I just read a brilliant piece on the SSIR blog, which talks about the current design of political systems, and what they allow and disallow in terms of citizen participation. The author, Brodie Boland, talks about how it is hard to escape the fact that our long-standing political institutions are now ‘ominously creaking’ under the weight of all that is expected of them, and their inability to meet those expectations. As Boland writes,
Signs of stress include declining voter turnout, mass movements of the left and right, and our governments’ inability to deal with major threats such as climate change and fiscal indebtedness.
But what has led to these times of extreme stress? Have governments always been inefficacious or is this the result of more recent changes in our socio-political views? For Boland, it is the latter:
Our political structures are strained because their foundations have shifted. The tools of the current political system—voting, legislation, parties—were built to decide between existing options. However, the problems we face today do not come with an obvious list of solutions. Reducing deficits, addressing climate change, and preventing major security threats—these challenges require creativity and innovation more than debate. And so the proverbial hammer finds a nail, and the political system’s attention shifts from the tough questions to those few issues that have preexisting and polarizing options. The result is increasingly acrimonious debate about increasingly immaterial issues, while the important problems fester. We focus our political resources on deciding between options, and leave the design of these options to chance.
He calls this the ‘deciding paradigm’, which effectively diverts institutional resources away from innovation and toward conflict, and fails to tap into the knowledge and ingenuity that citizens possess. This seems glaringly evident in a place like India, where important issues such as access to such basic amenities as food, water and power are still lacking, whilst the political and media sphere pays little attention to these problems, save when corrupt systems are revealed and a new scandal erupts. Rather than our attention being focused on developing solutions to the problems, then, we end up debating some official’s involvement in a corrupt scheme instead.
However, these kinds of long-standing, large scale social problems – which can also be called ‘wicked problems’ – require not debate, but solutions that are similarly complex, multivariate and wide-ranging. And the only means to begin to design these kinds of solutions, especially at a governance and policy level, is to actually redesign our systems of governance, beyond merely making it inclusive and possible for more citizens to send in their suggestions and opinions. Boland writes:
So do we replace this with a form of direct democracy? No. This fails to escape the deciding paradigm. Instead of treating ideas and options as constant and focusing on choosing between them, we need an architecture of political institutions that generates better ideas. Currently, our political system answers the question how do we decide between alternatives? Instead, it should ask how could we design better alternatives?
He proposes designing a new social system altogether, that would generate better ideas and innovations. The architecture of this system would have to have the following characteristics:
. It will facilitate mass collaboration.
. People will assemble based on both how different and how similar they are.
. It will generate many ideas and find ways to weave them together.
. It will draw on both sophisticated theory and lived experience.
As I read these four points, I found myself not only agreeing vehemently, but also drawing close associations with the design of the Design Public Conclave. Obviously, the Conclave isn’t a governance system, but it aims to do much of what Boland talks about, in terms of bringing unlike and like minds together and reorienting the conversation from debate to discussion. It aims to have both theoretical discussions and practical solutions through intense panel discussions and day-long collaborative brainstorming sessions. Moreover, its larger aim is to generate, or at least enable the generation, of innovations that are responsive to social needs and which serve the public interest.