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Last Thursday I raced up to Camden on my bike just in time to give the closing presentation at Open Everything London. I whisked through the historical relationship between technological innovation and social/organisational structure, outlined the hypothesis for emergent democracy and ended with a description of the Themis Project and an invitation for contributors. There were lots of interesting questions afterwards. I wish I could have been there for the entire day. Eli Gothill has posted a review of the event which gives a flavour for anyone who wasn’t there. Jonathan Gray organised it with the Young and Shuttleworth Foundations.

On Friday evening I pedaled down to the Unicorn Theatre for “Who Wants to Be”, along with James and Emma. Ever since Saul Albert’s presentation about the format at the recent Emergent Democracy workshop I’ve been dying to see it in action. My intention was to sit quietly, observe the crowd and make notes charting the changing dynamics through the evening. However I couldn’t help getting swept up in the hurly burly and I think I suggested something rather unconstructive about chain-saws at one point.

The production was extremely polished. A small support team at the edge of the stage controlled projections on a screen in response to what was happening. As people put forward ideas their words appeared almost immediately on a projection screen, often accompanied by images. There was a pleasing sharpness to how this was done, sometimes subtly mocking a proposal, other times encapsulating it more elegantly than the proposer had done. Thus the support team functioned somewhat as a chorus in Greek drama, commenting on the proceedings as well as reporting them. Mikey Weinkove did an impressive job as MC, holding everything together and sustaining a sense of direction.

What struck me most during the evening was how inexorably a consensus formed around a sensible, safe decision. Initially there was strong peer encouragement for people to propose ideas that were entertaining and outrageous but as the group turned to deciding what the money should actually be spent on the dynamic shifted and frivolous options were progressively whittled away. In the end we decided to buy a park bench and put our names on it. The previous audience decided to buy a piece of woodland. It’s striking that these are both popular choices for memorials, which made me think a lot about the choices we middle classes make.

I suspect the dynamic would be somewhat different if the event were held in an established community who actually had something significant at stake in the decisions being made. You would see factions mobilising and forming alliances. You would see much more heat in the interactions, rather than pure play. And there would be a lot more pressure to reach a consensus within the allotted time. I would be fascinated to observe an event running in such a situation.

Hats off to Saul and the team at the People Speak for coming up with such an intriguing format and executing it with such panache.

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 :

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