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Business, Government - Written by on Tuesday, August 4, 2009 19:12 - 0 Comments

Derek Pokora
Redesigning a new platform for democracy

The sub-prime mortgage crisis, the credit default swap and derivatives disaster, the automotive industry, recording and publishing/broadcasting industries. What do they all have in common?

Failed systems. Constructs designed by humans that have faltered at some point in the process. Some might say education is the next to witness this.

Tom Brown, CEO of IDEO, questions the current economic model in North America:

I have been thinking quite a bit recently about the failure of the economy and whether we want it to recover to its pre-bust state. As I listened to the arguments for various stimulus packages, the main justification for distributing hundreds of billions of dollars seemed mostly to involve getting us to spend more by consuming more. As a short term fix this may be okay, but wasn’t it just such an unsustainable approach to growth and consumption that got us into trouble in the first place? Can we really expect to spend our way out of this downturn and somehow magically create a post-crisis economy that is sustainable?

You mean throwing money at a problem won’t solve it if the model has an inherent flaw? How do we redesign society on a macro level? How does one magically create a post crisis economy?

There is the concept of a participatory government, whereby citizens play a direct role in designing/monitoring/enforcing the rules that govern economic activity. Gong Szeto, designer and creator of YOUROWNDEMOCRACY, believes that we should redesign government as a computational platform:

Today’s technology allows for innovative online collaboration, networking, transactional, and information visualization. Integrated together in a coherent set of solutions for the citizens of democracy, it is now possible to conceive of a single-platform which is an independent non-partisan party whose sole mandate is to harness the power of these technologies into an accessible framework that will allow citizens the ability to stay informed about complex issues and to register their votes in favor or in opposition to processes in government. Transparency will lead to a stronger, more active and informed citizenry and more accountable government.

A Finalist in the 2009 Buckminster Fuller Challenge, YOUROWNDEMOCRACY is a web-based application geared to empower citizens of any democracy in the world to directly engage one another and their elected leaders on important issues on local, state, and national levels. Its goals:

•    empower collective action through citizen action
•    integrate with public citizens for immediate feedback.

You can read more about Gong’s proposal here. The concept applies today’s social networking, multimedia, and financial markets technologies to create a collaborative infrastructure that records and displays a population’s real-time sentiments. This data is measured and visualized for everyone as part of a continuous feedback loop.

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I can appreciate that the idea makes issues digestible and actionable. Provided citizens are engaged, YOUROWNDEMOCRACY fosters a culture of transparency, openness and innovation. Transparency can even be a regulatory solution whereby connected citizens can act as monitors within the system. In the same breath though, transparency also means privacy issues.  Network and security issues could threaten public safety.  Data mining (especially on such a remarkable scale) and identity theft are not two phrases anyone enjoys hearing in the same sentence. With an accessible central repository of citizen data, the right data in the wrong hands could potentially be very harmful.

Scalability comes into play. Can the complete scope and needs of the people be adequately addressed using such a system? Do we have the physical resources required to support such an infrastructure. Twitter, an exemplary use of social media being used to track political events such as the post-election riots in Iran, has become a victim of its own success. It has experienced massive scaling problems due to the amount of page views per second.

There is also the daunting task of defining the parameters of the system. Should the system mimic the current infrastructure or does the change in methodology alter the system itself? Szeto’s approach is that of an independent non-partisan party whose sole mandate is to harness the power of these technologies into an accessible framework. This idea alters the current multiple party system of politics to that of a direct democracy. A changing model of governance also means a change in distribution of labour within government. Who is responsible for framing the questions asked – the government or the people? Careful understanding and use of verbiage in law is paramount. Ballot initiatives, a costly method of doing politics, have been considered to be the reason for paralysis of the political process in California and have been deemed the ‘crack cocaine’ of democracy by the Economist. Ironically enough, the original intention of ballot initiatives was to empower citizens at a grassroots level.

Accessibility is yet another concern. PM Stephen Harper recently announced the government’s intention to improve broadband internet access to rural Canada. Although this is a step in the right direction, it illustrates the point that not all citizens of Canada have equal access to broadband technologies. Those unfamiliar with the technology may not be as inclined to use it as well.

Will this design have longevity? With technology constantly evolving, would the current system, and therefore the political system (depending on mutual exclusivity of the two) be able to stand the test of time due to technological obsolescence? Would interest fade? The law of diminishing utility could mean that citizens could simply get bored of using the system and participation could simply diminish over time.

Are people truly ready, willing, and able to govern themselves?



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