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25th Anniversary series: Democratic Diversity: the turbulent and diverse futures of popular government

July 9, 2015

Democracy, as defined by its Greek originators, has never been the global or even Western norm for government. The governments that we today label as “democratic” are in fact not what the ancient Greeks – or even the American framing fathers – would have called democracies. They are, rather, representative governments, or what political philosophers once called republics. Yet, no other form of government has ever made so great an impression on the imaginations of so many, and few other words in the English language carry such weight and such inherent validity as does democracy. This is so true, in fact, that the common meaning of the word has evolved over time for most people democracy now simply means representative government.

Today, the philosophies and practices of governance are passing through a period of transition and our definitions and models of democratic governance will diversify as political communities around the world increasingly experiment with new ways to address growing and emerging societal challenges. Societies today are confronted with globally interdependent systems that they cannot fully manage, rising resource demands, population shifts, dramatic urbanization, a globally connected citizenry empowered by emerging technology, and the increasing power of non-state actors to influence policy. At the same time, societies have access to a broadening array of new tools – and new ideas for how to put them together – that promise to increase both the opportunities for citizen involvement in decision making as well as for wholly new governance arrangements.

As the world passes through this historical confluence of trends and emerging possibilities for change citizens in particular will find the next two decades at turns exhilarating and sobering. As events of the past few years have shown, never have individual, ordinary citizens had so much potential power to effect intended changes in politics and society. At the same time, rising global interdependence and rising dependence on the digital infrastructure that undergirds daily life (particularly in the advanced economies) have revealed the unprecedented degree to which the modern life of individuals can be penetrated and damaged by both the state and by actors existing below and beyond the political community.

By considering the myriad challenges facing governments and communities today, and by examining the broadening landscape of technologies and ideas that people are drawing upon in order to face those challenges, we can think logically about the ways in which societies might end up navigating this historical confluence of trends and possibilities. Such an exploration[1] yields a number of compelling scenarios of change, which in turn highlight the particular struggles that civic-minded citizens will confront in the years ahead.

Mediated Republics A pervasive digital civic infrastructure forms a mediating layer between citizens and political leaders, providing citizens with automated curation and advice and providing officials with data and prediction.
Democratic Layers Hybrid representative-democratic governments evolve as new democratic practices are grafted onto existing governmental structures.
Deep Governance Privately constructed digital and built environments become effective and intertwined systems for steering and constraining behaviour and enforcing norms across society.
Civic Redesign Ad hoc and community-built systems for addressing many community and societal challenges prove more capable than government agencies, causing government to redefine its role to be more of an enabler than implementer.
Bifurcated States The advance of digital technology and autonomous systems fuels a digital arms race between the state and other social actors, resulting in perpetual conflict with “dark” actors seeking to evade or undermine the state but a more flexible and collaborative relationship with emerging “smart” actors.

All of these scenarios feature logical pathways for political change out to 2040. Collectively they give us a pretty good look at the challenges that will confront citizens interested in making today’s representative governments more “democratic.” First, the entire set reminds us that power is a central issue in governance and political life. The dynamics of change often feature contests over preferences and the co-evolution of actors who variously compete and collaborate. Second, technology will in all likelihood play a central role in the contests over what government will look like. Third, and by no means a new state of affairs, citizens at large will not be the only empowered and invested stakeholder group seeking to influence the course of change.

Most interesting, however, is the fact that each of these possible futures represents a logical evolution of what people will call democracy. Careful consideration of the world’s political futures anticipates a number of retrograde possibilities, particularly in certain regions or countries. But amidst all of the global turmoil these five scenarios remain logical possibilities for those countries we currently term democracies. And given that in this new era of political change there are empowered political innovators and experimenters emerging in every region of the world, each within their own unique cultural and socio-economic milieu, we should expect that the future of democracy will be one of increasing diversity of form.

So, what does all this mean for the civic-minded, democratizing citizen activist/innovator/advocate? Techno-inspired notions of digital democracy do not emerge without concerted help, and so an appreciation for the age-old realities of politics, power, and institutional change is needed to map and navigate the very real, very strong forces for change and forces for the status quo. Political innovators also need an understanding of how new technologies actually tend to emerge and redefine societies; every generation witnesses a new technology heralded as “democratizing” yet subsequently fails to usher in a new democratic age. They also need to remain connected to the sprawling networks of civic innovators around the world, drawing both inspiration as well as insight from the many efforts currently underway.

Finally, a clear image of what they see as democratization will aid them greatly in successfully pursuing political innovation towards the ends they truly wish to attain. There are emerging a great many stakeholders pursuing political change under the banner of “democratization,” but the images inspiring those stakeholders differ dramatically, ranging from the e-anarchy of techno libertarians to the citizen-led problem-solving regimes imagined by open government and transparency advocates. An appreciation for the fact that our notions of what constitutes democratic governance are diverging will help citizens clarify their own preferred futures for governance as well as help them align with those other stakeholders who hold truly complementary visions for the future.

Stepping back, we can anticipate that citizens are in for no easy ride into the future. On the one hand, they are empowered to envision and pursue political change – and democratization in particular – as never before. On the other hand, every other interested stakeholder, from the state to corporations to hacktivists and cyber criminals is likewise inspired by emerging capabilities and empowered to energetically pursue their preferences for the future of governance. This results simultaneously in a great deal of hope and a great deal of troubling uncertainty for citizens contemplating a democratic future. This confluence of trends and possibilities will be very turbulent time for political life and will likely witness an increasing diversity of future democratic practices.

There are many excellent guides to major trends that will affect us all over the next decades. For guidance, see http://www.samiconsulting.co.uk . What we have tried to do in this blog sequence is to highlight a specific emerging change from the many, and to explore some of the potential impacts.  We welcome thoughts on other drivers of change or more impacts of the ones we have highlighted.

Written by SAMI Associate, Richard Lum PhD

If you enjoyed this blog, sign up for our monthly newsletter at eSAMIsignup@samiconsulting.co.uk and/or browse our website at http://www.samiconsulting.co.uk

[1] Lum, R. “A Futures Perspective on Constitutional Governance.” International Journal of System of Systems Engineering. Forthcoming

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. July 9, 2015 9:25 pm

    Reblogged this on and commented:
    A wonderful (ahem!) new post on “Democratic Diversity,” which I am increasingly anticipating as one of the characteristics of the future, global political landscape.

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