How Can Smart Communities Assist in Addressing Populism?

The author of this photo is Rene Adamos. From

The fact that the election of Donald Trump came as such a shock shows the deep division, especially in America, between the people in the upper echelons of society and those who are less-educated, under-serviced, and, in many cases, poorer. While the top 50% of society has, in general terms, done well economically over the last 50 years, at the same time – and over the last 30 years in particular – the wealth gap between them has continued to grow.

This also became clear in the statistical information on the election result. The better-off people live mainly along both the coasts in America and they voted Democrat, while the poorer/rural middle part of the country voted in many cases overwhelmingly for Trump.

The shocking fact is also that half the population did not vote at all. This means that Trump was voted in by only a quarter of the population.

Based on my experience, I have often been surprised by, on the one hand, the friendliness of the people in rural America, yet on the other, their total ignorance of anything that happens elsewhere in the world. Often, the only media in these areas is their own ultra-conservative local papers, radio and TV channels, and the religious media. Hardly anything is reported outside their own (rather closed) society. Even national news reaches them in a very biased form. Ask them where Australia is, or what the capital of Britain is, or which countries are in the Middle East and you very often draw a total blank.

While not as bad as in the United States, in other Western societies, similar population groups are left behind and, additionally, populism is also on the rise.

Winning back the trust of these disenfranchised people will be very difficult and complicated.

The current mass media is not going to help, as it is dumbed-down and often heavily biased towards populist reporting since this obviously sells. On-going cuts in education have also not helped these societies to become more and better informed. If they do use the internet, specifically, it is often only for Facebook within their own group of friends and family.

We need to notably improve our connection and communication with these people, despite what the ‘elite’ claims about them being racist and bigoted. The problem is more a total lack of trust in what has become corporate politics. Some very structural, societal and economic transformations will have to take place to turn this revolution/political revolt around.

Of course, this is not the first time that large sections of society have revolted. We had the peasant revolts in the Middle Ages, the Reformation, the French Revolution and other more recent examples as a result of the wars and the depression after WWI – the latter brought to us by populists such as Hitler and Mussolini.

What all of the revolutionary leaders and populists have in common is that they are very good at attacking but extremely bad at delivering solutions, or at least the right results. This is what the other half of society has to work on in order to win back trust, so that we can move in a more positive direction.

We need to do this fairly quickly, though, otherwise the situation could deteriorate.

Lessons from the past show us that this can very easily lead to increased violence and war; however, looking back at all those revolutions and revolts in history, we have always come out better in the end. Let us hope that the current revolts will also bring us better outcomes and that today’s populists don’t inflict too much damage on our society in the meantime.

The real damage in the USA will come from the ultra-right officials who will now be installed across many of the government institutions of that country. It will be these people, not Trump, who can do the most damage. Sadly these people are the same lobbyists and corporate politicians that Trump was so scathing about during his campaign, being from the furthest right side of politics. So what will really change for the people that voted for Trump?

One possible solution to these troubles is to bring people together at a more grass-roots level, such as in cities and within communities. If we can make these happier places for people to live and work in, we can take the sting out of the anger that exists in many parts of our society.

It is at this level that we need to rebuild trust between people; trust that will allow us to move ahead together in a positive way.

This obviously is not just about building smarter cities, with all the new technologies that can assist here. It also requires more social and economic leadership at city level as well as a change in federal and state funding that can empower cities to take up that role.

There are plenty of examples where this is in fact already happening around the world.

There are alliances of mayors in many countries, and indeed within international organisations, claiming their position by addressing the many complex social and economic developments – be it refugees and immigrants, sustainability and climate change, mobility and affordable housing…

The list goes on.

My GSC3 colleague, Bram Reinders, came up with a good definition of smart cities in this respect:

“A smart city is a community that dramatically increases the pace at which it improves its sustainability and resilience by fundamentally improving how it engages society, how it applies collaborative leadership methods, how it works across disciplines and city systems, and by how it uses data and integrated technologies in order to transform services and quality of life for those in and involved with the city (residents, businesses, visitors).”

The good thing is that new technologies do indeed exist that can actually help to make the change happen. What is needed is leadership from all of us in the ‘better off’ layers of society (i.e. politics, business, education, journalism, communication, media, healthcare and so on).

If the political will for transformations exists, we can beat populism and turn this revolution/revolt into a positive development that will benefit us all.

Global Seven News

Paul Budde

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