The IFTF Blog
Governance Futures Lab: Now is the Time
Proximity can be a remarkable learning tool. Last week I experienced two drastically different approaches to thinking about the future of governance, and learned a great deal from both of them, including why NOW is the time for launching the Governance Futures Lab at IFTF.
On Jan 22-23, my colleagues and I at the Institute for the Future hosted a 24-hour collaborative forecasting experiment called Connected Citizens. Hundreds of players from all around the world submitted twitter-size forecasts about how new technologies could improve or even transform government services and citizen engagement. Over 6700 cards were played in a torrent of exchange. Topics ranging from transparency to time banks, and beyond, were covered. The rapid-fire nature of the engagement put one’s mind in a state of near mania. It was a thrilling event. Further commentary and responses can be found here: FastCoExist, UKAuthority.com, Gov 2.0 Radio, and the Connected Citizens blog.
Soon after the gameplay on Connected Citizens ended, I left for Austin to attend another remarkable event for those who are making the future of government. Sandy Levinson, an eminent Constitutional law professor at UT Austin, and author of the recent book Framed: America’s 51 Constitutions and the Crisis of Governance, convened a who’s who of Con law and political theory around the provocative question: “Is America Governable?” Lawrence Lessig gave an insightful presentation outlining his “dependency corruption” argument. He made a case for exactly how money has distorted the political process, creating injustice for all but the richest in the country: the Lesters as he calls them. Levinson, Jacob Gersen, Jane Mansbridge, James Fishkin, and many others gave excellent talks.
As opposed to the digital nativity of Connected Citizens platform, the “technology” in Austin consisted of a couple of microphones, a spartan courtroom, and a few dozen well tempered minds. Demographically speaking, I was younger than 95% of the attendees and 99% of the presenters. And yet, even given its dramatically different participants and style, the conference was equally as thrilling, stimulating, and fulfilling as the Connected Citizens experiment.
Having had these two experiences, back-to-back, put certain insights into sharp relief. My sense is not that either way of approaching a conversation around transforming governance was better than the other, but that both certainly needed each other, and are somewhat incomplete without what the other could offer.
Connected Citizens had a diverse, global audience, low barrier to entry, and visible feedback and scoring mechanisms. “Is America Governable?” had a limited face-to-face audience, a conversation that demanded deep knowledge of American history and law, and direct feedback only if you were lucky enough to have a question answered in Q&A. However, if you were in the building, you had access and opportunity to talk directly and at some length with the best thinkers on law and politics in the country. I learned things there that I never would have any other way.
Connected Citizens asked a relatively mundane question about how to improve government services, but it used an innovative platform to generate and aggregate ideas about this topic. This created a vibrant, improvised, and unpredictable conversation. “Is America Governable?”, started with a profoundly radical and provocative question, and then got out of the way to allow learned experts ample time to present, deliberate, and reiterate.
The observation that these approaches are complementary obvious. But there is more to say in this comparative exercise, especially about the qualities of time. As political theorist Sheldon Wolin has noted, “Political time is out of sync with temporalities, rhythms, and pace governing economy and culture.” That is, the way political institutions make decisions and process information is on a much slower pace than the already fast and accelerating rate of change today. Technologies and economies may benefit from a model based on replacement and obsolescence, but most formal politics works through the slow grind of negotiation and is driven by a logic of (self and institutional) preservation.
This temporal incongruity was most obvious recently during the early 2012 protests over the Stop Online Piracy and Protect IP Acts (SOPA/PIPA). Many considered passage of these laws a fait accompli, and yet that seeming destiny was turned on its head almost overnight by the massive outpouring of protestations by a vocal segment of Internet advocates and activists, reaching a crescendo with the “Internet blackout” of Jan 18, 2012.
And yet, we may not want our political processes to move at the pace of the Internet in many cases. Accelerated decision making also got us the PATRIOT Act, and drives many forms of disaster capitalism. Deliberation is not a luxury of the past. As James Fishkin noted in Austin, well designed deliberative processes can drastically improve citizen engagement and collective decision-making.
What the back-to-back experiences in differing pace and styles in discussing government made clear to me was the need for a collective reappraisal of our actual governing structures and participation platforms in terms of modulating speed and harmonizing time. Contemplative conferences and collective idea tsunamis are both necessary and desirable modalities for parsing key political issues, but they must be correctly and coherently applied in differing contexts.
These experiences have also crystallized the important role and bridging function of the Governance Futures Lab at IFTF. Our mission is to re-design governance for the anthropocene, the age of human responsibility at a planetary scale. But this responsibility applies to pace or tempo at different scales as well. So, we need to be able to create systems that can act at both geologic time and at the speed of light and electric signalling. As we expand our reach in space and time, we must understand the internal logic of these differing zones and tempos. We must design leverage points into these systems, and creating a rapport with the active agents that exist there and then.
We are creating a set of experiences at our upcoming Reconstitutional Convention that will not only take on these issues of designing effectively at scale, but will also embody modes of participation will reflect this mindfulness of pace. Stay tuned for more on that event, and the activities of the Lab as we experiment with these ideas for designing better governance. And please let us know if you’d like to partner with us in this exciting endeavor.