Systems of democracy: A bit of democracy everywhere

democratic systems sketchnote

Last year I set out three areas of enquiry for myself; The relationship between technology and change, the effect of networked social movements and democratic innovation. This year I want to focus on democratic innovation but still draw from the other two as the last year has given me clearer view of how they connect and the liminal spaces between them. This post is about starting this enquiry.

Firstly a provocation:

After a decade which showed us the limits of Industrial Age democratic design in a digital and networked world we’re going to be talking about democratic reform and redesign in 2020. Complex and wicked issues like climate change will need a more layered and nuanced democratic design than something based on the idea that we can send a man on a horse to London to get things sorted for us. We will be letting future generations down if we make this next conversation simply about proportional representation in Westminster – we need to look at the whole system of democratic design.

We have become trapped into talking about democracy as being the same as the method by which we are applying it. It’s not. We may be using a representative model at the moment but democracy is more than one method – it’s the tools and systems we use as a society to make the best decisions about our common goals, challenges and infrastructure that we can. There is a cultural imperialism entrenched in a simplistic devotion to Westminster style democracy that doesn’t reflect modernity. Focusing on reforming simply our parliamentary democracy risks getting trapped in the assumptions of the past as to what democracy is. If we want to redesign democracy we need to to look at the whole system – not just at one part of it.

Many of the things we have to assume as the context for this redesign are the things which have broken the context for our current democratic design; social and political change and fundamental shifts in how we understand the world around us. For example; we need to design a democratic system that can adapt to something like fake news – not just design around the absence of the public sphere.

I think many of the elements that we need to effect this change are already here – this enquiry is about finding those and helping to connect them together.

And the enquiry
I want to be a bit more structured this year and so here are the areas I’m going to break this down into:

  • Understanding our context: This will be partly looking at what in our current context is causing ‘traditional’ democracy to falter and partly looking for the seeds of what could emerge and New Democratic models. This cannot just be about the political domain – I’ll be looking at changing economic and corporate thinking here as well
  • Why systems thinking: I have already written about all change being system change but I want to build on this and explore why I am suggesting we need to be thinking about design of democratic systems and not just methods or processes.
  • Conditions for success: This will build on my PHd work where I looked at the conditions needed for democracy to thrive online
  • Mapping our progress: I’ve been working with the Democratic Society gang on a framework to map democratic innovation. I want to build on this with them and see if we can use it to help understand how to scale and connect some of the work we are doing
  • Checks and balances: I want to look at ways of managing and monitoring power in a/the system – this is something I’m going to talk the Centre for Public Scrutiny folks about but I also want to do some more cross-domain research here as I think that different parts of the system see this very differently
  • New – or newly valued – skills: Looking at what we need for citizens, organisers, public servants and representative. What should we be teaching our children?
  • What has technology ever done for us? This will be partly about reviewing state of the art with democratic tech but more about exploring what the artist formally known as digital transformation can teach us when thinking about socio-technical change
  • Asset based redesign: what of the past do we need in the future? Who are already nurturing future systems? I want to start this with a session at NotWestminster in February and so I will share a session plan for that shortly

And then some synthesis:

  • The power of the one: I want to look at all of this through the lens of the citizen
  • The power of the many: And then build on the social movements stuff from last year to look at some collective action
  • Theory of change: Working with the team at Democratic Society
  • I want to see if I can knit this together into a proper theory of change – but I need to persuade them first! This should extend out from the innovation mapping framework but needs some work

What next?
Reading this back this looks A LOT like my PhD research plan – I am not sure if thats a good or a bad thing – but breaking this down hopefully makes it less indigestible. I also need to do better than I did last year on seeking out collaborators.

But my final thought is that the kind of change I am outlining here takes years. It’s a generational shift and it feels very bold to write it down like this. But we need to do this collectively – ‪we won’t rebuild democracy by shouting at each – we will do it by creating spaces where people can have rich conversations and make sense of things‬. This is my contribution to that conversation.

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