Rebooting Democracy

 John Boik, Lorenzo Fioramonti, and Gary Milante at Foreign Policy: “….The next generation of political and economic systems may look very different from the ones we know today.

Some changes along these lines are already happening. Civil society groups, cities, organizations, and government agencies have begun to experiment with a host of innovations that promote decentralization, redundancy, inclusion, and diversity. These include participatory budgeting, where residents of a city democratically choose how public monies are spent. They also include local currency systems, open-source development, open-design, open-data and open-government, public banking, “buy local” campaigns, crowdfunding, and socially responsible business models.

Such innovations are a type of churning on the edges of current systems. But in complex systems, changes at the periphery can cascade to changes at the core. Further, the speed of change is increasing. Consider the telephone, first introduced by Bell in 1876. It took about 75 years to reach adoption by 50 percent of the market. A century later the Internet did the same in about 35 years. We can expect that the next major innovations will be adopted even faster.

Following the examples of the telephone and Internet, it appears likely that the technology of new economic and political decision-making systems will first be adopted by small groups, then spread virally. Indeed, small groups, such as neighborhoods and cities, are among today’s leaders in innovation. The influence of larger bodies, such as big corporations and non-governmental organizations, is also growing steadily as nation states increasingly share their powers, willingly or not.

Changes are evident even within large corporations. Open-source software development has become the norm, for example, and companies as large as Toyota have announced plans to freely share their intellectual property.

While these innovations represent potentially important parts of new political and economic systems, they are only the tip of the iceberg. Systems engineering design could eventually integrate these and other innovations into efficient, user-friendly, scalable, and resilient whole systems. But the need for this kind of innovation is not yet universally acknowledged. In its list of 14 grand challenges for the 21st century, the U.S. National Academy of Engineering addresses many of the problems caused by poor decision making, such as climate change, but not the decision-making systems themselves. The work has only just begun.

The development of new options will dramatically alter how democracy is used, adjusted, and exported. Attention will shift toward groups, perhaps at the city/regional level, who wish to apply the flexible tools freely available on the Internet. Future practitioners of democracy will invest more time and resources to understand what communities want and need — helping them adapt designs to make them fit for their purpose — and to build networked systems that beneficially connect diverse groups into larger political and economic structures. In time, when the updates to next-generation political and economic near completion, we might find ourselves more fully embracing the notion “engage local, think global.”…(More)