Not too long ago, the Mayor of Bogota said, “A developed country is not where the poor have cars, it’s where the rich use public transport”. This quote speaks not only about one man’s idea of progress, it gives us a hint of the change that is sweeping across the world. We are now taking decisions for ourselves about what we want to change and how we want to change it. Where did I find this quote? Social Media; the new channel that now connects us all irrespective of all natural and manmade boundaries.

The two concepts I have referred to earlier (what we want to change and how we want to change it) are individually brilliant but the question is, how are they connected? To put it very simply, I present an age old saying “Charity begins at home”. Interpreted in many ways, this basically goes to say that one has to start doing good inside one’s home. To me this means our cities. The places that we live in, work in, walk in, everyday. This means that we no longer need to cross oceans to find people who need positive change; we can create, for ourselves, smarter, better cities, filled with everything good and everything that we love.

How does social media fit into this concept? Social Media is the channel that has become our source of knowledge, inspiration and ideas sharing. Storytellers were the wise men of old and much like those who roamed the world, telling their stories and thus inspiring, teaching and healing, social media has done away with the need to actually travel.(Twitter has an aggregation of such moments For the most part, I, a nonprofit professional from India, can learn from and be inspired by JR, a French artist, simply by watching a TED Prize Talk (As I have!). Without this transmedia storytelling – storytelling across various media and channels – JR’s story would probably never reach me and mine (if there is one worth telling) would never reach you (i am writing a ‘blog’ post!).
There are two pictures from JR’s InsideOut Art Project that almost perfectly support my conjectures about changing our cities ourselves. His story is very simply, starting off as a graffiti artist, he moved on to a simple camera and soon realised the power of the photographs he had been pasting on random walls across the city of Paris. They worked towards changing perceptions in a way that campaigning could never have and all he required was ‘paper and glue’. The InsideOut project is meant to tell stories and change perceptions through large posters of photographs of ordinary people that are then pasted in public places and allowed to get washed off/torn off with the passage of time. The art, he says, belongs to the people and thus, they choose to use it as they wish.

In the small town in Kenya, where these pictures were printed on vinyl, people eventually began to use it to make their roofs. This spot is a unique reminder that change, is about people and that each of the people whose pictures were used simply wanted their stories to be told.

This picture from JR’s project in Israel-Palestine was designed to explore the real men and women of the area, outside of existing politik. These are Israeli and Palestinians making faces. Noone can tell them apart. Hence proved.

JR has worked across the globe and now the InsideOut project allows people to send in their pictures so that they can become a part of it. If one can change the state of one’s habitat, then one has ‘developed’. This brings us to the question of creating smarter, better, safer, more beautiful cities. The IBM Smarter Cities project where government departments are typing up with private companies and developers to design better cities. The TEDPrize winning City2.0 project which looks at a citizen-powered transformation of cities through a variety of channels such as public transportation, education, safety, housing and art. A city which has and is still witness to great transformation is one that I live in today, Washington DC. Till a few years ago, it was known as the ‘murder capital’ of the US and now it is witnessing a gradual and steady overhaul of the so called difficult localities into places and spaces where thriving businesses and planned architecture effect positive change both for the erstwhile perpetrators of crimes and their victims.

The next illustration is of the Waterfront (where I live) which was merely empty plots and eerie spaces and is now developing into a splendid business and residential space would be a prime example of a city getting smarter and matching development with socio-economic concerns.

The TEDPrize City 2.0 project is entirely based on ideas and suggestions and movements created out of collaborations and sharing on social media. This is also known as crowdsourcing and is a very effective way of figuring out what the citizens want as a group. These suggestions, need not be restricted to localities and as such the curation of ideas and skills can happen globally. This makes learning from best practices, wherever in the world that may be, a lot easier. Thus is the power of social media. The picture below is an illustration of how a movement created off a social media platform can and does translate into actual physical congregations that are impossible to ignore.

Let’s refer to the photograph that headlines this blog. Having lauded the benefits of social media, I would like to conclude by highlighting the possibly not so great part of depending entirely on social media for bringing people together and effecting change. When we see a LOT of people getting on to a platform, virtual or otherwise, we tend to want to get on it too. However, this can create a number of problems, including security, privacy threats and misreporting of information. With social media, the case has been largely similar with a multitude of platforms springing up in a very short period of time. Some more effective for certain sectors than others, but by the time one has figured out the correct platform, the opportunity itself might be gone. The other problem is being able to draw attention to oneself when there are an innumerable number of similar individuals/organisations are clamouring for the same 20 sec attention span of over a million people every moment. Sometimes, you just miss what might have drawn you otherwise. This brings us to the important brand building online and that is another story altogether.

Now I love my social media. Whether it be ‘checking-in’ on Facebook or Foursquare, posting a picture on Instagram, Hashtagging away to glory on Twitter or ‘pinning’ a picture of a Deathstar Cookie Jar on Pinterest. Everyday, millions of people around the globe are unconsciously telling their stories to unknown millions and thereby creating movements, inspiring emotions and fostering change.

I have, in the last month, however, travelled across the ‘seven seas’ to be a part of an international Fellowship of nonprofit professionals. Every day of the month, I have met, worked with and learned from truly exceptional people. There is no replacement for that in-person interaction, but in a world, where you cannot always get on a plane/train/boat/bicycle/walk/crawl, social media is likely, for the longest time, be a vehicle of storytelling, of inspiration, of crowd creation and of change the world over.

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