Rebooting Democracy

Traditional democratic institutions are failing. It’s time for an upgrade.

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If forms of government can be likened to operating systems, current variants of democracy are a bit like early, primitive versions of Windows. They are neither optimally functional nor user-friendly — they are buggy, susceptible to malware, and lack desired features.

While our democratic systems have brought us far, they appear incapable of solving complex modern problems like recurring global financial crises, rising inequality, climate change, and various forms of resource depletion. Even the most established democracies are failing to deliver public goods: the U.S. Society of Civil Engineers recently issued a grade of D+ on the condition of U.S. roads, bridges, water systems, schools, and other infrastructure. Not unexpectedly, the approval rating of the U.S. Congress is at a near-historic low of 20 percent.

The versions of democracy attempted by newly democratizing nations have been even less effective. The democratic system imported by the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq in 2003-4, for example, was really no different from British mandate arrangements tried in the 1920s. The U.S. occupation provided an illusion of democracy, but with little functionality underneath — like a corrupted version of Windows that shows a static desktop but runs no programs. Several years later, in response to the Arab Spring, democracy transfer failed again. The most powerful pro-democracy wave since the end of the Cold War resulted in precious little new participatory governance.

The failings were not due to a “clash of civilizations,” as Huntington famously argued. There is nothing inherent to democracy that makes it incompatible with the Arab or any other culture. Rather, the failings resulted from promotion of form over substance — replicating an image of democracy rather than a functional, inclusive, accountable decision-making system that is adapted to local needs. If democratic initiatives in the Arab world and elsewhere are to evolve and mature, it will be because expressions of democracy have markedly improved. We are suggesting that democratic systems are due for a major upgrade, and that new, more flexible versions will allow for community programming — refinement of a system by the very people who use it.

Political systems are decision-making systems. But societal decision-making is not limited to the political realm. Economic systems, too, make decisions — and are ripe for deeper democratic mechanisms. Indeed, decisions made through an economic system can at times have greater impact on a society than those made through political systems. A democratic system limited to the political arena is severely and artificially restricted.

Recently, stinging criticisms of contemporary capitalism have appeared by economists, religious leaders, activists, and ordinary citizens. Clearly, both political and economic systems are failing to keep up with citizens’ demands for function, participation, and accountability. What would the next generation of political and economic systems looks like, if these demands were to be met?

When engineers develop a product, one of their chief tasks is to ensure that it performs within certain measures of quality. In this context, a scientific approach to developing the next generation of democracy would measure quality not as increased economic output but by the broader metric of increased wellbeing. Wellbeing implies not only avoiding negatives such as pollution and hunger, but also enjoying positives: meaningful jobs, good wages, access to education and health care, justice, strong social bonds, sufficient time for family and friends, and a vibrant ecosystem. If we were to purposefully design better versions of economic and political decision-making systems, then we would measure their performance by their ability to maximize these characteristics.

But using a scientific approach to develop upgraded systems is made all the more challenging by the complexity of our world. Complexity increases with population, the number of interactions between and among people and organizations, the expansion of technology, and the capacity of societies to impact the local and global environments. From a systems engineering viewpoint, civilization and the societies that constitute it are “complex systems.”

Complex systems — social or otherwise — present complex problems and risks. They are susceptible to cascading failures, for example, where errors propagate from one component to the next in a destructive, growing wave. The cascade of bank failures following the 2008 global financial crisis is a case in point. Further, positive and negative feedback loops can create tipping points, which, if crossed, can induce rapid, radical changes. Bank runs are a well-known example. The rapid growth of terrorist movements across Africa and the Middle East may well be another.

Fortunately, nature shows a path forward. Complex systems exist in biology, too, where they have been tuned for robustness and function by eons of evolution. These systems share common characteristics such as decentralized power, redundancy, inclusion, and diversity that could inspire the creation of robust and functional human-made systems. Thus, our path to maximal wellbeing (and perhaps even survival) may well go through purposeful, consciously-designed, flexible decision-making systems that mimic what we find in biology. 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.

Two of the authors of this piece, Boik and Fioramonti, have proposed a strategy to develop, test, and implement a specific next-generation economic system. That system, which is local, parallel, and open-source, is called the Local Economic Direct Democracy Association (LEDDA) framework. A computer simulation model has been published that illustrates currency flows. Inflation-adjusted family incomes more than double during the course of the simulation, and grow more equal as they rise. By the end of the simulation, the virtual U.S. county of 100,000 adults channels billions in currency annually toward local for-profit and nonprofit organizations. Full employment is achieved.

Efforts by other groups are sure to follow, both because of need and the relatively low barriers (designing and testing new decision-making systems for local use is less expensive than doing so for national use). Ideally, many will pick up the challenge, and cooperate and collaborate in developing an ecology of systems for use within different niches.

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.”

Photo credit: MARTIN BUREAU/AFP/Getty Images

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