During the Golden Age of Athens around the 5th century BC, its citizens are said to have gathered in the agora to discuss and make decisions about issues important to their community. On December 1 - 3, we will see the 21st century version of such a community dialogue, as Habitat Jam brings together tens of thousands of people around the world in a global conversation about the future of our cities to discuss issues and recommend solutions for our rapidly urbanizing planet.
Habitat Jam is only possible because of the universal connectivity and reach of the Internet, as well as the development of a wide variety of tools which have essentially turned the Internet into a very effective social networking platform. It is likely to be the largest-ever interactive global event.
IBM is hosting and providing the technology for Habitat Jam. A Jam is a massive online discussion, where people contribute their ideas, and build on each other's ideas in a kind of structured conversation, under the guidance of subject-matter experts and moderators. After the Jam is completed, extensive analysis is used to produce insight into the perceptions and priorities of the Jam participants, and to develop action plans out of their multiplicity of perspectives.
For me personally, Jams reflect the best of our hopes for the Internet and World Wide Web: a global platform for bringing people together, enabling each to easily make his or her own contributions, and emerging with a pool of collaborative knowledge that far surpasses the sum total of everyone’s individual contributions. I have participated in several Jams inside the company -- on identifying best practices and pragmatic solutions for growth, productivity, communications and innovation -- and I know from personal experience that they work, on multiple levels. They can enable individuals to share their best practices and clever ideas with one another, "horizontally" -- ideas that people can then use to improve their own jobs and lives. And Jams can also help forge consensus on deep, difficult and really important questions -- like the core values of a company.
In the summer of 2003, IBM employees engaged in a "ValuesJam" to shape and define the values that should guide the company and its people in the years ahead. Several thousand comments were analyzed, and follow-up interviews were conducted, to distill the essence of what Jam participants had said into three principal values to inform everything we do.
This was a whole new way of unearthing the knowledge and positive actions embedded in the collective wisdom of our people in over 75 countries around the world. But perhaps even more important for IBM was what ValuesJam meant to us on a cultural and emotional level. To get a sense of what I mean, you can read the interview with IBM’s chairman and CEO Sam Palmisano in the Harvard Business Review, where he talks about the values work and the role of the Jam in shaping it.
Jams are a genuinely new medium, enabling a new kind of mass collaboration and problem-solving that will now be applied to critical urban issues, such as improving the lives of people living in slums; access to water; environmental sustainability; safety and security; finance and governance; and the future of our cities. People from all walks of life will be encouraged to participate, from academics and students, planners, builders and politicians to ordinary citizens from across the globe. A special effort is being made to reach out to audiences in regions that are under-served by mass media and where Internet technology may not be accessible, by partnering with WorldSpace Satellite Radio. World Space will promote the Habitat Jam and host a talk show during the three days of the Jam allowing people to call in with their ideas and comments. Similarly, the World Urban Cafe will reach out to young people in slum and impoverished settlements around the world to bring their voices into the Jam.
Habitat Jam is sponsored by the Government of Canada in partnership with the UN-Habitat and IBM. It is a preparatory event to the third session of the World Urban Forum, being held in Vancouver in June 2006. Everyone is invited to register and participate.
The world is full of seemingly insoluble problems such as energy, the environment, war, poverty and urban sustainability. These problems are so complex, so seemingly intractable, that it is easy to be dismayed -- and maybe to be cynical and dismissive of initiatives like Habitat Jam. But on the other hand, we have never had capabilities like the Internet and Jams that can reach out to the full scope of humanity -- across boundaries of nation, class, race, language, economic status, education and culture -- to engage in a population-scale dialogue with others around the world and uncover innovative answers through our collective wisdom. Such new and powerful capabilities should give us reasons for hope, and encourage us to get involved and do what we can to help improve our world. And the beauty of it is that for anyone with an Internet connection -- meaning anyone reading this blog, for instance -- it's as easy as clicking on www.habitatjam.com, completing a simple registration and, on Dec. 1, starting to type.