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TEDGlobal 2014

Alessandra Orofino: It’s our city. Let’s fix it

October 7, 2014

Too often, people feel checked out of politics — even at the level of their own city. But urban activist Alessandra Orofino thinks that can change, using a mix of tech and old-fashioned human connection. Sharing examples from her hometown of Rio, she says: "It is up to us to decide whether we want schools or parking lots, recycling projects or construction sites, cars or buses, loneliness or solidarity."

Alessandra Orofino - Political mobilization activist
Alessandra Orofino founded Meu Rio, Rio de Janeiro’s largest mobilization network. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
Fifty-four percent of the world's population
00:13
lives in our cities.
00:16
In developing countries,
00:19
one third of that population
00:21
is living in slums.
00:23
Seventy-five percent of global energy consumption
00:26
occurs in our cities,
00:31
and 80 percent of gas emissions
00:34
that cause global warming
00:36
come from our cities.
00:38
So things that you and I might think about
00:41
as global problems,
00:44
like climate change, the energy crisis
00:46
or poverty,
00:49
are really, in many ways, city problems.
00:50
They will not be solved
00:55
unless people who live in cities,
00:57
like most of us,
01:00
actually start doing a better job,
01:02
because right now, we are
not doing a very good one.
01:05
And that becomes very clear
01:09
when we look into three aspects of city life:
01:12
first, our citizens' willingness to engage
01:16
with democratic institutions;
01:20
second, our cities' ability to really include
01:23
all of their residents;
01:28
and lastly, our own ability
01:30
to live fulfilling and happy lives.
01:33
When it comes to engagement,
01:38
the data is very clear.
01:40
Voter turnout around the world
01:43
peaked in the late '80s,
01:45
and it has been declining at a pace
01:47
that we have never seen before,
01:49
and if those numbers are bad at the national level,
01:52
at the level of our cities,
01:56
they are just dismal.
01:58
In the last two years,
02:01
two of the world's most consolidated,
02:02
oldest democracies, the U.S. and France,
02:05
held nationwide municipal elections.
02:09
In France, voter turnout hit a record low.
02:12
Almost 40 percent of voters decided
02:16
not to show up.
02:20
In the U.S., the numbers were even scarier.
02:23
In some American cities,
02:26
voter turnout was close to five percent.
02:28
I'll let that sink in for a second.
02:33
We're talking about democratic cities
02:35
in which 95 percent of people
02:38
decided that it was not important
02:41
to elect their leaders.
02:43
The city of L.A., a city of four million people,
02:46
elected its mayor with just a bit over 200,000 votes.
02:50
That was the lowest turnout the city had seen
02:55
in 100 years.
02:57
Right here, in my city of Rio,
03:00
in spite of mandatory voting,
03:03
almost 30 percent of the voting population
03:06
chose to either annul their votes
03:10
or stay home and pay a fine
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in the last mayoral elections.
03:15
When it comes to inclusiveness,
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our cities are not the best cases of success either,
03:21
and again, you don't need to look very far
03:24
in order to find proof of that.
03:27
The city of Rio is incredibly unequal.
03:28
This is Leblon.
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Leblon is the city's richest neighborhood.
03:35
And this is Complexo do Alemão.
03:38
This is where over 70,000
03:40
of the city's poorest residents live.
03:43
Leblon has an HDI, a Human Development Index,
03:46
of .967.
03:50
That is higher than Norway, Switzerland
03:53
or Sweden.
03:57
Complexo do Alemão has an HDI of .711.
03:59
It sits somewhere in between the HDI
04:03
of Algeria and Gabon.
04:06
So Rio, like so many cities across the global South,
04:09
is a place where you can go from northern Europe
04:14
to sub-Saharan Africa
04:17
in the space of 30 minutes.
04:18
If you drive, that is.
04:21
If you take public transit, it's about two hours.
04:23
And lastly, perhaps most importantly,
04:28
cities, with the incredible wealth
04:32
of relations that they enable,
04:34
could be the ideal places for human happiness
04:37
to flourish.
04:41
We like being around people.
04:42
We are social animals.
04:44
Instead, countries where urbanization
04:47
has already peaked seem to be the very countries
04:50
in which cities have stopped making us happy.
04:54
The United States population has suffered
04:58
from a general decrease in happiness
05:01
for the past three decades,
05:04
and the main reason is this.
05:07
The American way of building cities
05:10
has caused good quality public spaces
05:13
to virtually disappear in many,
05:16
many American cities,
05:18
and as a result, they have seen
05:19
a decline of relations,
05:21
of the things that make us happy.
05:24
Many studies show an increase
05:26
in solitude and a decrease in solidarity,
05:28
honesty, and social and civic participation.
05:33
So how do we start building cities
05:38
that make us care?
05:41
Cities that value their most important asset:
05:44
the incredible diversity
05:48
of the people who live in them?
05:51
Cities that make us happy?
05:53
Well, I believe that if we want to change
05:57
what our cities look like,
05:59
then we really have to change
06:02
the decision-making processes
06:04
that have given us the results
that we have right now.
06:07
We need a participation revolution,
06:11
and we need it fast.
06:14
The idea of voting as our
only exercise in citizenship
06:17
does not make sense anymore.
06:22
People are tired of only being treated
06:25
as empowered individuals every few years
06:28
when it's time to delegate that power
06:32
to someone else.
06:35
If the protests that swept Brazil
06:37
in June 2013 have taught us anything,
06:40
it's that every time we try
06:45
to exercise our power
06:48
outside of an electoral context,
06:51
we are beaten up, humiliated or arrested.
06:53
And this needs to change,
06:59
because when it does,
07:02
not only will people re-engage
07:04
with the structures of representation,
07:06
but also complement these structures
07:09
with direct, effective, and
collective decision making,
07:12
decision making of the kind
07:19
that attacks inequality
07:21
by its very inclusive nature,
07:23
decision making of the kind
07:26
that can change our cities
07:28
into better places for us to live.
07:30
But there is a catch, obviously:
07:33
Enabling widespread participation
07:37
and redistributing power
07:40
can be a logistical nightmare,
07:42
and there's where technology can play
07:44
an incredibly helpful role,
07:47
by making it easier for people to organize,
07:49
communicate and make decisions
07:52
without having to be in the same room
07:54
at the same time.
07:56
Unfortunately for us,
07:58
when it comes to fostering democratic processes,
08:00
our city governments have not used technology
08:03
to its full potential.
08:06
So far, most city governments have been effective
08:09
at using tech to turn citizens into human sensors
08:13
who serve authorities with data on the city:
08:17
potholes, fallen trees or broken lamps.
08:21
They have also, to a lesser extent,
08:25
invited people to participate in improving
08:27
the outcome of decisions
08:31
that were already made for them,
08:33
just like my mom when I was eight
08:36
and she told me that I had a choice:
08:37
I had to be in bed by 8 p.m.,
08:39
but I could choose my pink
pajamas or my blue pajamas.
08:41
That's not participation,
08:45
and in fact, governments have not been very good
08:47
at using technology to enable participation
08:51
on what matters —
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the way we allocate our budget,
08:56
the way we occupy our land,
08:58
and the way we manage our natural resources.
09:00
Those are the kinds of decisions
09:04
that can actually impact global problems
09:06
that manifest themselves in our cities.
09:09
The good news is,
09:12
and I do have good news to share with you,
09:14
we don't need to wait for governments to do this.
09:16
I have reason to believe
09:20
that it's possible for citizens to build
09:22
their own structures of participation.
09:25
Three years ago, I cofounded an organization
09:29
called Meu Rio,
09:32
and we make it easier for people in the city of Rio
09:35
to organize around causes and places
09:38
that they care about in their own city,
09:41
and have an impact on those causes and places
09:44
every day.
09:46
In these past three years, Meu Rio grew
09:49
to a network of 160,000 citizens of Rio.
09:52
About 40 percent of those
members are young people
09:57
aged 20 to 29.
10:01
That is one in every 15 young people
10:04
of that age in Rio today.
10:08
Amongst our members is this adorable little girl,
10:12
Bia, to your right,
10:16
and Bia was just 11 years old
10:18
when she started a campaign using one of our tools
10:21
to save her model public school from demolition.
10:24
Her school actually ranks among the best
10:28
public schools in the country,
10:30
and it was going to be demolished
10:32
by the Rio de Janeiro state government
10:34
to build, I kid you not,
10:36
a parking lot for the World Cup
10:38
right before the event happened.
10:41
Bia started a campaign, and we even watched
10:43
her school 24/7 through webcam monitoring,
10:46
and many months afterwards,
10:49
the government changed their minds.
10:51
Bia's school stayed in place.
10:53
There's also Jovita.
10:56
She's an amazing woman whose daughter
10:58
went missing about 10 years ago,
11:00
and since then, she has been looking
11:03
for her daughter.
11:05
In that process, she found out
11:07
that first, she was not alone.
11:09
In the last year alone, 2013,
11:12
6,000 people disappeared
11:14
in the state of Rio.
11:16
But she also found out that in spite of that,
11:18
Rio had no centralized intelligence system
11:21
for solving missing persons cases.
11:25
In other Brazilian cities, those systems
11:28
have helped solve up to 80 percent
11:31
of missing persons cases.
11:33
She started a campaign,
11:35
and after the secretary of
security got 16,000 emails
11:37
from people asking him to do this,
11:41
he responded, and started to build a police unit
11:44
specializing in those cases.
11:47
It was open to the public at the end of last month,
11:48
and Jovita was there
11:52
giving interviews and being very fancy.
11:54
And then, there is Leandro.
11:57
Leandro is an amazing guy
11:59
in a slum in Rio,
12:00
and he created a recycling project in the slum.
12:02
At the end of last year, December 16,
12:06
he received an eviction order
12:08
by the Rio de Janeiro state government
12:10
giving him two weeks to leave the space
12:12
that he had been using for two years.
12:16
The plan was to hand it over to a developer,
12:20
who planned to turn it into a construction site.
12:22
Leandro started a campaign using one of our tools,
12:26
the Pressure Cooker,
12:29
the same one that Bia and Jovita used,
12:30
and the state government changed their minds
12:33
before Christmas Eve.
12:36
These stories make me happy,
12:39
but not just because they have happy endings.
12:42
They make me happy because they are
12:45
happy beginnings.
12:48
The teacher and parent community at Bia's school
12:51
is looking for other ways they could improve
12:53
that space even further.
12:55
Leandro has ambitious plans
12:58
to take his model to other
low-income communities in Rio,
13:00
and Jovita is volunteering at the police unit
13:03
that she helped created.
13:06
Bia, Jovita and Leandro
13:09
are living examples of something
13:12
that citizens and city
governments around the world
13:14
need to know:
13:18
We are ready.
13:20
As citizens, we are ready
13:23
to decide on our common destinies,
13:26
because we know that the way we distribute power
13:30
says a lot about how we actually value everyone,
13:34
and because we know
13:39
that enabling and participating in local politics
13:41
is a sign that we truly care
13:44
about our relations to one another,
13:46
and we are ready to do this
13:49
in cities around the world right now.
13:50
With the Our Cities network,
13:54
the Meu Rio team
13:57
hopes to share what we have learned
13:58
with other people who want to create
14:00
similar initiatives in their own cities.
14:02
We have already started doing it in São Paulo
14:05
with incredible results,
14:08
and want to take it to cities around the world
14:10
through a network of citizen-centric,
14:13
citizen-led organizations
14:16
that can inspire us,
14:18
challenge us, and remind us to demand
14:20
real participation in our city lives.
14:24
It is up to us
14:29
to decide whether we want schools
14:31
or parking lots,
14:33
community-driven recycling projects
14:36
or construction sites,
14:38
loneliness or solidarity, cars or buses,
14:41
and it is our responsibility to do that now,
14:43
for ourselves, for our families,
14:47
for the people who make our lives worth living,
14:50
and for the incredible creativity,
14:54
beauty, and wonder that make our cities,
14:57
in spite of all of their problems,
15:01
the greatest invention of our time.
15:03
Obrigado. Thank you.
15:07
(Applause)
15:09

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Alessandra Orofino - Political mobilization activist
Alessandra Orofino founded Meu Rio, Rio de Janeiro’s largest mobilization network.

Why you should listen

After working as a field researcher in Brazil and India, interviewing young girls who had been victims of domestic violence, Alessandra Orofino founded Meu Rio in 2011. The organization has fueled bottom-up local politics using a combination of on-the-ground actions and custom-designed online and mobile platforms and apps.

Orofino, who's 25 years old with a degree in economics and human rights from Columbia, is a believer in participatory politics and in cities as the ideal locus for reinventing representative democracy, and with her team she has designed Meu Rio as a catalyst for youth activism. Among its 140,000 members are tens of thousands of millennials, identifying common issues, pooling ideas for solutions, and pressuring decision-makers to adopt new policies and practices.

The original video is available on TED.com
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