participation. Whether or not political outcomes change as a consequence of new modes of voting is an open question. Here we analyze all the votes cast both offline (n = 5.7 million) and online (n = 1.3 million) and compare the actual vote choices in a public policy referendum, the world’s largest participatory budgeting process, in Rio Grande do Sul in June 2014. In addition to examining aggregate outcomes, we also conducted two surveys to better understand the demographic profiles of who chooses to vote online and offline. We find that policy preferences of online and offline voters are no different, even though our data suggest important demographic differences between offline and online voters.

We still plan to publish a few more studies this year, one looking at digitally-enabled get-out-the-vote (GOTV) efforts, and two others examining the effects of participatory governance on citizens’ willingness to pay taxes (including a fun experiment in 50 countries across all continents).

In the meantime, if you are interested in a quick summary of some of our recent research findings, this 30 minutes video of my keynote at the last TicTEC Conference in Florence should be helpful.

 

 


New Papers Published: FixMyStreet and the World’s Largest Participatory Budgeting

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Voting in Rio Grande do Sul’s Participatory Budgeting  (picture by Anderson Lopes)

Here are two new published papers that my colleagues Jon Mellon, Fredrik Sjoberg and myself have been working on.

The first, The Effect of Bureaucratic Responsiveness on Citizen Participation, published in Public Administration Review, is – to our knowledge – the first study to quantitatively assess at the individual level the often-assumed effect of government responsiveness on citizen engagement. It also describes an example of how the data provided through digital platforms may be leveraged to better understand participatory behavior. This is the fruit of a research collaboration with MySociety, to whom we are extremely thankful.

Below is the abstract:

What effect does bureaucratic responsiveness have on citizen participation? Since the 1940s, attitudinal measures of perceived efficacy have been used to explain participation. The authors develop a “calculus of participation” that incorporates objective efficacy—the extent to which an individual’s participation actually has an impact—and test the model against behavioral data from the online application Fix My Street (n = 399,364). A successful first experience using Fix My Street is associated with a 57 percent increase in the probability of an individual submitting a second report, and the experience of bureaucratic responsiveness to the first report submitted has predictive power over all future report submissions. The findings highlight the importance of responsiveness for fostering an active citizenry while demonstrating the value of incidentally collected data to examine participatory behavior at the individual level.

An earlier, ungated version of the paper can be found here.

The second paper, Does Online Voting Change the Outcome? Evidence from a Multi-mode Public Policy Referendum, has just been published in Electoral Studies. In an earlier JITP paper (ungated here) looking at Rio Grande do Sul State’s Participatory Budgeting – the world’s largest – we show that, when compared to offline voting, online voting tends to attract participants who are younger, male, of higher income and educational attainment, and more frequent social media users. Yet, one question remained: does the inclusion of new participants in the process with a different profile change the outcomes of the process (i.e. which projects are selected)? Below is the abstract of the paper.

Do online and offline voters differ in terms of policy preferences? The growth of Internet voting in recent years has opened up new channels of participation. Whether or not political outcomes change as a consequence of new modes of voting is an open question. Here we analyze all the votes cast both offline (n = 5.7 million) and online (n = 1.3 million) and compare the actual vote choices in a public policy referendum, the world’s largest participatory budgeting process, in Rio Grande do Sul in June 2014. In addition to examining aggregate outcomes, we also conducted two surveys to better understand the demographic profiles of who chooses to vote online and offline. We find that policy preferences of online and offline voters are no different, even though our data suggest important demographic differences between offline and online voters.

The extent to which these findings are transferable to other PB processes that combine online and offline voting remains an empirical question. In the meantime, nonetheless, these findings suggest a more nuanced view of the potential effects of digital channels as a supplementary means of engagement in participatory processes. I hope to share an ungated version of the paper in the coming days.


Catching Up on DemocracySpot

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It’s been a while, so here’s a miscellaneous post with things I would normally share on DemocracySpot.

Yesterday the beta version of the Open Government Research Exchange (OGRX) was launched. Intended as a hub for research on innovations in governance, the OGRX is a joint initiative by NYU’s GovLab, MySociety and the World Bank’s Digital Engagement Evaluation Team (DEET) (which, full disclosure, I lead). As the “beta” suggests, this is an evolving project, and we look forward to receiving feedback from those who either work with or benefit from research in open government and related fields. You can read more about it here.

Today we also launched the Open Government Research mapping. Same story, just “alpha” version. There is a report and a mapping tool that situates different types of research across the opengov landscape. Feedback on how we can improve the mapping tool – or tips on research that we should include – is extremely welcome. More background about this effort, which brings together Global Integrity, Results for Development, GovLAB, Results for Development and the World Bank, can be found here.

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Also, for those who have not seen it yet, the DEET team also published the EvCaptureDEETguidealuation Guide for Digital Citizen Engagement a couple of months ago. Commissioned and overseen by DEET, the guide was developed and written by Matt Haikin (lead author), Savita Bailur, Evangelia Berdou, Jonathan Dudding, Cláudia Abreu Lopes, and Martin Belcher.

And here is a quick roundup of things I would have liked to have written about since my last post had I been a more disciplined blogger:

  • A field experiment in Rural Kenya finds that “elite control over planning institutions can adapt to increased mobilization and participation.” I tend to disagree a little with the author’s conclusion that emphasizes the role of “power dynamics that allow elites to capture such institutions” to explain his findings (some of the issues seem to be a matter of institutional design). In any case, it is a great study and I strongly recommend the reading.
  • A study examining a community-driven development program in Afghanistan finds a positive effect on access to drinking water and electricity, acceptance of democratic processes, perceptions of economic wellbeing, and attitudes toward women. However, effects on perceptions of government performance were limited or short-lived.
  • A great paper by Paolo de Renzio and Joachim Wehner reviews the literature on “The Impacts of Fiscal Openness”. It is a must-read for transparency researchers, practitioners and advocates. I just wish the authors had included some research on the effects of citizen participation on tax morale.
  • Also related to tax, “Consumers as Tax Auditors” is a fascinating paper on how citizens can take part in efforts to reduce tax evasion while participating in a lottery.
  • Here is a great book about e-Voting and other technology developments in Estonia. Everybody working in the field of technology and governance knows Estonia does an amazing job, but information about it is often scattered and, sometimes, of low quality. This book, co-authored by my former colleague Kristjan Vassil, addresses this gap and is a must-read for anybody working with technology in the public sector.
  • Finally, I got my hands on the pictures of the budget infograffitis (or data murals) in Cameroon, an idea that emerged a few years ago when I was involved in a project supporting participatory budgeting in Yaoundé (which also did the Open Spending Cameroon). I do hope that this idea of bringing data visualizations to the offline world catches up. After all, that is valuable data in a citizen-readable format.
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picture by ASSOAL

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picture by ASSOAL

I guess that’s it for now.


New IDS Journal – 9 Papers in Open Government

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The new IDS Bulletin is out. Edited by Rosemary McGee and Duncan Edwards, this is the first open access version of the well-known journal by the Institute of Development Studies. It brings eight new studies looking at a variety of open government issues, ranging from uptake in digital platforms to government responsiveness in civic tech initiatives. Below is a brief presentation of this issue:

Open government and open data are new areas of research, advocacy and activism that have entered the governance field alongside the more established areas of transparency and accountability. In this IDS Bulletin, articles review recent scholarship to pinpoint contributions to more open, transparent, accountable and responsive governance via improved practice, projects and programmes in the context of the ideas, relationships, processes, behaviours, policy frameworks and aid funding practices of the last five years. They also discuss questions and weaknesses that limit the effectiveness and impact of this work, offer a series of definitions to help overcome conceptual ambiguities, and identify hype and euphemism. The contributions – by researchers and practitioners – approach contemporary challenges of achieving transparency, accountability and openness from a wide range of subject positions and professional and disciplinary angles. Together these articles give a sense of what has changed in this fast-moving field, and what has not – this IDS Bulletin is an invitation to all stakeholders to take stock and reflect.

The ambiguity around the ‘open’ in governance today might be helpful in that its very breadth brings in actors who would otherwise be unlikely adherents. But if the fuzzier idea of ‘open government’ or the allure of ‘open data’ displace the task of clear transparency, hard accountability and fairer distribution of power as what this is all about, then what started as an inspired movement of governance visionaries may end up merely putting a more open face on an unjust and unaccountable status quo.

Among others, the journal presents an abridged version of a paper by Jonathan Fox and myself on digital technologies and government responsiveness (for full version download here).

Below is a list of all the papers:

Rosie McGee, Duncan Edwards
Tiago Peixoto, Jonathan Fox
Katharina Welle, Jennifer Williams, Joseph Pearce
Miguel Loureiro, Aalia Cassim, Terence Darko, Lucas Katera, Nyambura Salome
Elizabeth Mills
Laura Neuman
David Calleb Otieno, Nathaniel Kabala, Patta Scott-Villiers, Gacheke Gachihi, Diana Muthoni Ndung’u
Christopher Wilson, Indra de Lanerolle
Emiliano Treré

 


World Development Report 2016: Digital Dividends

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The World Development Report 2016, the main annual publication of the World Bank, is out. This year’s theme is Digital Dividends, examining the role of digital technologies in the promotion of development outcomes. The findings of the WDR are simultaneously encouraging and sobering. Those skeptical of the role of digital technologies in development might be surprised by some of the results presented in the report. Technology advocates from across the spectrum (civic tech, open data, ICT4D) will inevitably come across some facts that should temper their enthusiasm.

While some may disagree with the findings, this Report is an impressive piece of work, spread across six chapters covering different aspects of digital technologies in development: 1) accelerating growth, 2) expanding opportunities, 3) delivering services, 4) sectoral policies, 5) national priorities, 6) global cooperation. My opinion may be biased, as somebody who made some modest contributions to the Report, but I believe that, to date, this is the most thorough effort to examine the effects of digital technologies on development outcomes. The full report can be downloaded here.

The report draws, among other things, from 14 background papers that were prepared by international experts and World Bank staff. These background papers serve as additional reading for those who would like to examine certain issues more closely, such as social media, net neutrality, and the cybersecurity agenda.

For those interested in citizen participation and civic tech, one of the papers written by Prof. Jonathan Fox and myself – When Does ICT-Enabled Citizen Voice Lead to Government Responsiveness? – might be of particular interest. Below is the abstract:

This paper reviews evidence on the use of 23 information and communication technology (ICT) platforms to project citizen voice to improve public service delivery. This meta-analysis focuses on empirical studies of initiatives in the global South, highlighting both citizen uptake (‘yelp’) and the degree to which public service providers respond to expressions of citizen voice (‘teeth’). The conceptual framework further distinguishes between two trajectories for ICT-enabled citizen voice: Upwards accountability occurs when users provide feedback directly to decision-makers in real time, allowing policy-makers and program managers to identify and address service delivery problems – but at their discretion. Downwards accountability, in contrast, occurs either through real time user feedback or less immediate forms of collective civic action that publicly call on service providers to become more accountable and depends less exclusively on decision-makers’ discretion about whether or not to act on the information provided. This distinction between the ways in which ICT platforms mediate the relationship between citizens and service providers allows for a precise analytical focus on how different dimensions of such platforms contribute to public sector responsiveness. These cases suggest that while ICT platforms have been relevant in increasing policymakers’ and senior managers’ capacity to respond, most of them have yet to influence their willingness to do so.

You can download the paper here.

Any feedback on our paper or models proposed (see below, for instance) would be extremely welcome.

unpacking

unpacking user feedback and civic action: difference and overlap

I also list below the links to all the background papers and their titles

Enjoy the reading.


Civic Tech and Government Responsiveness

For those interested in tech-based citizen reporting tools (such as FixMyStreet, SeeClickFix), here’s a recent interview of mine with Jeffrey Peel (Citizen 2015) in which I discuss some of our recent research in the area.

 


‘We’re Number 10!’ Reasons the U.S. Is Losing Ground

The United States for so long has been a champion of innovation, but because of powerful special interests and also because of some unwise reasons, we are losing a great deal of ground. When I was growing up, we would hear chants that “We’re Number 1!” especially around the time of the Olympics. Americans were proud. We thought, whether rightly or not, that we were or had the best of everything that counted. Travel abroad offers reason for humility. I found a striking example when I visited Germany this past August. There were solar panels everywhere.

German field of solar panels.

The U.S. is known for innovation for a number of reasons. The first is that early on the country was guided by a pioneer spirit. While Europe was strongly controlled by longstanding conventions, in the Americas, so many things were new. Much of the countryside was “wild,” a characteristic that was harmful when ascribed to the native peoples. Considering the wilderness of forests, bears, and other things that could kill you, there was much to do to survive. Innovations were necessary.

Photo of a telegraph controller. Beyond that, as de Tocqueville and later Max Weber pointed out (no relation, by the way), America had an industrious spirit and brought a Protestant work ethic to its industries. While the U.S. had its many troubling capitalist robber barons, it also has long been a land of invention and creativity. It’s remarkable how many inventions came from the United States, like the light bulb, the telegraph, and the telephone.

When you consider that the United States invented the automobile, it seems sad that Ford Motor Company failed to innovate and anticipate the changing market for fuel. With increasing gas prices, which of course fluctuate, demand naturally has risen for smaller, more fuel efficient vehicles. My wife and I bought a Prius. It has a 10 gallon tank of gas, or thereabouts. That might seem small. On that 10 or 11 gallon tank, we can drive 5.5 – 6 hours from Oxford, MS to Altanta, GA. True story. We get there needing to fill up soon, but we get there (I’ve got family there, so we’ve done it several times).

A grey hummer, 2007.It’s no secret that the supply of oil in the world is a limited resource. If there’s any debate about it, the real question is when exactly we’ll have reached peak production that will then inevitably decline. There’s no doubt about the inevitability, just about when we’ll start to feel it. Even if it seems far off, we know that prices will rise again in our future. That’s a force for leading the market to want more efficient cars and sources of energy. Besides, why spend more on getting from A to B? Some people conspicuously consume gas, proud of the Hummers. Hell, I’d love to drive over something in one of those too. When I drive to Atlanta, however, I’ll get there a whole lot faster (not having to stop) and more cheaply if I can take a Prius.

In light of America’s history of innovation, it was a sad moment when Ford and the auto industry in the U.S. had to be bailed out during the financial crisis. The U.S. Government, which means you and me, bailed out the auto industry to the tune of nearly $80 Billion (yes, with a B). Much of that was recovered eventually, which is the good news, but we saw a loss of $9 Billion dollars that weren’t recovered. Why was there such a failure? Despite clear evidence that the market wanted more fuel efficient cars, Ford and others kept building sport utility vehicles. While Japan and South Korea made money hand over fist on fuel efficient cars, like the Prius, our auto industry defiantly rejected the idea that Americans cared about issues like the environment or fuel costs. You and I paid for that.

German town with solar panels on the houses.In August of this year, when Annie and I visited Germany, we took a train from Munich to Regensburg, in Bavaria, and then another from Regensburg to Berlin. First of all, the U.S. really needs to catch up on train infrastructure. Trains are awesome, even if one leg of our trip had its problems. So do highways (traffic, accidents, etc). As we went through the German countryside, we saw small towns in which houses had solar panels all over them.

The featured image in this post is an aerial view of something we saw in a lot of fields on our trip – solar energy farming. Germany is establishing the infrastructure, the technology, the expertise, and the innovation for new ways of harvesting energy, and they’re way ahead of the U.S. We’ll eventually be buying their tech, hiring their experts. The U.S. has been ridiculous about energy, perhaps because of Gore’s efforts to get people to care about global warming — if one party is more vocal on an issue, it must be a controversial matter, right? Wrong (If you’re a skeptic, be a smart one and read the 2014 IPCC report. Otherwise you don’t know what you’re talking about). Another reason is that the U.S. is an oil producer, so folks might think that it’s a bad thing to go after the renewables for that reason. That doesn’t make any sense of course. There were plenty of candle makers when Edison invented the lightbulb.

Man starting a car with a crank.To anyone who says “Yeah, but solar panels are not so efficient and can’t replace yada yada…” Come on. The early automobile wasn’t perfect either. The glass would cut into you if it shattered. You had to crank the damned thing to get it started, while standing outside of the vehicle, etc. You don’t see advocates for the horse and carriage today. Problems or needs for efficiency and enhancement are precisely the places where the Germans are going to innovate and we’re going to give them our money and follow their lead. This isn’t the attitude of a nation that wants to be #1. It’s lazy and shortsighted.

American reluctance to dive into renewable energies is burying our heads in the sand. It’s counter to the American spirit of innovation. It’s also not wise in business terms. The defiant attitude that leads some people irrationally to dislike fuel efficient cars, solar panels, and preference for investing public funds in energy innovation over extensions of our eventual end of our oil abundance is precisely the reason why Zakaria said we’re living in a Post American World. Another reason is that the rest of the world is getting wise and “rising.” We’ll have oil for quite some time, but responsible people care about their grandkids, even when they don’t have them yet.

A small German city with panels on rooves.It’s time for the U.S. to snap out of this silliness and to want to be number 1 again, especially in terms of smart innovation.

P.S. If you enjoyed this piece, check out my earlier one called “Greening Industries and Green Industries in Mississippi.”

Eric Thomas Weber is associate professor of public policy leadership at the University of Mississippi, expressing only his own point of view. He is the author of Uniting Mississippi: Democracy and Leadership in the South (2015). Follow him on Twitter and “like” his Facebook page