For years, we’ve been using the same tools to predict major world events: polls, surveys, financial markets, civic analysis. But in recent years, these tools have failed us. The election of Donald Trump in the U.S., Brexit vote in the U.K., and the Arab Spring all came as giant shocks. This has been called “a disastrous decade for professional forecasters of the economic and political varieties”. But there were indications in each of these cases that ordinary citizens wanted change –and that political, economic and business leaders didn’t notice. Governments must find ways to listen to and engage their citizens, to detect these signs, so these disconnects do not happen. Understanding what went wrong in some of these cases can give us the insights we need to do things differently.
The Arab Spring: Looking in the wrong places
Take the “Arab Spring”, for example. In 2010, uprisings in countries like Tunisia, Egypt and Libya caused the collapse of political regimes. These were totally unprecedented. Political uprisings are normally predicted based on economic instability, but these countries were doing better than ever. The World Bank conceded that “economic indicators failed to predict the Arab Spring”. By looking at a much wider range of data, focusing especially on the young adult population, researchers showed that there were many signs that people were unhappy –but they were unhappy about corruption levels, not about the economy. In this case, experts and leaders were so focused on economic markers that they ignored other concerns like corruption –and failed to understand the real issues important to citizens.
Brexit: A political disconnect
Britain’s 2016 vote to leave the European Union also came as a surprise –to the government, to journalists and even to bookkeepers. The “Remain” side had put forward strong economic and political arguments on how leaving the EU would disastrously impact trade, finance, and safety. But these large-scale arguments didn’t resonate with many ordinary people, who didn’t feel these “bureaucratic” decisions had anything to do with their struggles. For all its negative consequences, Brexit has been called “an act of extraordinary defiance against a system that does not and will not listen to people’s concerns and anxieties.” What worried Leave voters most was how the EU affected immigration rates, health resources, and regulation of small businesses –not the wider financial and business systems. Once again, leaders were unaware of their citizens’ biggest concerns.
The Trump election: Selective listening
Like the Brexit vote, the 2016 election of Donald Trump came as a shock. And like Brexit, the Trump election was put down to a political and media establishment out of touch with the “disenfranchised voters” who felt voiceless and powerless. But in this case, leaders and researchers were listening to voters –but only to some. The polls, for instance, focused on “so-called likely voters” –the middle-class, university-educated demographics they thought would come out on election day. Democrat politicians, and the liberal media, have also been accused of overrepresenting this demographic. This made many leaders blind to other citizens, and left them unable to respond to the concerns held by large chunks of the population.
You cannot fix what you cannot see
These three cases show a drastic need to make citizens’ concerns visible to leaders. This need is what drove us to create Citibeats –a platform cities and companies can use to analyze what their citizens say about a range of issues. New tools like Citibeats can help us to do things differently, they help engage communities, connecting leaders with the voices of the ordinary population.