New forms of democracy and governance might emerge as a result of changes in power relations. Identifying requirements for future governments allows us to rethink their layout and working mode and explore how the future might be. The Future of Government 2030+: A Citizen Centric Perspective on New Governance Models is a project carried out by the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC). In our work, we had access to scenarios and personas developed by the JRC, as well as strategic materials from Camden Council.
The intention of our project is to explore open democracy and stimulate a debate with citizens, business and policy-makers. We envision possible, plausible and desirable future government models. The concept is situated in the JRC future scenario Citizen Centric HyperEgovernment:
Governments have a real-time understanding of socio-economic problems; public services can be offered predictively to citizens. Participation in decision making is easily possible. Citizens are sovereign over their data, privacy is key.
Marie and Carlos are the key personas inspiring our design. Marie is a young student, engaged in politics and the environment. She wants to be heard. Carlos is an older shopkeeper and influencer for his community, who can act as a bridge to the future government. Both fit well our vision of future citizens who are also engaged policy influencers.
Experimenting with ideas
We started our journey looking at the global state of democracy and trying to understand what democracy means to each of us. This already put us on a creative path, being more aware of our own interpretations and finding commonalities. Doing this exercise, I started to put my own voice into the research and critically reflect on my own assumptions, experience and bias.
Exploring themes on global democracy gave me a better understanding of the trends. I was particularly struck by The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index 2017; less than 5% of the world’s population currently lives in a ‘full democracy’ and we’re in ‘democratic recession’.
The United Kingdom fares well as a democracy yet, disaffection and disengagement in local policy is at an all time high (Parliament UK website, 2017). If local democracy is at the basis of our freedom, what does gross disaffection mean? What if we found a model to make people, especially youth, reengage with the democratic process? At this point, The Freedom in the World Report 2018 also influenced our direction:
Young people, who have little memory of the long struggles against fascism and communism, may be losing faith and interest in the democratic project.
This inspired an idea to educate people at a young age so they can learn how to exercise civic rights. In the 2017 TEDx Talk So, what is democracy anyway? Peter Emerson states that majority voting is one of the most inaccurate measures of collective opinion.
Most political problems are complex; to reduce them to a win-or-lose binary vote, or even a series of such dichotomies, often turns what should be a discussion into an argument.
This led to the idea of citizens as policy makers, which would allow a shift from binary voting. However, a key enabler was missing. How might we motivate citizens to participate? We explored the concept of universal basic income. What if we rewarded citizens for their service as policy makers, as a motivation for their contributions to democracy?
We also explored technological enablers. Advances in machine learning support our concept, improving interactions between citizens and local government. Semantic sense-making and natural language recognition enrich the debate. Our concept is situated in a privacy-focused future, where technology is at the service of citizens and democracy. We have deliberately used the term ‘sense-making’, instead of AI or Machine Learning to avoid associations with intrusive technologies.
Experimenting with physical artifacts
For me, the first physical experiment came when we decided to make future personas. It was my first taste of design fiction, looking at my home city of Madrid in a near future context and building a persona to operate within it. This storytelling and speculative activity showed me to think how ‘things could be’, using my own instinct, views, values and imagination. How does foresight differ from forecasting. Robert Charles Lee proposes:
A “forecast” is a prediction (la prédiction, l’évaluation), based on objective facts (ideally) or experience or something else.
A “foresight” is a vision (le horizon d’attente: horizon of expectations), based essentially on your internal farsightedness, prudence (circonspection) or general mental preparedness (l’état de préparation, l’état d’alerte préventive).
Early appreciations of speculative design came from the work of Dunn and Raby (2013).
Research through design
We used research through design as a key methodology. Our first approach to research through design was inspired by the work of Ambra Trotto, DIS2017: [X]Changing Perspectives: an Interactive System for Participatory Sense-making. It is a product service system that stimulates the joint construction of meaning between individuals. What if we could reveal citizens’ thought process during policy-making, as well as the collective knowledge generated during their meetings? Would there be value in this?
Experiment one: sensing, feelings, semantics, orchestrating citizens
We set out to model a citizen-led discussion that was able to sense the emotions of participants. As a role play. Bracelets collect emotional data, mics collect semantic data and algorithms make sense of it all in a visually compelling manner. We wanted to explore the value of emotional reactions in the context of policy-making and how that would affect outcomes.
We also prepared a framework, based on STEEPE, to manage the meetings. This would support a more effective citizen-leadership with a method. We tested the prototype and collected feedback: Key concerns were around protecting people’s privacy and data. Think of demographics of the people participating; some may be more emotional, will this affect the consensus? What about people who are able to manipulate emotions? How to avoid personal agendas?
Based on this feedback we started to iterate away from emotions and further into citizen-public servant collaboration. We moved into forging the future relations and roles of citizens, as well as those of councillors and officers.
Experiment two: citizen influencers, visualisations, tech
We looked into making a future scenario based on the challenges presented in the Camden 2025 strategy report. How could an issue from this report be discussed and visualised in a future citizen-led policy meeting? Could we make a role play set in a future scenario to illustrate how our concept could work? Based on feedback from policy researcher Adam Thorpe, we made a brain that represented a sense-making technology that would visualise citizen evidence and inputs, knowledge from expert clusters and insights from organisations or experts.
This data would, in the future, be shown in real-time to the stakeholders in the discussion. The aim would be achieving plurality of voices, knowledge and experiences. The sense-making technology would analyse a database of exemplars (e.g. from other European councils or cities) or/and data from citizens making contributions remotely.
In addition to the visualisation, we explored how the discussions could be structured to enhance their efficacy. We explored using a matrix divided into micro (local), meso (regional) macro (global) levels of discussion to look at enablers, barriers, challenges and opportunities of a specific issue from the Camden 2025 report.
We created a future newspaper that could be used for demonstrating our concept. The framework was part of it and the newspaper cover was an article describing our concept. We used Camden New Journal, as it is familiar to attendees. The newspaper was our storytelling tool, which would give the participants background information and set them in our future scenario.
Before the workshop with experts, we tested our demonstration idea with professors in the studio. It was too long and convoluted. It became clear our concept was good, yet it was not well explained a priori, so people were confused and time was lost. So, we turned it around and decided to simply tell the story of our vision.
Experiment three: our concept, shared with experts
The next day, at the workshop with experts, we had turned it all around. As per the feedback, we built a story of our concept as a short, fast narrative. We presented this in 4 minute speed talks to gather feedback from experts. We used some props, like the mock newspaper (which they could take for later reading) a Lego set to represent a 2030 council meeting and cardboard illustrations to guide and enhance the storytelling.
This evolved model addressed citizen engagement and participation in local policy. We presented a future scenario where citizens have penetrated local decision making.
By 2020, government had approved a Universal Basic Income, as the enabler for citizen involvement in policy making. Any citizen above 18 years can swap 4h of work for 4h of policy shaping. They execute by participating in council meetings, collecting evidence, doing research or learning how to design policy.
The education system has incorporated the fundamental principles of policy making since Primary School. Citizens are active participants in the policy decision-making process. They are engaged and participate in competence clusters. Peoples opinions and views around policies are shared in the discussions in real time and visualised publicly by government controlled semantic sense-making technology. This adds value by providing real time processing and analysis.
Local government is changing from a service provider to an enabler. As such Councillors and Council Officers have slightly different roles. Councillors are responsible for citizen-led policy making, they orchestrate the expert citizen clusters. Officers are skilled facilitators of citizen-led meetings.
What did the experts tell us? What did we learn?
Citizens of 2030 having a stipend in the vein of Basic Universal Income, so that they can participate in regular policy making, was well liked. Many of the experts saw this model of ‘paid citizenship’ as positive. The idea of citizen competence clusters was also well accepted. We were reminded that the composition of the expert cluster is important, as it should represent all key stakeholders. We were also reminded that sometimes ‘politics’ is neither ‘competence’ nor ‘evidence’ driven.
At this stage of the process, and taking onboard all the feedback, we decided to re-explore our prototype. We found that a symbolic piece, like an art installation, would be a valid way to express our model. What if we made an installation to show our concept?
We conducted in-group sketching sprints where we asked ourselves key questions around our concept, to then individually draw physical models. From these early sketches, we collaboratively iterated our prototype into a 3D object.
We found sketching an effective tool to cluster ideas. By making individual sketches and then presenting them to each other, we came to a new and shared vision for the artifact. Materials became vehicles for communication, as in the materials exploration below, where plexiglas is a metaphor for transparency.
Initially we had considered making a game. Over time, we realised that the details of the system were not developed enough. We decided to make a provocation on the possibilities of a citizen-led future, veering to an art piece. We wanted something that is beautiful, strange and intriguing. This would make people think, without being prescriptive.
After our sketching sprints and brainstorms, we started to work on our final concept. Iterating from a colourful paper prototype to cardboard. We also experimented, unsuccessfully, with lead lights as means of disseminating ‘data’ in our prototype.
In the images below, the small circles above and below represent the semantic knowledge of policy making, including ideas, evidence or suggestions coming into the meeting from citizens outside the expert clusters. The round platform at the centre is the council meeting. This piece will be produced in plexiglas to show transparency. Semantic knowledge is above and below, and a solid wood central ‘backbone’ holds it all firmly rooted in democracy. On the platform will be shapes that represent people, the citizens and officers in the meetings. Citizens are at the centre of our future democracy, deciding actively on its direction.
Finally, we colour coded our model to represent citizens (red), data (aqua) and policy (blue), to showcase their fragile interconnections. The concept was liked by JRC. They especially valued three aspects of it: the time swap mode of paid citizenship; the tech enabled data exchanges to share exemplars and best practice from around Europe; the idea of educating young children from an early age on active citizenship and participation. We used this feedback and created a mock Citizen Act of 2020, with the look and feel of British Parliamentary Acts, to highlight those values and to use as an artifact to present to experts in our final presentation day.
Here are some experiments in paper, which will be produced tomorrow in opaque plexiglas sheets (dark blue, yellow, aquamarine). An abstract will accompany them on display.
Five trends (or, really, enablers for our model) based on our experiments
Government as enabler
As citizens’ roles change and they become principal actors in local policy making, the role of government evolves from that of a service provider, to that of an enabler. Government becomes an entity that lets decisions come from outside in. Solutions for society are developed from outside in. Citizen led organisms work on policy making and government’s role is to orchestrate this, rather than to provide answers to everything. Private-public partnerships are more common in this scenario and government builds platforms and holds partners accountable. This brings real time cooperation between societal actors (citizens, business, government, etc.) and helps mitigate the risks associated with a binary yes/no voting model and low citizen engagement in policy.
Our research has shown that the concept of paid citizenship, based on a model like universal basic income (UBI), could be a catalyst for citizen activation, especially when coupled with the Policy since year one trend. UBI refers to unconditional and regular payments to citizens of a country or territory. Although experiments are still few and results are mixed, such as tests ongoing in Finland by KELA, the concept of paying citizens a basic income could be extrapolated into ‘paying citizens for policy-making’. Tighter business and government partnerships, resulting from a Government as enabler trend, would help execution. This kind of paid citizenship will alter the balance of duties of citizens and policy makers, providing the means for sustain citizen engagement.
Policy since year one
In order to enable the trend of paid citizenship, the education system has a key role. In our model, we have seen how educating citizens since primary school could have a major impact on their levels of participation, as well as their capacity to make an impact and act efficaciously. New models of education on policy making, based on problem solving and policy design, are a major trend. Primary school curriculae will enact this by introducing courses on government, problem solving, policy design and negotiation, among others.
Councillors and officers as facilitators
For the above to happen, on a more granular level, the role of civil servants and elected or non-elected officials must change. Officers and civil servants adjust to new roles where they orchestrate and facilitate the operational work of citizen policy makers. Whilst still running government, the nature of their daily operations as well as their power over decisions changes. This balance of power gives more policy design capability to citizens, while still leaving budget and overall operational control in governments hands. It also makes elected politicians less vulnerable to yes/no voting timeframes and election periods, as citizen engagement in policy design is ongoing.
Automation of intelligence
As Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence develop, we are moving to a stage of automation that goes beyond clerical tasks and into the management of tasks previously reserved to human cognition. The capabilities of machine learning will support citizen-led local governments by assisting not only in processing and analysing data. To this effect, it will support the new citizen-government partnerships, driving to more effective and inclusive decision-making.
What has this all meant for me?
Making material objects out of an abstract social subject, such as the future of government, has helped me focus on seeing systems in a three-dimensional manner. Research through design has affected how I have approached topics and collaborated with colleagues. It has made me develop skills in visualising, modelling, transforming abstract concepts into artifacts and storytelling. I have been speculative in my approaches, altering my thinking to embrace ‘what ifs’, foresight and future visions based on my own farsightedness, rather than hard data or forecasts. Using and making objects as research subjects has helped elicit new responses from people who have been engaged in co-creation. I have learned from these, seeing the rich insights and provocative and critical installation that our of experiments have generated.
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