By Jake Dunagan, Ph.D., Director, Governance Futures Lab, IFTF

Every institution we live with — from formal governments to our educational system to family dinner — is a human invention. The world — this invention of ours — should serve us. And yet, it most often feels like we are the ones serving the machine we created. If humans are to survive and thrive into the future, we must rethink how our existing social inventions work, and how to improve them, replace them, or discard them. How do we re-balance our relationships to the social inventions we created?

This intentional re-thinking, re-ordering, and re-designing of our systems of governance is at the core of IFTF’s Governance Futures Lab. It has driven over a decade of initiatives with government agencies, foundations, activists, and civic groups all around the world. Our mission is to catalyze a global movement of social inventors to design better futures.

Our most recent endeavor, the Austin Constitutional Convention (ConCon), was held in October 2023 in a lovely setting in the Travis Heights neighborhood of Austin, Texas. The ConCon originated from a provocative prompt: “what if women designed the next constitution?” As the idea evolved, taking in feedback from scholars, activists, journalists, and others, my co-visionaries on this project, Ilana Lipsett and Pam Ryan, and I decided to frame the ConCon as a pilot demonstration of what a more inclusive constitutional design process might yield. This essay, the first of two installments, will describe the event, the political system design process used in the ConCon, and some highlights of the outcomes.

Setting the Stage

Political system design pulls from multiple disciplines and approaches, including scholarly, critical, and historical work as well as fiction and art. (Photo by Jake Dunagan)

The 2023 Austin ConCon was funded by the Tingari-Silverton Foundation around the vision to demonstrate what kind of new constitutional ideas for the United States would spring forth from a diverse gathering of social inventors. Although it was small (10 participants), we had a range of individuals in the room representing different U.S. regions, genders, ages, and ethnicities. We had activists, scholars, students, filmmakers, futurists, lawyers, and more represented in the room, and in some cases, all those roles were contained in the same person. Participants were invited based on their individual knowledge and experience, as well as how those experiences would compliment and contrast with others’ perspectives. The ConCon did not favor any political ideology, other than a basic commitment to democracy and care for future generations.

The constitutional design process was a modified version of the Social Inventor’s Toolkit we created at IFTF over 10 years ago. The toolkit itself was modeled on political futurist Jim Dator’s political system design course, taught at the University of Hawaii, Manoa for over 40 years.

It begins with the obvious question: “what is wrong with government?”

Below you can see the graphic recording of that discussion (all graphic recording images are by the fabulous Sara Nuttle).

These complaints are likely familiar, especially how patriarchy and nationalism are used to consolidate power and exclude groups from access to that power. But a few others stood out to me. One was the observation that the government is “designed to frustrate.” In other words, the malfunctioning and obsolescence of many government platforms and activities are intentional. If the government worked better, those in power could not get away with things, and people might actually start to feel empowered and connected to the levers of power. We can’t have that!

Most of us have little problem naming the defects and challenges of our current system. We have a harder time coming up with solutions, especially solutions at the systems level. That is where we moved next in the ConCon.

Foundational Assumptions

Designing new systems does not begin at brainstorming immediate patchwork solutions to existing problems. It must be built on foundational assumptions about the nature of political systems (the nature of reality, in fact), and the more subjective set of values that one would want to see operationalized in the world. The framers of the U.S. Constitution built their system on assumptions that the world was made by an architect/engineer creator who made the world to run like a fine machine. Newtonian physics was the cutting edge of science, and if this science can explain and build the world, then it can also be used to design perfect political machinery as well. The framers also believed in individual political subjects, who are driven by a rational desire to accumulate power. That innate desire must be tempered by design, by separating branches of government and making sure no person or small group of people can consolidate power and dominate the system. These assumptions, made by wealthy, land- (and in some cases, slave-) owning white male individuals in the late 18th century, are embedded deeply in the design of the Constitution.

Similarly, the social inventor’s process begins by having each participant name their assumptions about the nature of reality, human nature, political subjectivity, and geographic boundaries (ours being dictated ahead of time as the United States). These “objective” assumptions are all oriented around a set of core values that reflect the subjective visions of the kind of world each participant would want to see in the future. Given the ConCon’s goal to model a more inclusive design process, we expected the foundational assumptions upon which our new constitutions were to be built would be significantly different from those of 55 white men in Philadelphia in 1787. There were many similar expressions of the aspirational values of the original framers, such as justice and equality, and quite a few more that brought forth new values and perspectives on what makes a good society.

Here are the values participants wished to operationalize in a constitution:

  • Mutual aid
  • Joy
  • Love
  • Pluralism
  • Accountability
  • Ancestral wisdom
  • Balance and Harmony
  • Co-creation
  • Representative
  • Responsive
  • Effective
  • Interconnected
  • Open
  • Justice (x2)
  • Dignity
  • Weird
  • Forward-looking
  • Empathy (x2)
  • Consciousness
  • Humility
  • Amendable systems
  • Inclusive
  • Stability
  • Reliability
  • Community
  • Unity

There are appeals to a universal “good,” but what stood out to me was the number of terms that foregrounded relational “goods,” such as empathy, co-creation, inclusivity, interconnectedness, ancestral wisdom. These are much less abstract and much more in how we live together in a more harmonious way.

Next in the foundational assumptions, we asked participants to bring three adjectives that describe human nature (leaving open to their interpretation of what “human” and “nature” mean). As mentioned before, the U.S. framers of the Constitution were heavily influenced by John Locke and Adam Smith, seeing people as rational, but most often using their rationality to increase their wealth and power. This human nature had to be limited by government, and is seen in the structural design laid out in the Constitution. For our group, certainly influenced by modern science, new spiritual practices, and a more diverse set of backgrounds and influences, human nature looks quite different from greedy and rational.

The adjectives describing human nature were:

  • Confused
  • Resilient
  • Traumatized
  • Individualistic
  • Well-meaning
  • Needing validation
  • Curious (x2)
  • Included
  • Stubborn
  • Proud
  • Easily distracted
  • Hopeful
  • Tribal
  • Irrational
  • Compassionate
  • Opportunistic
  • Interconnected
  • Complacent
  • Community-oriented
  • Empathetic
  • Feedback-seeking
  • Off-loaders
  • Seeking Belonging

Again, the relational terms stand out: interconnected, feedback-seeking, needing validation. But, perhaps not surprising, the contradictions of human nature are highly visible: curious vs. complacent; individualistic vs. community-oriented; tribal vs. compassionate. Designing a political system that accounts for human nature is already a herculean task, but when that human nature is self-contradictory, then the task becomes that much harder and in need of lateral, original approaches.

Finally, we asked participants to give an expression of what they think the nature of reality is. If the framers saw the world as a cosmic machine that can be re-made as microcosmic political machines, then what is our best description of reality today? Is it a quantum gumbo that flashes in and out of existence depending on if a consciousness is aware of it? Is it an animistic world where every living and non-living thing has a mind, or an interconnected spirit?

Some of the descriptions of reality were:

  • Reality is not set in stone
  • Reality needs to be more objective
  • Reality is chaos with purpose
  • Reality is a non-linear experience by the subconscious mind
  • Reality is what we pay attention to
  • Reality is in the eye of the beholder
  • Reality is flexible

Clearly, there were very few expressions of the nature of reality that sounded anything like “reality is a giant machine.” Again, relational and subjective terms give the sense of reality as temporary, subjective, fugitive. Operationalizing a constitution on the back of a fugitive, slippery reality gives yet another example of the difficulty of social invention today. And yet, despite the difficulty, the need to reconstitute ourselves for the future is no less great.


Preambles, like the preamble to the U.S. Constitution, are mission statements for the kind of world that is to be wrought by the design of the Constitution that follows it. We looked at dozens of preambles from other nation-state constitutions as well, many built in the aftermath of tragedy and violence that destroyed the previous order.

I’ll end the first installment of this essay with some highlights of the preambles that each individual was asked to create. These preambles reflect the values and assumptions about human nature and reality that each brought to the ConCon.

In the next installment of this essay, we will look at some of the concrete constitutional designs our participants imagined.

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