Mark Zuckerberg’s legacy looms large here at Harvard University. Student enrollment in Computer Science 50 spiked by 56 percent last fall, and the number of campus organizations dedicated to the cause of student entrepreneurship seems to be increasing by the day. A partial list of the clubs, collegiate societies and yearly events available to the tech entrepreneurs among us—to those coders and business executives here at Harvard who want to harness the disruptive power of digital technology to change the world, or those who just want to “build something cool” (as Mark Zuckerberg once said about Facebook)—includes: the Harvard College Entrepreneurship Society; the Kairos Society and Quincy House’s Q-Combinator; Hack Harvard and the Harvard College Innovation Challenge; Harvard College Venture Partners; The Harvard Innovation Lab; and TEDxHarvard.
Yet despite its rapid growth—or perhaps precisely because of it—the tech start-up community here at Harvard seems to be missing something important: namely, a mission. Tech entrepreneurship isn’t just about “building something cool”—it’s about building things that matter. The challenge of Zuckerberg’s legacy of entrepreneurship here on campus is not whether we can produce another Facebook (because surely we can); the challenge is whether our start-up community can translate its creative energies into the production of real solutions to the toughest problems our world really faces.
Last Wednesday evening, technology and the promise of public service converged at the CS50 Lounge in Maxwell Dworkin, where the Institute of Politics organized a meet-and-greet event with Code for America. Code for America is a new non-profit organization that helps web developers come together and build tech solutions to civic problems facing local government. Members of its Boston team, who have spent the last month interviewing more than 100 city agencies and officials around the city, presented their findings to the crowd and laid out their vision of public-private partnerships between local governments and start-up communities all across the country—a vision captured by the term “Gov 2.0.”
Gov 2.0 is based on the idea that government can be a “platform” more than a “service provider”: Instead of simply providing services to citizens in exchange for their tax dollars, the government becomes an enabler of direct action by citizens on behalf of their fellow Americans (“citizen-to-citizen”). In this model, the government sponsors competitions or sets up fellowships, encouraging private sector entrepreneurs to utilize public resources—like open data—in order to solve public problems. The government doesn’t build the crime report app or the commuter rail timetable—you do. And the result is a government that spends less money, fosters more great ideas, and one which incorporates the voice of the citizenry more directly in the process of democratic self-governance.
We at the Institute of Politics are proud to announce the first major Gov 2.0 initiative here on campus. The IOP Gov 2.0 Summer Grant, which is soliciting one-page project proposals by Friday, March 4, will provide $5,000 of support funding for the individual or group that submits the most innovative idea to reshape American civic life through technology. Inspired by Hack Harvard’s incubator, the program will also connect finalists with experts from an array of fields who will help them to develop their project ideas. It is our hope that this effort is the beginning of a lasting Gov 2.0 community on campus.
Gov 2.0 presents us with an alternative model of active citizenship—“citizens as entrepreneurs,” “public service” as the imagining of new, creative solutions to old, intractable problems. Active citizenship is not just about rallying and it’s not just about voting—it’s also about building things. And here techies are uniquely suited to be the best types of citizens. Gov 2.0 is thus more than just an alternative mission statement for the Harvard start-up community. At its best, it challenges a whole new generation of techies—those in the Harvard start-up community and beyond—to engage their work in the task in rebuilding our democracy.
Max D. Novendstern ’12, a Social Studies concentrator in Currier House, is the Editor-In-Chief of the Harvard Political Review. Jenny Ye ’13, a computer science concentrator in Kirkland House, is the Internships Committee Chair at the Institute of Politics.