Are we pulling up the drawbridge or helping people walk across?

First version of the democracy stack

The image is of the democracy stack – you can have a read about this here

Nothing I have seen in the last week or so has made me any less of the belief that the slow death of the current political party machinery is bringing our democracy down with it. Have we not yet run out of ways to divide ourselves?

Having said that, I can’t forget then knowledge that there another other social division that we need to give serious thought to.

What if the most significant division we are seeing is between people who can thrive in the network society and those who are trying to preserve what went before? Isn’t a huge part of what we have to do now helping people to walk across the bridge between old and new ways of doing things?

If so then how do we build that bridge?

My last post talked about building bridges between tool and community builders and the people (we hope) are thinking about how to rewire the mainstream political parties. I’m still keen to do this and more on that anon. However its not going to be enough.

If we are really going to be building bridges then perhaps we need to be a bit more literal. We need to build bridges within our social infrastructure and I believe that we help can do that by looking at how we build out civic infrastructure – both digital and physical – at the same time.

What would happen if we designed for a more participatory society?

Social infrastructure is a tricky concept but the best way of describing it is to look at the regular points of connection and activities which bring a community together. Individual people are part of this but strong social infrastructure will ensure that someone steps in to preserve much loved event or look after a space. Its like the plumbing of a community and can be held by a single place – like a pub – or distributed across a range of smaller spaces and networks.

Social infrastructure, like digital and physical civic infrastructure needs maintenance and updating but it has to be built to be sustainable – it can’t be pinned up with external effort but it can be helped.

I am talking about something more than using co-design to create a service or project – I am talking about designing with the assumption that the output will be sustained by the ongoing participation of the audience.

I’ve spent the last year looking at a wide range of bids, contracts and activities across the public and private sector and one of the profound differences I see between a 21st and a 20th Century organisation is the degree to which it expects its audience to participate. 20th Century organisations are not designing for a participatory society.

For public services this is a very different challenge than for the private sector which can choose its audience but there are still many opportunities to design participation into the way we work.

We have an uphill battle. That bridge between old and new ways of doing things is a fragile one at present with a lot of very privileged people (like me) on it. Lets not pull up the drawbridge. Access to technology, skills and literacies to ensure you can participate are not endemic and many people are or at least feel trapped on old ways of doing things. The first step is to make sure people have the knowledge and skills they need to participate.

How can we do this in such a way as to make participation so normal that the political process is forced to reform or be overwhelmed by the numbers of people just getting on and doing stuff? How do we go beyond simple training and to give people the skills they need to be actively shaping their future? Participation without power to change the future is meaningless and condescending – something I believe our political process has forgotten.

This is going to take time. And this is part of the strength that linking physical, digital and social civic infrastructure together because they all change at different paces but if they have the same purpose they can support each other.

I believe that part of the role of the state is to provide the infrastructure needed for a functioning society and this is not different. We have to reach past the fear that participation brings politics with it and think that perhaps if people were better able to participate the politics might be better too.

We also need to reach past the fear which says public sector good, private sector bad. One of the most interesting things about what you see with 21st Century businesses is the alignment of profit and social purpose and I believe this is something else that we can tap into as we build for the future.

This all sounds highly theoretical and a bit abstract (welcome to my blog!) but I have a few very practical ideas in my mind as write this and I am going to start describing these in more detail. Ideas are wide ranging but all look for the points of connection that we can influence – regeneration projects, the libraries strategy, the next iteration of the customer contact – these are more are all starting points for looking at the three layers of infrastructure.

Part of the reason I stay in that abstract space here is that I think that there are so many people doing part of what I am saying here but I remain frustrated by the lack of connection between these things which is why I come back to the role of infrastructure to connect fabulous pockets of activity together.

There is some great stuff on the Nesta 50 New Radicals list for example but its really not enough unless we are actively connecting it together and these organisations are often too small and fragile to take on the overhead of connectivity for themselves – how can we help them?

One final thing – its an intangible passage – this move from the old to the new, from post-industrial to network society. Its not as simple as saying 20th vs 21st Century as you can have 16 year olds disconnected from the network society and 60 year olds who are actively involved. The same can be said of organisations. So if you are reading this and you consider yourself to be part of the network society – ask yourself who you are helping to cross that bridge? If you need help then who do you know to ask?

And on a personal note because some the divisions that have been raised this week have felt personal: I already feel part of the network society and I want to make sure that its the kind of future which provides connection and empathy and not division. Not because I am building it for the children that I don’t have but because I think its important to build it for yours. How dare anyone suggest otherwise.



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