Technology and political will can create better governance

Darshana Narayanan at The Economist: “Current forms of democracy exclude most people from political decision-making. We elect representatives and participate in the occasional referendums, but we mainly remain on the outside. The result is that a handful of people in power dictate what ought to be collective decisions. What we have now is hardly a democracy, or at least, not a democracy that we should settle for.

To design a truer form of democracy—that is, fair representation and an outcome determined by a plurality—we might draw some lessons from the collective behaviour of other social animals: schools of fish, for example. Schooling fish self-organise for the benefit of the group and are rarely in a fracas. Individuals in the group may not be associated and yet they reach consensus. A study in 2011 led by Iain Couzin found that “uninformed” fish—in that case, ones that had not been trained to have a preference to move towards a particular target—can dilute the influence of a powerful minority group which did have such preferences. 

Of course fish are not the same as humans. But that study does suggest a way of thinking about decision-making. Instead of limiting influence to experts and strongly motivated interest groups, we should actively work to broaden participation to ensure that we include people lacking strong preferences or prior knowledge of an issue. In other words, we need to go against the ingrained thinking that non-experts should be excluded from decision-making. Inclusivity might just improve our chances of reaching a real, democratic consensus.

How can our political institutions facilitate this? In my work over the past several years I have tried to apply findings from behavioural science into institutions and into code to create better systems of governance. In the course of my work, I have found some promising experiments taking place around the world that harness new digital tools. They point the way to how democracy can be practiced in the 21st century….(More)”.