You don’t always have to be a coder to build something

We live in a world where, because of technology and access to information, people can cultivate expertise and contribute on projects or in industries where previously they would have needed formal schooling. The first great example of this was about 10 years ago when we saw “citizen journalism” born from the rise of blogs and social media.

Today’s movement is something we’re calling “citizen development,” meaning development is no longer just about developers — it’s about communities and the dynamics of information and innovation flow.

Several circumstances of today’s society have allowed citizen development to flourish in the past few years.

Affordable access to the Internet and high-performance devices has resulted in a general increase in digital literacy. This means many everyday citizens can articulate the requirements for an innovative digital service that could help them in their daily lives. And because of access to low-code tools and online education, they can actually be involved in the process of getting ideas off the ground.

Additionally, class gaps are fading away in communities as access to data and devices is becoming more uniform. A kid in Africa (ideally) has access to the same digital resources as a kid in California. This opens many opportunities for citizen engagement and inter-community collaborations with fewer cultural and linguistic barriers.

This increasing uniformity will also contribute to the formation of more powerful, synergistic social networks whose purpose goes beyond finding and connecting with friends. Think about, for example, a micro-financing course in the U.S. can help Maasai tribes in Africa connect with a school in California to sell their beautiful jewelry in the U.S. and avoid middlemen. The two groups have access to the same digital platform and can connect with each other and use the platform differently on each side to achieve a common goal.

Another important, and slightly more technical, condition to note is the standardization of APIs and their interoperability. It is one of the core open-data policies that is driving citizen engagement and citizen development.

It’s about building a community around the developer where each member will amplify the value of the core service.

For instance, over the past five years, governments have opened their data to allow citizens to build useful applications and services for their communities. Initiatives like by the U.S. government and Data Hub from MIT are great examples of how core assets are becoming available for citizens to contribute to a collective intelligence ecosystem for their community. The U.S. government even has a recently established CTO’s office run by Megan Smith, who is enabling an ecosystem of interconnectivity.

With most consumer-focused Internet services (like Spotify, Yelp and Uber) following suit and opening their data to large groups of developers, it is now up to the citizens to connect commercial and government data sources together and create a mashup of useful services for their communities. There are already great examples of these around the world. For example, in Israel, there are reliable apps developed solely by citizens that alert their community about the threat of a rocket attack.

One key aspect keeping citizen engagement and development from taking off is a lack of intuitive experience design tools. With the data needed for development becoming more and more accessible, these sorts of tools will be crucial in the movement’s progression.

Think about early web days, when building web pages was only for developers. As more and more tools became available for others, first visual development tools like Microsoft Front Page, then blogs and platforms like WordPress, everyone gained the power to publish content online. Next, we saw unifier platforms like Twitter emerge, allowing millions of people to express their opinions online.

A similar analogy may be applied to citizen engagement, with mobile devices being at the forefront — except now you need tools (especially on mobile devices) that allow you to go far beyond publishing content and incorporate concepts like privacy management, contextual awareness, sensor integration, etc.

That said, the real key to the continued progress and success of citizen development and engagement is having tools that bring different groups of people — like designers, developers, artists and government officials — together in a community. This is the biggest obstacle I see to citizen development becoming our new standard, where almost anyone can bring an idea to the table and connect with all the people they need to make it a reality.

So in a sense, citizen development is about much more than just the developer. It’s about building a community around the developer where each member will amplify the value of the core service. Citizen development has the power to bring together a community of designers, developers, governments and corporations, enabling them to solve key issues and innovate collaboratively. And as long as we all keep pushing to develop the tools needed for the movement to flourish, we’ll see it continue to gather steam for years to come.