Good Sense, good fortune

Journalism / Article

Not quite 10 years ago, a literally once-in-a-lifetime opportunity came my way: I got the chance to be the third executive director of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard. It was about four years old. The Berkman Center was blessed with visionary founders and talented students. It had been set up by a single, generous, equally visionary founding donor. It was embedded in an institution devoted to teaching and learning, with high ambitions for both; it had a global outlook; and it had a clear, important mission, both in academic terms and for the good of the public at large.

And yet there were many things still to be done as an incoming executive director. The future was bright, but much work was (and still is) before us.

Last fall, I got a second, extraordinary opportunity, one of another sort. The Knight Foundation invited me to review the progress of one its grantees: the Center for Future Civic Media at MIT. I had a wonderful time over the course of a few months, talking to as many people as would talk to me about C4. I learned a great deal about the emerging field of civic media; about ambitious and inspiring projects in Juarez, Mexico and along the Gulf Coast and in communities across America; and about what makes an institution of teaching and learning grow and thrive in an academic institution.

Partway through, I was struck by a sense of parallelism. It is a rough-and-ready parallel, not totally precise. C4, at age 4, had many of the same qualities as the Berkman Center that I had come back to (I’d been a student there in its early days) at age 4. C4 is blessed with visionary founders, in Henry Jenkins, Chris Csikszentmihályi, and Mitch Resnick.

It has brilliant and engaged students from multiple departments — the MIT Media Lab and Comparative Media Studies. It has the support of the Knight Foundation, headed by president Alberto Ibarguen and his program officers, who have a vision for the future that they are nurturing and supporting across a range of initiatives, like the Knight News Challenge. C4 has a broad and ambitious mission that promises to change the world in positive, public-spirited ways. And it has lots of work still to do.

There are many reasons to be excited about the future of C4. A straight continuation of the work that it’s begun would be highly worthwhile. And I am betting on much more. C4’s trajectory of the past eighteen months or so, under the leadership of Chris Csikszentmihalyi in particular, gives me reason for these high hopes. The methodology that C4 has pioneered is proving itself out in a range of projects that can make real differences to communities and to the students who work on the projects. SourceMap, Grassroots Mapping, Crónicas de Héroes (Hero Reports), and several other projects hold special promise. The incoming group of students is amazing, I’m told.

On a personal level, I’m especially excited about the news that the new director will be Ethan Zuckerman. I can think of no one better than Ethan to take up the leadership of C4, to build upon the great work of the founding directors. Ethan is among the small handful of most productive and influential fellows the Berkman Center has ever had (it is only partly in jest when I say that Ethan is now in the eighth year of his one-year Berkman fellowship). Ethan is talented in so many ways: a powerful public voice for what civic media can and should be; the co-founder of non-profits and proven builder of for-profits; an inspired writer and teacher; a prince of a man; and a leader I’d follow off any number of cliffs. Much of what I learned during my six years as the Berkman Center’s executive director I learned from Ethan.

To make things yet more promising, MIT and the Knight Foundation have the great good sense and great good fortune to have attracted Ethan to lead C4 in its next chapter of development just as Joichi Ito takes over at the MIT Media Lab. The addition of Prof. Sasha Costanza-Chock at CMS is yet more in the way of great news for the future of C4.

The future is bright for C4 and for civic media in general. I can’t wait to see the wonders that Ethan, Joi, and the C4 team come up with next.