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Nesta is an innovation foundation. For us, innovation means turning bold ideas into reality and changing lives for the better. We use our expertise, skills and funding in areas where there are big challenges facing society.

What's next for democratic innovation?

Over the last decade, Nesta has been researching, funding and imagining new democratic futures – from our foundational work on D-CENT (which creates digital tools for direct democracy and economic empowerment) to championing Democracy Pioneers.

More recently, the Centre for Collective Intelligence Design has been reflecting on our democratic innovation project, COLDIGIT, and renewing the case for radical, people-powered systems of governance, while exploring what’s next for emerging ways to inspire participation.

Democracy in crisis

We are at a unique moment in time: from climate change to deepening inequality, many interconnected crises are challenging societies around the world. At the same time, the condition and quality of our democracies is degrading. More than two years after the American presidential election, 40% of Americans do not believe that Joe Biden legitimately won. New laws could limit the right to peacefully protest in the UK. Across the globe, the number of democracies heading towards authoritarianism outstrips those heading towards democracy. Even in functioning representative democracies, our 20th-century concepts of governance have failed to provide the speed and scale of change required to address the challenges we face.

Democracy is clearly in need of a refresh.

People-powered systems

Although the picture may sound bleak, in some instances, the crisis of democracy and technology is being met with the emergence of radical new systems. Bottom-up social movements that rely on rapid, technology-enabled mobilisation and distributed governance, such as Black Lives Matter and Extinction Rebellion, have brought people together around the world to fight for racial justice and climate action. Increasingly, governments are looking to citizens for help in addressing some of these issues. Permanent citizens’ assemblies have been established from Bogotá to Newham, with the OECD reporting a ‘deliberative wave’ of representative mini-publics that has been gathering momentum since 2010. Online crowdsourcing of ideas and participatory budgeting has been used to give citizens control over how issues are addressed locally, with citizens responsible for up to 20% of city budgets in Brazil.

It is not simply that new forms of participation are happening, but they are also able to facilitate complex decisions that are more equitable, sustainable and fit for 21st-century society, from legalising abortion in Ireland to holding politicians to account on climate action in Helsinki. Many of these processes contradict assumptions about ‘public opinion’ on controversial issues, such as supporting onshore wind turbines in the UK countryside or opposition to a runway expansion that would have enabled more low-cost air travel. Technology has also enabled the scaling of some of these processes, as with the open-source tool Consul, which was originally developed for participatory budgeting in Madrid in 2015, but has since been deployed by 130 institutions in 33 countries.

The last two decades of experimentation have created hope in a period of uncertainty. However, too often these experiments fail to last beyond a few pilots. ‘Politics as usual’ takes over and the recommendations from citizens are ignored by those in power. This has happened to such a large extent that implementing over 50% of recommendations is often considered a major success, as if politicians following the will of the people is considered to be the height of democratic ambition. So, where next for democracy and democratic innovation?

As with most public policy innovations, people are quick to criticise and question whether we have taken participation too far. While evaluating what went wrong and improving participation processes is fundamental, the flaws in current practice shouldn’t mean we put on the brakes. This is particularly important because of the scale of cultural change required to transform democracy, both in terms of citizens believing in themselves and, crucially, people in government believing in citizens. Participation can have a profound impact on citizens – where people have changed careers, returned to higher education or got involved in local politics (watch films The People vs the Climate and Les 150 to see this firsthand). Likewise, civil servants and politicians that experience the power of meaningful participation can become champions of the approach, driving a cultural shift where participation is the norm. In this sense, more is better.

"The more people can have direct experiences doing these things, the more they then see themselves as someone who believes in participatory democracy and perpetuates it … to me the question is one of: how do you scale giving people these experiences?" – Matt Stempeck, researcher, technologist and activist

However, superficial participation that listens but does not act, or processes that are so under-resourced that they inevitably fail, can entrench distrust on both sides. There is therefore a need to deliver a common standard of participation and deliberation to ensure that institutional and citizen experience of these processes is consistent and high quality. This work is fairly established, from the Knowledge Network on Climate Assemblies (KNOCA) to People Powered’s Guide on Digital Participation Platforms, the responsibility now sits with institutions to deliver the defined best practice.

“This is about the government trusting the citizens more, making the state transparent to the citizen, not the citizen transparent to the state.” – Audrey Tang, Taiwan’s Digital Minister

Delivering these democratic innovations, such as citizen assemblies and participatory budgeting does not mean that democracy will be ‘fixed’. Our institutions may look and act the same, these processes may not reach everyone we need to – change is slow. While we maintain momentum and scale experiences, there are two very clear directions of travel for a new age of democracy: growing out, and growing in.

While established practices of democratic innovation may reach more diverse groups of people than existing representative democracy, they often fall short of creating a truly inclusive and accessible forum to share, listen and act. For open public participation, various studies show that it is those who are already politically active – in the European context, often white, middle-aged, higher-educated men – that are overwhelmingly over-represented. Even randomly selected groups of representative people used for citizen assemblies can be open to interpretation of what is considered ‘representative’, or who and how the pool of people considered for representation are approached.

While increasing the inclusivity and accessibility of democracy is a goal in itself, there is also extensive evidence that a lack of “diverse experiences, voices and knowledge reduces the epistemic capacity” of a group. In other words, bringing in more voices enriches the knowledge base upon which participation rests. For democratic innovations to have the greatest impact on policy and society, democratic innovators need to advance the inclusivity and accessibility of participatory practice.

The transformation of government is a slow process, not least when the proposed transformation is reducing power for those who have it. Too often, projects stall at piloting, fall apart with a change in power or afford citizens influence over trivial decisions. To make democracy truly inclusive and to take collective action that will address the crises we face, we need to be radical.

But radical futures have humble beginnings. Valuing the voices and experiences of ordinary people starts with all of us – and in every institution. Laws and regulations provide the tracks to guide us towards this future. But to scale participatory experiences, and normalise participatory cultures, we can start in everyday workplaces, as well as the institutions in need of transformation.

Putting this into practice

At Nesta, we’re looking to address some of the challenges we face in the UK through our three missions. While we’re approaching these problems through a range of practices and innovation methods, we will be exploring how citizen-led innovation can drive more impactful and sustainable outcomes.

While we experiment with our mission and as a part of COLDIGIT, we will develop a toolkit to help institutions address some of the barriers they experience from delivering democratic innovations, growing an inclusive and accessible democracy and institutionalising participatory systems. Keep an eye for future posts as we share how to do this in practice at each layer of the framework, and get in touch if you would like to work with us to experiment with pilots in your institution.

Photo credit: Digidem Lab


Oli Whittington

Oli Whittington

Oli Whittington

Senior Researcher, Centre for Collective Intelligence Design

Oli Whittington was a senior researcher leading democratic innovation in Nesta’s Centre for Collective Intelligence Design.

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