Yesterday evening CIRCUS foundation hosted its second Emergent Democracy Workshop at the Trampery in London’s Shoreditch neighbourhood. The workshop’s aim was to continue a general exploration of democratic innovation whilst developing specific ideas and tools around emergent democracy.

Francis Irving kicked off with a presentation of several of MySociety‘s web services including TheyWorkForYou, FixMyStreet and WhatDoTheyKnow. Each product creates a new interface between citizens and state-sector actors. They simultaneously increase the accessibility and relevance of public-domain information whilst providing simpler mechanisms for people to engage with government bodies. Francis emphasised the value of enabling users see other people’s inputs, for instance FixMyStreet allows you to see if someone else in your neighbourhood has already reported the pot-hole you want the council to repair. This is a subtle disruption, providing a catalyst for the formation of communities of interest that might more effective at getting results than solitary individuals. By the way, I promised to mention Francis’ latest initiative Serious Change: go sign up now!

Saul Albert came next introducing The People Speak and talking through several case studies of their “Who Wants to Be” event format. This is a fabulous tool for stimulating ad-hoc collective decision making in a community. Up to two hundred people assemble in a hall or open space where they’re armed with coloured cards, a common objective and a budget to spend. There then follows a tightly-facilitated process where proposals are gathered, grouped, refined and whittled down to a collectively-determined outcome. The coloured cards, coupled with a visual recognition system, provide a lightweight tool for instant voting. The genius of the format is that it’s deliberately designed to evoke a television game show rather than an earnest debate. This leads people to take part in a more playful and dramatic fashion, better suited to creative problem solving and breaking down schisms in the community. Another crucial element is the freedom participants have to change the rules in any way they wish. It was fascinating listening to Saul describe how groups’ energy changes after they start to do this. it would be interesting to study whether such an experience has any impact on the individual’s engagement with the democratic system subsequently. I think many of us will now be joining in the next “Who Wants to Be” event on 7 November.

To start the second half of the workshop I recapped the ideas behind Emergent Democracy that were discussed at the first workshop. From this I led into a walk-through of four model Themis Constitutions that I drafted last week in Washington. These apply principles of Emergent Democracy to four kinds of organisational decision-making:

– A simple collective model where all members participate in decision making
– A proxy model where members can pool decision-making power fluidly
– A council model where a representative group is empowered to make decisions on behalf of all members
– A presidential model where a single individual is empowered to make decisions on behalf of the members

In each case the organisation functions through continuous discussion and decision-making. The constitutions don’t contain a single clause relating to meetings. I then proposed that the Themis Project should work towards developing an open-source platform for creating and running organisations along Emergent Democratic lines. As soon as I have a chance I’ll put this proposal into a more structured form and publish it on the site.

The rest of the evening was spent in a very interesting discussion which touched on questions of transparency, potential user communities and the practicalities of working with such an organisation. At ten o’clock, an hour later than planned, we finally drew to a close and discovered it was miraculously snowing. All in all it felt like a very productive evening.

Thanks to everyone who took part and particularly to Francis and Saul for their superb contributions.

: c :