This essay was first published in February 2010 as Chapter 14 of O’Reilly Media’s book “Open Government”. It was republished by CIRCUS foundation, June 2011. Download “Emergent Democracy” as a PDF file (201KB)

The Internet is already bringing important changes to our political and governmental systems. But while we pursue these immediate benefits, we must take care not to overlook deeper implications that could have greater long-term significance.

In this essay, I argue that the Internet has changed a fundamental aspect of democratic systems which has persisted for 7,000 years. This change may presage a period of democratic innovation on a scale comparable to classical Greece. It will lead to democratic systems that are more fluid, less centralized, and more responsive than those we know today; systems where people can participate as little or as much as they wish and where representation is based on personal trust networks rather than abstract party affiliations.

This is Emergent Democracy.

Democracy As a Scaling Mechanism

To understand Emergent Democracy we need to take a brief look at how communities have governed themselves through history. There have been a great many forms of government over the millennia, but my focus here is the evolution of the particular subset we call democracy; a continuous thread of systems where power is spread through a large portion of the community.

There is no single definition of democracy. The original Greek δημοκρατία means simply “rule by the people”. Each society and epoch has defined democracy differently, reflecting its unique preoccupations and aspirations. Democracy is a mechanism to distill the will of a people, a way to remove ineffective governments, a means of resolving conflicting interests in a community without recourse to violence and a thousand other things.

For the purposes of this chapter, I’m going to add yet another definition to the catalog. Looked at in the sweep of human history, democracy can be understood as a scaling mechanism for self-government. Small groups are able to govern themselves efficiently without any need for formal structure. But the larger a group gets, the less efficient this becomes. From this perspective, a democratic system is an exoskeleton enabling a group to self-govern at a larger scale.

This definition promotes democracy as a system, a social machine occupying a body of fixed and unambiguous rules. This positions democracy firmly as a product of postliterate society and a world where rules can be written down. Yet examples abound of preliterate societies and unstructured groups where decision making is shared between the members. While it’s problematic to call these democracies, they are certainly democracy’s direct ancestors. Our story starts with them.

Informal Self-Governance

Our ability for informal collective self-governance is one of humanity’s most virtuosic achievements. Because it functions almost entirely subconsciously, we barely appreciate the wonders we perform each day through nuances of speech and microgesture. Each of us is a cell in a collective intelligence machine of marvelous complexity and efficiency. Look beneath the surface of a typical village and you will find a continuous jostle of demands, alliances, and opinions in play. Without any formal structure, voting, or central management, this hubbub of tiny individual signals translates into collective decisions that are strategically intelligent and widely respected as legitimate.

However, this phenomenon works only in communities of a similar size to those in which the behavior evolved. In his oft-quoted 1992 article “Neocortex size as a constraint on group size in primates,” Robin Dunbar suggested that humans are able to maintain social relations with around 150 other people, but struggle to exceed this. The archeological evidence also suggests that for most of our 2 million years on Earth we existed in hunter-gatherer communities ranging in size from a dozen to a couple hundred people. This was the setting in which our social mechanisms for collective governance evolved. Beyond this size, their efficiency declines precipitously.

The scaling barrier was first breached during the tenth millennium BC when the earliest agricultural societies developed independently in Melanesia, Mesopotamia, and sub-Saharan Africa. Nobody knows what triggered the switch to agriculture. Perhaps it was a change in the climate as the last ice age retreated, or perhaps a critical combination of technological developments.

Whatever its cause, the shift to agriculture changed the balance between population and food supply which had persisted previously. Communities of several thousand people developed, a size which had no precedent. It’s no coincidence that specialized roles and hierarchy start to become visible in these societies. As populations grew and informal collective governance began to creak, it started to be supplemented by humanity’s first innovations in formal structured governance.

Mostly, this is believed to have taken the form of tribal heads and councils of elders. But I suspect these were more often focal points within an established mesh of informal interactions than wholesale replacements for it. Some anthropologists have described these models as “primitive democracy.”

Increasing Scale, Increasing Formalization

The agricultural revolution entered a new phase in the late sixth millennium BC with the appearance of the first city states in southern Mesopotamia. This transition led once again to larger populations. By the end of the fifth millennium BC, the Sumerian city of Uruk had upward of 10,000 inhabitants. These are the societies where written language first appeared, perhaps responding to a need for accurate recordkeeping and taxation in an increasingly complex hierarchic society.

With literacy also came the possibility of fixed laws and of democracy itself. Several legal codes survive from this period. It seems that a large proportion of male citizens of Uruk were entitled to participate in an assembly which could make legal judgments, advise the king, and in extreme cases even remove him. Raul Manglapus, the Philippine statesman and writer, has argued that what developed in those Mesopotamia city-states constituted the first democracies. It is a sobering reminder of our short memory and historical arrogance to reflect that democracy was born in what is now Iraq thousands of years before it ever blossomed in Europe or North America.

Regardless of how we label it, the governance systems that developed in these first city-states represents a leap in the formalization of authority, citizenship, and participation compared to the pre-urban agricultural societies.

The next milestones in scale and formalization come in the middle of the first millennium BC when sophisticated democratic systems were established in northern India, in a number of Greek city-states and in the Roman republic. By the sixth century BC, Athens had a population of several hundred thousand people of whom some 10% were male citizens entitled to participate in government. The Athenian system was vastly more intricate than anything that had come before, appropriate to a community 10 times larger than any that had employed self-government previously. Meanwhile, the Roman model employed a multitiered system of election and representation, governing a population which exceeded 10 million people by 100 BC.

The consistent pattern that becomes visible in this evolutionary chain stretching from the earliest hunter-gatherer communities to the Roman republic is that as communities increased in size, so the balance shifted from informal to formal decision making and citizen participation in government declined. This line continues right up to modern times. The Constitution of India of 1949 extended democracy to a society which then numbered half a billion people and has since doubled. Conducting an election at this scale takes several weeks. The Indian government addresses mostly the same preoccupations and needs as those which faced the first hunter-gatherer communities. But a price is paid for this extraordinary increase in scale.

Limiting Factors and the Internet

Since the first legal codes were written in Mesopotamia 7,000 years ago the fundamental trade-off with democracy has been that it enables a society to self-govern at a large scale, but at the price of a reduction in agility and problem-solving capacity.

Underlying this trade-off are three limiting factors:

  • The need to associate citizens and state interfaces with a fixed geographical location in order that information can reliably be exchanged between them
  • The need to build in time lags between each stage of a multistep process because information could move no faster than a galloping horse
  • The need for people to come together at the same place at the same time for formal debate and decision making

These constraints have been part of every democracy from Solon’s time to the present day. They underlie many of the rigidities and inefficiencies of Standard Democracy. Involving citizens in decision making on any scale is so burdensome as a result of these factors that highly formalized representational systems have become the norm. Most states rely on focus groups and market research as a surrogate for widespread citizen involvement. Even occasional participative mechanisms such as referenda are too costly and disruptive to be practical. Meanwhile, the operation of a representative assembly itself requires a huge superstructure of formal processes with an associated apparatus for monitoring and enforcement. This maintains equity in debate and decision making but slows the process to a glacial pace.

A few years ago, it occurred to me that the Internet has rendered all three of these limiting factors obsolete. The combination of ubiquitous connection, storage, and processing opens the door to complex many-to-many interactions which can be molded dynamically by logical systems. But the democratic fabric with which we’re familiar is so impregnated with assumptions founded on these three limiting factors that it’s hard for us to imagine anything different. Nobody has ever experienced a democratic system that wasn’t tied to those three factors. What would it look like?

By obviating these limiting factors, the Internet calls into question the iron trade-off between scale and fluidity. In the absence of these constraints, it’s possible to conceive of large-scale democratic systems an order of magnitude more complex than existing ones that harness our complex social behavior for collective decision making rather than disabling it. Imagine the jostle and opinion-clustering process that operates in a village, but functioning in a society of 1 billion people. A system that operates in this way represents a new kind of democracy, which the phrase “Emergent Democracy” captures nicely.

The distinction between emergent and planned systems has a rich intellectual history. In economics, Friedrich Hayeck made the distinction between taxis and cosmos with the former concept representing mechanical, designed structure and the latter organic, spontaneous structure. In systems theory, emergence is seen a central mechanism of self-organization, enabling complex behavior to result from the interaction of a large number of relatively simple agents.

The phrase “Emergent Democracy” itself has a little history. Joi Ito and others employed it in 2003 in a somewhat different sense to describe the way public opinion flowed and coalesced via blogs and other web communication platforms. Indeed, it was a conversation with Joi that got me thinking about Emergent Democracy again.

Building an Emergent Democracy

In the summer of 2008, I formed the Themis project with CIRCUS foundation to experiment with constitutional and technical systems for Emergent Democracy. The project brought together a variety of people involved with democratic innovation for a series of workshops in London.

Underlying Principles

We started by identifying six principles which would provide a foundation to develop the Themis constitution:

  1. The formal system is capable of modeling a level of fluidity and complexity similar to informal social behavior.
  2. Citizens are linked to electronic, not geographical, addresses.
  3. All formal interaction between citizens and the state is conducted electronically.
  4. Discussion and decision making are continuous processes, not restricted to discrete times or places.
  5. Dependence on nonautomated processes is minimized.
  6. The formal system is deliberately incomplete; informal processes cross the boundary into formal mechanisms only when there’s a good reason for them to do so.

The first principle is the central one. An Emergent Democracy is a formal system, but one which can adapt and reform the same way our underlying social behavior does. This entails bureaucracy an order of magnitude more complex than a Standard Democracy. For the formal system to even approximate the fluidity of informal behavior there need to be mechanisms capable of reflecting the continuous ebb and flow of authority and opinion in connection with different issues. The constitution itself also needs to be able to evolve constantly. This degree of complexity and constant change would be impossible to realize in a paper-based democratic system, even at the smallest scale. Only by translating a constitution into software does it become feasible. This fusing of a constitutional rule system and an electronic processing system is a defining characteristic of Emergent Democracy.

The second and third principles sever the paper-bureaucratic umbilical cord between the state and citizens, removing the built-in time lags. The fourth departs from the “same time, same place” foundation of Standard Democracy, replacing discrete processes with continuous ones.

The fifth principle recognizes that an emergent system will be impeded if it has to interoperate with external bureaucratic systems (such as manually drafted contracts or regulatory structures) that continue to function in the conventional manner. Any such dependencies will undermine the fluidity and responsiveness of the system.

The sixth principle reflects the perennial tendency in systems design to try to encompass every conceivable circumstance within the engineered framework. In the case of Emergent Democracy, it is better if discussion and consensus forming are permitted to happen “offstage” and cross into a formal mechanism only at the point a formal record is needed or a consensus can’t be achieved without a vote.

The Themis Constitution

Building on these principles, the Themis constitution is a simple participative democracy where each citizen has an equal right to propose and vote on group decisions. The constitution contains multiple references to an electronic governance system through which citizens can access definitive records, participate in decision making, and join communities of other citizens interested in particular topics. Even amendments to the constitution are initiated on the electronic governance system and the constitution is automatically updated if they succeed.

The Themis constitution incorporates a rather unconventional representative system. In line with the first and fourth principles it was clear any representative model would need to introduce minimal rigidity and reflect informal behavior as closely as possible. That ruled out cyclic elections, fixed-term appointments, restricted candidate lists, and party-based voting.

In the purest sense, a representational system is a way of concentrating authority within a wider group. My experience with small communities has been that influence is held by different people in particular subject areas. Also that the distribution of authority can change remarkably quickly in response to events. In the absence of formal hierarchy, this mainly seems to function through a web of peer-to-peer trust relations. Such systems respond very efficiently to changing circumstances, increasing the concentration of authority at times of crisis so that decisions are made and implemented rapidly, but distributing authority more evenly at other times, creating space for more debate and disagreement. Standard Democracy lacks this ability to flex. Powers which become centralized during a crisis tend not to be relinquished once the crisis has passed.

I spent a lot of time thinking how a representative system could be engineered to model similar characteristics. The solution I came up with was a fluid proxying system. Every citizen retains the right to participate actively in debate and decisions when they want to. But if they don’t want to get involved, they can assign their vote to someone they trust, who is then able to cast two votes. There’s no permanence in this. If someone doesn’t like how his vote is being used he can withdraw the proxy at any moment and either participate himself or give it to a different person. Proxies can in turn be pooled. A citizen holding six proxies can assign all of them to another person whom he trusts. In this way, authority is dynamically concentrated through people’s trust networks, able to ebb and flow freely. Based on this proxying system, a second, more sophisticated Themis constitution was drawn up.

A fluid representative system of this kind would, of course, be completely impractical in a Standard Democracy. It would be impossible to update records fast enough to know with certainty how many proxies each person held at a particular point in time. Only with the shift to an electronically managed Emergent Democracy do solutions of this kind become feasible.

One Click Orgs and Virtual Corporations

After completing the Themis constitution, the next task was to develop its accompanying electronic governance platform. Guided by the philosophy of Michael Young (my late mentor), I thought we should set out to develop something of immediate practical value rather than an academic test bed. From my experiences with the School for Social Entrepreneurs, I knew that social ventures encounter a scaling barrier at the point they need to open a bank account or create a formal governance structure. It seemed to me that providing a website where groups could automatically generate a simple legal structure and group decision-making system would probably be useful.

In October 2008, I put out an invitation for software engineers and others interested in building such a platform. The first project meeting took place a week later, and development of the One Click Orgs prototype commenced.

At a public meeting at Berlin’s Chaos Communications Congress in December 2008, the One Click Orgs project became the world’s first virtual organization governed by Emergent Democracy. Two nonprofits, the Bar Camp London Planning Association and Rewired State, followed suit and constituted themselves on the prototype system during spring 2009. The full v1.0 system was completed toward the end of 2009 and deployed to 20 diverse groups as part of a beta program.

After using the platform for a year, the organizations function pretty much as anticipated. Groups make most decisions by consensus without touching the formal governance system. In the One Click Orgs project group, formal proposals have mostly been submitted when a member judges a decision to be unusually significant. For instance, when we picked the Affero GPL v3 as the regime under which we’d release the code, this was formalized with a vote. Another situation where votes have been used is to resolve fuzziness. We spent several weeks debating whether the platform was ready to release to beta groups. In the end, one of the members initiated a vote which was successful. An authoritative decision had been made, so we proceeded with the release.

Many questions remain to be answered. As soon as we started work on the system, we began to discover edge cases and paradoxes that needed figuring out. Linking the constitution to an electronic system casts the significance of bugs in a new light. Rather than causing minor inconvenience, a bug can potentially bring an entire organization to a grinding halt. Also, if we failed to think through how different constitutional mechanisms could interact, there was a risk that users would create logical paradoxes that could likewise cause the organization to seize up. Even simple things such as system upgrades needed to be rethought. Most upgrades will involve a combination of functional and constitutional elements, but any change to a constitution will require a vote. Therefore, we must provide an automated mechanism to offer groups “upgrade resolutions” which, if passed, will trigger the relevant changes to system and the constitution.

The experience of One Click Orgs suggests there may be a natural affinity between Virtual Corporations and Emergent Democracy. Each innovation consists of mapping legal-bureaucratic processes onto electronic logical systems. The former may turn out to be the natural container for the latter.

Currently, the One Click Orgs platform provides a self-contained Emergent Democracy wrapped in what’s technically an unincorporated association. Legally, this is the amoeba of the organizational world, conjured into being by the mutual agreement of its members. The next step is to extend the platform to provide legal envelopes with greater durability, specifically corporations.

One Click Orgs is now starting to work with other thinkers and innovators who are working in related fields. David Johnson at the Center for Democracy and Technology and Oliver Goodenough at Harvard’s Berkman Center drafted a set of recommendations which in June 2008 led Vermont’s State Legislature to pass an “act relating to miscellaneous tax amendments.” Despite its unassuming title, this act established Vermont as the first jurisdiction in the world where fully fledged virtual corporations could be formed. David and Oliver are helping One Click Orgs develop a version for a Vermont Virtual Corporation. Meanwhile, the project is collaborating with Joi Ito to develop automated offshore corporations as part of a toolkit for hackerspaces.

The Road to Emergent Democracy

We tend to associate democracy with nations, cities, and other state entities. But through history, democracy has played an equally important role in trading leagues, religious groups, nongovernmental organizations, and other nonstate entities. My hunch that Virtual Corporations may turn out to be a critical delivery mechanism for Emergent Democracy fits this picture.

Anyone seeking a living example of what a complex Emergent Democracy might look like could do worse than look at the crowdsourced encyclopedia Wikipedia. This is an extraordinarily sophisticated collaboration where consensus progressively forms from a mass of divergent views and agendas with minimal central control. While the community strongly deprecates polling as a tool and such votes as take place are not binding, Wikipedia demonstrates many of the characteristics of an Emergent Democracy. Moreover, it is triumphantly, improbably successful. James Wales is sometimes (inaccurately) quoted as saying that Wikipedia is not an experiment in democracy. That may never have been its main purpose, but from a certain perspective, that’s exactly what it is. Wikipedia is a democratic machine for agreeing the truth.

Looking at how Emergent Democracy is likely to, well, emerge, I think the state will probably be its very last port of call. As with any experimental process, the wave of democratic innovation I predicted at the start of this chapter requires the ability to fail over and over again. Far too much is at stake in national politics for failure to be acceptable.

Therefore, in the next few years I expect to see a ferment of experimentation in settings where the stakes are lower. As successful models for Emergent Democracy start to crystallize, some will become widely adopted by nonprofits, activist groups, clubs, businesses, and others who seek to govern themselves in a more participative manner. I also expect to see existing online communities adopting legal structure and governance. We will see World of Warcraft guilds and Facebook Groups gaining legal personality, systems of government, control over assets, and the power to form contracts with the outside world.

There will also be a wave of innovation driven by businesses seeking increases in agility. This may see shareholding and remuneration tied to automated mechanisms alongside participation and voting rights, or employee contracts translated into dynamic electronic structures. Businesses’ main interest will be the removal of procedural burdens that slow response times in a conventional organization.

Only after Emergent Democracy has become well established in many other areas might it start to be brought into the machinery of the state. Perhaps there will be a few tentative experiments in parish councils and other peripheral structures. Next, experiments may be considered at county or regional level. But realistically, it will be decades before we see aspects of Emergent Democracy in the government of nation states.

However, national governments may begin to see an impact somewhat sooner than this. Grassroots campaigning groups may be among the earliest adopters of Emergent Democracy. As a tool for interested citizens to debate policy questions and agree on common positions, Emergent Democracy will be a powerful aid. This will be somewhat similar to the phenomena discussed by Joi Ito and Clay Shirky, but with the addition of a formal decision-making machinery able to give focus and force to the concerns of thousands of citizens.

I can imagine an intriguing situation developing where governments elected through Standard Democracy find themselves engaging with mass citizen groups that are operating with Emergent Democracy. It’s hard to imagine a conjunction that would highlight the differences between the systems in a more revealing fashion.

About the author

Charles Armstrong is a social scientist and innovator based in London. He’s CEO of Trampoline Systems, a software developer specialising in large-scale social network analysis. In 2009 Trampoline was selected by analyst IDC as one of the world’s top 10 innovators in business software. In the same year Trampoline became the world’s first technology venture to raise equity investment through crowdfunding.

Alongside his role with Trampoline Charles is also Director of The Trampery, a co-working and events space in the Shoreditch technology cluster, and of One Click Orgs, the open-source project which in March 2011 launched the world’s first platform for virtual organisations. He formed CIRCUS foundation in 1997 as a platform to undertake experimental social projects and incubate ventures, including those named above.

Charles studied Social and Political Sciences at St John’s College, Cambridge, and went on to be mentored by Lord Young of Dartington, one of the architects of Britain’s post-war society.

He’s a Fellow of the School for Social Entrepreneurs, a board member of the global technology non-profit Techsoup and advisor to several ventures. He regularly gives talks on subjects including emergent networks, virtual organisations and entrepreneurship. He’s a competent baroque keyboardist and occasionally gives electroacoustic performances with friends. Since February 2011 Charles has served on the Prime Minister’s working group developing policy for the East London technology cluster.



At an event in London this evening One Click Orgs officially launched its free public service. The version 1.0 platform helps community groups and fledgling non-profits organise themselves with a legal structure and voting system.

One Click Orgs Associations are compatible with English law. We think they can be used in other countries too. However in some places an Association must be registered with state agencies. We’d welcome input from lawyers who can tell us exactly what’s needed for different jurisdictions

In countries where a One Click Orgs Association isn’t recognised as a civil society organisation groups are still welcome to create a One Click Orgs constitution and use the voting system with their members.

Go and create a One Click Orgs Association!

Initiatives like One Click Orgs and Harvard University’s Virtual Corporations Project are paving the way for a new breed of virtual organisations whose legal underpinnings are wired up to electronic workflows. Such organisations open up intriguing new possibilities for collaboration, participation and value creation. But could virtual governance techniques also be harnessed by conventionally-structured corporations to speed up decision making and reduce bureaucratic overheads?

Numerous events occur in a company’s day to day operation which need to go through a formal governance procedure of some kind. When executives want to make a big purchase they may need written approval from the board of directors. If the board decides to issue new shares and raise investment they usually need formal approval from a majority of shareholders. Before the CEO of a venture capital backed startup can issue options to an executive they might need a special “class consent” from the investor.

These governance procedures provide checks and balances that ensure a business is run in the interests of all its stakeholders. They are defined by clauses scattered throughout the company’s articles, investment agreements and other documents. But there is a cost to these safeguards. Every time a governance process runs it creates a delay and absorbs clerical effort. The problem is well illustrated by looking at the process of securing shareholder approval through a written resolution.

The first challenge is working out what consent is needed from which shareholders. There might be multiple classes of shares with a variety of different powers. Once this has been established the written resolution is drafted along with any consents needed for specific share classes. The correct combination of documents is then sent as email attachments to each shareholder along with guidance on how to complete them.

Each shareholder prints the documents, ticks some boxes to indicate their votes, inserts the date and signs their name in the appropriate places. In some cases they might need to get a witness to sign and fill in their address and profession. When the documents are completed the shareholder scans all pages, attaches the resulting files to an email and sends it back to the company. Finally the shareholder puts the physical copy of the executed document in the post to be archived at the company’s offices.

As the executed documents arrive back at the company someone needs to check each one to make sure it’s been completed correctly. There are invariably mistakes, in which case the shareholder in question must be asked to repeat the process. Each shareholder’s choices are collated, including the consents from specific share classes. Eventually it becomes clear whether enough support has been received for the action can proceed.

This is exactly the kind of fiddly, labour-intensive process where virtualisation can make a big difference. One Click Orgs has designed a written resolution module that uses the internet to completely rethink how a written resolution works. The module’s designed to be used by established corporations with conventional articles. At its heart is a virtual model of the company’s corporate structure including all the different share classes, the thresholds for making decisions and the identities of shareholders, board members and senior executives. Issuing a written resolution using the One Click Orgs system starts with a duly authorised executive or board member entering the text on a web interface, adding form elements like check-boxes as required, then clicking a button to activate it.

At this point an email is automatically sent to all shareholders alerting them that a written resolution has been issued and linking them to a secure web page where they can read the text and respond. If any class consents are required they are automatically generated for the relevant shareholders. Once a shareholder has made their choices and digitally signed to execute the resolution the company receives an alert and a monitor tracking progress towards the approval threshold is automatically updated. Once the threshold is reached an email is automatically sent to everyone confirming that the decisions has been formally approved.

A virtualised written resolution of this kind could secure shareholder consent in a day compared to a week with the conventional approach. The effort for the company and the shareholder is greatly reduced. The scope for misunderstanding and error is almost completely obviated.

Previous technological advances have been used to speed up established governance processes without significantly changing their form. An eighteenth century shareholder would have received a written resolution from a courier who would have come by foot, horse-back, carriage or boat. The manner of the documents’ delivery has changed beyond recognition but the form of the document itself and the manual processes surrounding it are essentially the same today.

Combining virtual governance modules will eventually enable a company to automate complex transactions such as issuing new shares, including submitting electronic filings to the state regulator and updating the company’s books to reflect the new share capital. One Click Orgs’ project to virtualise the London Hackspace is the first practical experiment retrofitting elements of virtual governance onto a pre-existing corporate structure. I have a feeling it will not be the last.

Today we’re hugely excited to announce that Joi Ito has joined One Click Orgs’ advisory board. Joi has contributed to a succession of ground-breaking internet ventures as an entrepreneur and investor. His current role as CEO of Creative Commons puts him in the thick of the collision between established legal concepts and the internet which is One Click Orgs’ home territory.

It was a fireside discussion about emergent democracy with Joi at Foo Camp 2008 that planted the seed for CIRCUS foundation’s Themis project and the chapter on emergent democracy I contributed to O’Reilly’s “Open Government” book. The Themis project gave birth to One Click Orgs so there’s a poetic circularity in Joi getting involved with the project now.

In joining One Click Orgs’ advisory board Joi is in the distinguished company of Oliver Goodenough (Co-Director Berkman Center Law Lab, Harvard University), David Johnson (Senior Resident Fellow, Center for Democracy and Technology) and Matt Jones (Partner, BERG). Joi has some far-sighted ideas about how virtual corporate structures will enable changes in financial and organisational models. We look forward to working with him to turn some of these ideas into reality.

We’re delighted to announce the formation of One Click Orgs’ advisory board and honoured that three outstanding figures have agreed to support the project by being part of it:

Oliver Goodenough is co-director of the Law Lab at Harvard University’s Berkman Center and also professor of law at Vermont Law School. He leads Harvard’s “Virtual Corporations” project and is one of the architects of the amendmants passed by the State of Vermont making it the world’s first jurisdiction to support entirely virtual corporations.

David Johnson is Senior Resident Fellow at the Center for Democracy and Technology. Prior to this he was Visiting Professor at New York Law School where he established the “Virtual Company” project. David (working with Oliver Goodenough) was an architect of the legislative reforms creating the Vermont Virtual Corporation. He is particularly interested in the potential of virtual organisations to enable new forms of peer production.

Matt Jones is a partner at BERG, the London-based design consultancy. He was a co-founder of the travel website Dopplr, director of user experience for the Nokia NSeries range and creative director behind the original BBC News website.

Oliver, David and Matt’s experience and wisdom will be invaluable in guiding One Click Orgs’ strategy over the coming months.

We’re delighted to announce the first five groups selected to participate in the One Click Orgs beta programme. The groups are:

WordCamp UK (UK)

Open Font Library (International)

Open Kollab (USA / International)

Southend in Transition (UK)

Crafting Gentleness (N Ireland / International)

We’ll be setting up platforms for each group over the coming week. In proper OCO style the final decision was made via a vote on our governance system. We’re looking forward to working with each of the groups and learning how we can best support their goals. We’ll be announcing the next batch of beta participants in the near future.

At last week’s planning meeting we decided (with a One Click Orgs vote, naturally) that the platform was ready to enter Beta release. Since the start of 2009 three groups have been using the Alpha platform and giving us valuable feedback. With the new 0.5 release we’re opening an invitation to 20 groups to use One Click Orgs and help guide the next stage of development. Our partners at the Open Knowledge Foundation have kindly made hosting facilities available to support this.

We’ve already got a dozen groups lined up for the Beta. If your group would like to join them and be one of the first to run on a virtual platform write to us at open [at] CIRCUS-foundation [dot] org or send a message via our Facebook group. Meanwhile we’ve published a simple Beta FAQ answering some of the key questions from groups that are interested.

Last month I was invited to Washington DC to present One Click Orgs at the Summit on Next-Generation Governance Models organised by Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society. This one-day summit brought together fifty senior academics, figures from the Obama administration and technologists.

There was a huge amount of interest in the project. It was a particular pleasure to meet Oliver Goodenough (Co-Director of the Berkman Center’s Law Lab) and David Johnson (Senior Resident Fellow at the Center for Democracy and Technology). They were jointly responsible for the reforms passed in the Vermont state legislature in 2008 opening the way for virtual corporations. Both Oliver and David have graciously agreed to join One Click Orgs’ Advisory Board.

One of the most interesting topics discussed at the Berkman summit was the way that virtual corporations could undermine key planks of the corporate regulation regime. Currently the vast majority of corporations are registered in the jurisdiction in which they’re located. The notable exception is the United States where the state of Delaware has a long-standing reputation for business-friendly company law which has led a lot of ventures to incorporate there.

The emergence of virtual corporations threatens to cut the tie between the location of a business and the jurisdiction where it registers. Just as shipping businesses register their fleets under “flags of convenience” such as the Bahamas where regulations are looser and multi-national firms organise their tax affairs around the laxest regimes, businesses will increasingly be free to incorporate in whichever jurisdiction in the world has the most favourable company law. This raises a host of questions about how governments will be able to fulfill their responsibilities to protect consumers and shareholders from abuses and fraud.

The invention of artificial personality and limited liability by the UK Parliament in the nineteenth century reflected a quid pro quo where joint-stock corporations gained significant privileges and protections in return for which they submitted to state regulation and agreed to place key information in the public domain. That bargain is now in danger of unraveling.

Virtual corporations pose many other questions for society. The internet has given rise to millions of online communities which will soon have an easy route to acquire legal personality. Are we ready for a world where “guilds” in the online game World of Warcraft can become corporations, own assets, have their own governance systems and enter into contracts with the rest of the world?

Important advantages are offered by virtual corporations. They will permit entrepreneurs to set up a venture in a matter of hours in response to a new opportunity and greatly reduce the bureaucratic friction involved in running a company. But we need to be sure that the regulatory regime keeps up with the challenges presented by this new world.

Tomorrow the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University is hosting a summit in Washington, DC on next-generation governance models . Charles Armstrong will be speaking about One Click Orgs and participating a panel discussing virtual corporations and company law.

This Saturday I’m giving a presentation about One Click Orgs at OpenTech in London. My session is due to kick off around 12:40. This will be a particularly exciting day for the project as we’re hoping to give the very first public demo of the alpha release. There will be several of us at the event so do come and say hallo if you’re there.