Digital Cities and a virtuous circle of training and volunteerism

This is the last of a series of articles written by Marc Canter about digital cities and fiber networks.

In the first two parts of this series I defined what I meant when I use the term “Digital City” and the basic rights that every Digital Citizen has to a JOB! I talked about a sustainable model to drive these jobs and how by paying for multimedia encyclopedias – corporations could create a 3:1 usage of their money – and write it off at the same time!

I also alluded to the importance of fiber optic connectivity as a driving force to get us OUT of the monopolistic control that telcos and cable companies have over our on-line entrance and exit ramps.  It is this synergistic combination of all these factors that leads to the solution – I call a “Digital City.”

This is no simple task or set of goals we’ve got facing us.  Resuscitating our economy and finding enough work for all is a moral issue.  The idea of the Digital City project is that Digital Citizens can pool our interests, goals and money together and solve our own problems.

The answer is staring us in the face = all jobs will require tech skills, there are $100’s of billions of dollars development work needed to build the world’s multimedia encyclopedias and once we build that content, we need to put it onto open data servers – so all can enjoy and monetize it – via Open APIs.

As our fiber optic infrastructure evolves – it will be the open fiber optic networks being put into place now – that will sew the seeds of our revolution and create jobs for all!  But to do that we must wrest control of the billions of dollars in workforce development money which is being squandered each year!

All governments – starting at the Federal level and moving down to State, County and City – must help provide jobs to their citizens.  So if we can convince even 1% of that money to be put into NEW kinds of jobs, I think we just might pull this off!

I’ll conclude this series with an even deeper dive into some of the technical concepts and business model theories that make up this Digital City project.


The first concept (#1) I want to elucidate on is what I call a “virtuous circle of training and volunteerism.”

What we want to do is create a system where anyone can join a specially modified social network and receive handholding and get trained in all the workings of social media.  As they work their way through our ‘training’ process each trainee will earn points reflecting the particular tasks, actions, volunteerism and self expression they have achieved.

The social network will have real-time video help wired into every screen and function.  So if at any time someone has a question, all they have to do is click a “HELP ME!” button – and a live human will appear to walk them through using the software or answer any other questions they might have.

I believe that the digital divide is NOT about economics.  The FCC report last week talks about 35% of America not having broadband access and they believe that it is because people are ambivalent, scared or apprehensive.  I agree.  So a key aspect of our virtuous circle process is to make asking questions REALLY easy and provide a safe, secure, warm and fuzzy environment for anyone to come up the learning curve of using computers and on-line technology.

The points earned in our virtuous circle process will be used by a trainee to work their way “up” through the system, eventually achieving a paid internship position.  But to do that – they must earn more than just points. They also must establish relationships with the team and community members, contribute something to the community and participate in various kinds of volunteer activities.  This earning of trust and establishing their own position in the community is another key aspect of this approach.

When a trainee first enters the system – we’ll help them signup, upload an image of themselves and show them how to navigate with and control their own personal dashboard.  We’ll show them how to request real-time video help operators – who are volunteers themselves – by simply clicking on a special button and choosing which help operator they wish to talk to.

Trainees will be taught about ‘friending’, joining groups, leaving comments on blog posts, Twits and other conversations and in general – to utilize the social media environment.  We’ll also show trainees how to sign up for local volunteer tasks which have been entered into the system by our virtuous help admin staff – who reside at a local “digital bureau”.

Trainees need not attend an actual digital bureau to receive training, but if they do go there they will find plenty of machines to use, training classes being offered, live help operators helping others and other trainees going through THEIR virtuous circle training process.

Each digital bureau will also produce multimedia projects and local live events – such as street fairs, community meetings, seminars, senior citizen’s homes visits, etc.


The goal here is to get as many trainees to progress through at least three cycles of the virtuous circle process.  The definition of when a trainee has completed their first cycle through the circle is when they invite in a friend into the system.  This is the symbolic “eat the red pill” moment – when they actually enjoy what they’re doing and wish their friends to go through the same process.

Once we begin the second cycle through the circle we explain to trainees that 1% of the population create, 9% engage by leaving comments, ratings, join groups, etc. and that 90% only watch.  What we’re trying to do is get these trainees to become part of the 9% engaged population.

We do that by pointing out that they can create their OWN groups, post their OWN blog posts and start their OWN conversations. And when we ask these second cycle level trainees to volunteer for tasks, this time we’ll give them more responsibility and trust.

So instead of just setting up chairs or the tent at the street fair, they can demo our software themselves in our booth.  And instead of going to the senior’s home to just help out, this time they can actually do the interviews themselves.  With each stage of more trust and responsibility, comes further participation and contribution to the community.

When the trainee makes it through the second cycle of the circle – they then become part of a paid internship program.  These interns will be mentored by volunteer mentors who will work with each intern disseminating the mentor’s own personal expertise and knowledge.  From these paid internship positions the virtuous process will assign trained workers to particular projects, hopefully based on the many multimedia projects we’ll be producing!

Each multimedia expert and professional we hire to produce our multimedia projects will have to mentor 2-3 mentee/interns.  The combination of producing large scale multimedia projects, running trainees through our internship program and our on-going efforts at producing live events and embedding trainees in local corporations – will (hopefully) start to generate real jobs that people can use to feed their families and keep a roof over their heads.

But that’s just the beginning!  Once we’ve dialed in the potential of multimedia production work – we’ll need to branch out to more traditional areas – such as sales, marketing and office management, book keeping, etc.  We believe that ALL jobs of the future will require tech skills, so we expect to be training folks in how to use QuickBooks and Google Apps to run a virtual office management business or create a business which takes photos from weddings, births, anniversaries, etc. and turns them into hard cover coffee table books.

This whole virtuous circle process will complement the free dashboard software our Digital City project will provide and dovetail nicely into the numerous multimedia production projects which is the essence of our sustainable engine.


The second concept (#2) of an Open Digital City is that on-line users will ‘mesh’ together a loosely knit distributed environment of people, services and content.  I call this the Open Mesh – and I wrote a book about it.  After two years of researching, proposing, meeting to discuss and extrapolating – I reached the conclusion that ‘dashboard containers’ could be a mechanism where we could“mesh our open platform together.”


The goal here is a live peacefully together in a distributed manner where no one social network, search engine, start page, real-time communication or eCommerce platforms – dominates.

In the ‘80’s we had the battle of Apple vs Microsoft.  In the ‘90’s it was Netscape vs Microsoft.  Then the battle morphed into Yahoo vs AOL.  Or was it Amazon vs eBay? In the ‘00’s we’ve seen Google come in and take over the battle, with MySpace and LinkedIn defining a new category where social issues mattered.  Now we’ve seen the lead shift to Facebook and Twitter.

Throughout this dizzying evolution of on-line offerings the poor user is subjected to the eternal question: “how can I take advantage of all these on-line tools and environments?”

Too often we’ve seen the interests of the platform preclude the importance of the user’s experience.  Steve Jobs understands this – and fights this battle on his own terms.  But Apple is a closed platform as many iPhone developers are discovering right now.  And that’s what’s behind Google’s strategy with Android, Chrome and their desktop OS – they’re using OPEN as a strategic advantage over closed platforms.  And that’s why Apple is suing them!

Facebook is a dichotomy, playing the role of open standards leader and fighter for the rights of user’s data, while they still play the closed platform role as they figure out how to ‘monetize’ their 400M users.

Throughout this battle – we know one thing for sure – we aren’t done yet! The real-time web and the next Google will continue to redefine the rules and create great new ways to communicate, learn and proposer.

“So what does this have to do with dashboard containers?”


Here’s the idea…

If we could imagine that all on-line sites had a dashboard page in them. For social networks it’s the profile page.  For bloggers – it’s usually their “About Me” page.  eCommerce and brochure sites have “Contact Us” pages.  Every on-line site has a dashboard page, whether it was one’s start page or not.  Inside that dashboard page would reside standard microformat ‘containers’ – with each container holding descriptive data of a particular aspect of the site.

Those containers would include information like: the content contained in the site, the list of friends or contacts the site (or person) has, the configuration of the site, the access privileges the site grants, the site’s media collection and who the site is associated with eg. It’s ID.

For an individual – the dashboard ID would define them as the site owner.  For businesses it would probably be the site’s admin or POC (point of contact) person.  The idea is that between all these different dashboard containers, any external site could query the dashboard’s APIs (application programming interface), access some of these containers and find out what’s there and do something with that data.

The data would still be controlled by the site’s owner, but a new kind of distributed interaction and synchronization would be made possible.

Distributed friending would then appear – where one’s dashboard holds their own personal social graph and list of friends, instead of being locked up inside of Facebook.  Distributed access controls would facilitate uploading an image or video and controlling who gets to view it – regardless of where the photo or video are accessible.  This freedom from the shackles of Facebook is what we’re aiming for!

No single site would then be able to control everything – as we’re currently seeing with Twitter and Facebook.  Distributed controls, friending and accessibility are a cornerstone notion in a free and open web.  By ceding control to monopolistic vendors – we can never control our own destiny.

So dashboard container standards could enable the DiSO ideal of a distributed social web – and inter-connect our Open Mesh together.


Now let’s take the virtuous circle approach and imagine how dashboard containers can connect various training efforts together across various different vendors’ implementation of Citizen Dashboards.  The idea here is that no ONE vendor will control ID’s, content flow, training processes or have a strangle hold over ANY data point or touch point in this ecosystem.  Dashboards can be inter-connected together by shared containers and many different points systems, reputations and groups can be shared between different vendor’s “training systems”. This leads to an alternative currency system and all sorts of new open standards (see below.)

This approach to dashboards is what I call ‘Digital Lifestyle Aggregation’ (DLAs) – where a single dashboard interface would adapt to who the user is, what accounts and presence they have in the on-line world and what their various ‘personae’ are.  DLAs provide an integrated environment that aggregates people, content and services together.

DLAs must be highly customizable so that you can mesh in whatever social networking platform, media storage site(s), favorite blogs and Twitterers, mainstream media sources, eCommerce destinations and anything else on-line – that matters to YOU!


This leads us to the third (#3) underlying concept behind the Digital City project which is to ‘normalize’ our approach to People, Content and Services – and have a free and open marketplace where users can monetize their attention, move seamlessly between platforms and prosper with plenty of work to keep them busy and employed.

Each social media tool or platform has their own representation of people, their own way they store content and their own unique set of services and on-line capabilities.  These constructs of People, Content and Services are a common ground between our various different vendors’ platforms.

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This is what an Activity Stream would look like in our Digital City once we all agreed to common constructs about People, Content and Service. Local shop owners, independent marketing people, community groups, married couples, churches, students and training classes could all post to this stream.

These common constructs can be leveraged as a basis for new kinds of collaborative processes which will bridge across vendor chasms and unite wide ranges of activists, creators and entrepreneurs.

The Citizen Dashboard we’ll be offering will have these kinds of collaborative tools and platform interfaces baked into the environment.  Our dashboard will connect us to new kinds of marketplaces which will enable the interchange and monetization of our friends, content and attention – which we’ll be stockpiling and documenting.  Since Facebook, Google and Microsoft are monetizing us – why can’t we monetize ourselves?

The Citizen Dashboard I’d like to see given away to Digital Citizens around the world will provide real-time video help, implement the virtuous circle, connect to any other kind of social networking platform, eCommerce, blogging, communication or on-line service – and the source code will be given away – for free to non-profits, government agencies, etc.  A small licensing fee will be assessed to commercial platforms.


The next underlying concept of the Digital City (#4) is that by building out and running digital bureaus, creating jobs, operating a social network and the virtuous circle training and volunteerism process, and producing terabytes of on-line interactive multimedia content – a WHOLE NEW kind of system integration business will be born.

Imagine this if you will.  Nancy Pelosi and Tim Ryan are standing there at our digital ribbon cutting ceremony.  They go on and on about how government money was used to resuscitate NEO’s economy and that a Digital Region has been born on the ashes of America’s manufacturing base.

Our goal is to achieve 5,000 jobs in five years – and if we pull that off, convince companies to move here, discover the incredible value of homes and our lifestyle – then Cleveland and NEO’s future will change.  And our Digital City project will be a showcase for the world to see!

All of the source code we use to build our Digital City will be given away for free.  Any city or region around the world will be able to download it, set it up and run their own Digital City.  But it won’t look or act as good as ours!

At that point – they’ll pick up the phone and call us (or Skype us as the case may be!)  Our new company will be called Digital City Mechanics and we’ll be in the business of running or showing others how to customize, operate, evolve and prosperously create jobs in any Digital City around the world.

The trick will be to customize the environment to the particular populace, local industry and corporate sponsors, document all our processes for others to use, and capture the history and culture of the region – and put it all on-line.

That’s what Digital City Mechanics will do – and I believe it can become a $billion$ dollar business.

The final underlying concept of the Digital City (#5) is open standards.


All of these ideas, techniques, formats, protocols and data structures we imagine our Digital City needs – others will need as well.  Or they’re already doing them – right now.

I recently went to a Digital City Summit in Amsterdam and lo and behold there were folks from Helsinki, Manchester, Rotterdam and Milan all working on similar ideas.  Timeline servers, traffic data servers, shared infrastructure ideas, municipal servers.  This idea is HUGE and it can’t be stopped!

To be clear – all of these ideas I’m elucidating are open sourced. They’re free and available for anyone to implement and monetize.  It is through this free and open idea interchange that we’ll resuscitate our world’s economy and get unemployed workers back to work.

It is through the spread of open standards – across the board – that we’ll achieve these goals.

Witness the ‘open stack’ chart below. It is a collection of open standards currently being rolled out and/or evolved in our ‘open web’ world of today. One could imagine more standards that will be added to this stack and certainly the dashboard container standards I talk about (above) would become part of this stack.

It’s through open standards that our Digital Cities will connect to other Digital Cities – unless that wasn’t quite obvious by now!

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I want to conclude by pointing out to some great work and efforts already going on – which is exactly what I’m talking about: – is an on-demand database of video training snippets. The best on the business!
    Time to Know – a teaching platform designed as a one-to-one learning platform.
    Manchester Bidwell – a series of efforts designs to empower individuals and teach them skills which will help them pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

I hope this series of articles explained what it is I’m talking about – when I refer to my Digital City project.

I’ll be talking about this – for the next five years – if not longer and looking for funding and help to implement it.

Our goal should be to force the behemoths in our industry to provide US with ever decreasing costs on ever increasingly powerful technology. By playing the BigCo’s off each other – like we did with MySpace, Facebook and Google – I believe that they’ll choose OPEN and our Open Mesh as the way to peaceful coexistence.

Whether it be Cisco vs Google, Apple vs HTC, Google vs Twitter, Microsoft vs Google, HP vs Cisco,  or Facebook vs Everyone else – it all leads to Digital Citizenry educated in the ways of the world of leveraging our software infrastructure and open dashboards – provided by (hopefully) government and local foundations.  It’s our traffic that everyone wants – and we get to decide where to put it.

Here’s a map of what our Digital City infrastructure might look like – in NEO for our pilot project.



Part 1

Part 2

“How to build the Open Mesh”

FCC report in the digital divide

People, Services and Services

Links to my two books I wrote

The real-time web

‘Digital Lifestyle Aggregation’ (DLAs)


Activity Stream

Cisco vs Google

Apple vs HTC

Google vs Twitter

Microsoft vs Google

HP vs Cisco

Facebook privacy

Time to Know

Manchester Bidwell


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About the author

Marc Canter, CEO of Broadband Mechanics (BBM) is a 25+ year veteran of the software business. BBM is a boutique social networking design and platform shop -specializing in building systems that support the open stack, custom semi-private networks and strategic thinking. Marc is an advocate of open social networking, open standards and what he calls the ‘open mesh‘. Marc was the co-founder of MacroMind, which became Macromedia.