Our democracy is in flux: The UK's last election saw a tearing down of the old right/left divisions with new cleavages emerging based on leave/remain, or city/country. On every level huge social and economic disruptions are changing our sense of who we are and what we want; how we work; how we come together as communities; our trust in institutions; our expectations of public services; and our role and influence as citizens.
Civic participation and democracy can’t be a ‘tick one box, every 5 years’ exercise’ when people, the economy and societies are experiencing such radical shifts. Much of our democratic and participatory processes have not kept apace with these changes. We are limited by decades - if not centuries - of tradition and top down paternalistic design that has defined the engagement of citizens.
Everyday Democracy, as defined by Demos, is “rooted in a culture in which democratic values and practices shape not just the formal sphere of politics, but the informal spheres of everyday life: families, communities, workplaces, and schools and other public services”.
These radical shifts are leading to huge challenges but also opportunities, exciting innovations are emerging which are reshaping civic participation and everyday democracy. Whether it’s innovations that combat the spread of misinformation; approaches that promote campaign transparency and awareness; new ways of crowdsourcing key voter information; initiatives that coach and support excluded individuals to lead change; methods that create space for disagreement; work that fuels community led campaigning and youth activism; alternatives are becoming clear both online and offline - the field is burgeoning with ideas. This new wave of innovations seek to enact this ‘Everyday Democracy’, harnessing the opportunities that new technologies bring, but also explore deeper and more effective ways for people to connect and create together in person.
Over the last decade Nesta has researched, championed and supported a range of innovations in civic participation and democracy: from our work making the case for more people powered public services in local government and health; ways to shape a more social impactful sharing economy; calling for a high energy democracy to support an inclusive economy; research and practical experimentation around digital democracy and participation with projects such as DCent; to more recent explorations of collective intelligence and participatory futures. We wanted to recognise and support pioneering innovations based in the UK that show how we can broaden and deepen civic participation and democracy to be fit for the future, and enable our society to be shaped by the people for the people.
To recognise and support democractic innovation in the UK, we launched an open call in December 2019 for innovations working to re-energise and reshape the future of civic participation and everyday democracy in the UK.
A judging panel helped us select 19 winners who received £10,000 to support the development of their work. By highlighting these pioneering initiatives Nesta wanted to champion the work and support ways for the innovations to collaborate and grow new approaches together. Whilst the democracy field is broad and varied, there are not enough ways that bring the different actors together to share, learn, and experiment together.
Connecting democratic innovators to be more than the sum of our parts
Over an eight month period, the Democracy Pioneers had the opportunity to work collaboratively and with Nesta to showcase their work and insight, build new ideas and approaches together, and make the case for what is needed for civic participation and democracy to be fit for purpose in the decades to come. Together Nesta and the Democracy Pioneers explored the conditions required to foster a climate of experimentation for the field, the systemic infrastructure and large scale shifts needed to grow this work in the future.
Alongside this we conducted a rapid literature review and carried out qualitative interviews with academics, people with strong professional experience in local democracy and democratic innovation, the Nesta Democracy Pioneers and the wider network of democratic innovators in the UK. We ran three exploration and futures workshops with the Democracy Pioneers and others to explore the future of local democracy, where participants developed more than two hundred ways to forge routes and opportunities for democractic innovation.
The future of everyday democracy
Building on the Framework for Understanding Democratic Innovation in the UK and the research conducted throughout the programme, we collaborated with creative designers Eva Oosterlaken and Finn Strivens to create an interactive digital tool that explores what the near-future experience of everyday democracy could look like in a local place.
The interactive story is designed to inspire, provoke, and prompt ideas through exploring a version of what everyday democracy could look like across different areas of our lives. It explores the potential for reimagining how we participate at the local level, informed by innovations that already exist or that are on the near horizon, helping us see routes for positive change both now and in the future.
Accompanying the interactive scenarios, a paper, Democracy Pioneers: Exploring possible futures for better local civic participation and democracy in the UK, outlines the thinking behind each scenario in more depth, and based on literature, interviews with field experts, and the scenarios themselves, seeks to better outline barriers, opportunities and possibilities for these unashamedly optimistic routes and ideas for local democracy in the UK.
Collaboration for better democratic innovation
As part of the programme, the Democracy Pioneers were keen to collaborate with one another. Nesta worked to create ways to support specific and practical areas of collaboration. Early on in the programme Nesta ran an ‘open space’ workshop, to explore potential areas of collaboration. Pioneers joined forces to work on four areas where there was collaborative energy. Each area was shaped and led by the experiences of Democracy Pioneers and what they wanted to see happen. This included mapping digital tools to support their work, testing ways to support mutual aid groups and community leaders to take forward their interest into formal democracy, building collaborations for reimagining town and parish councils and developing a guide to facilitate conversations between young people and local decision makers.
You can read about the collaborations here.
The Democracy Pioneers programme recognised the importance of building and supporting a network of organisations and individuals championing democratic innovation. By celebrating the work of some of the fantastic innovations and bringing these organisations together, there was huge potential to collaborate and build great ideas together to initiate more change. There is much work to be done to connect and grow a network that supports learning, advocacy and collective opportunities for those working in the democracy sector, and to enable impact to be scaled. We are excited to see further momentum and work to help connect up the field and support further collaboration taking place already.
- Koreo, supported by JRRT, are mapping Democracy actors to better understand the field. We’d encourage more organisations to add themselves to this map.
- In summer 2020, Joe Mitchell published research on Networking for Democracy, which outlined a number of ways to strengthen and support collaboration across the field. Joe is working with a variety of others to build interest and take action on key elements. Contact Joe if you have interest in this or are keen to work in any of these areas.
- Newspeak House, initially in partnership with Joe Mitchell, Koreo and NPC, will be publishing an online, open source Democracy Handbook early in 2021. This aims to be a be a one-stop shop for all things democracy, including an open library of channels, tools and resources deployed and in use across the sector; a place for best practice examples and FAQs for those within the sector and those around it; act as a space for people within the sector and those with an interest in it to find and share useful resources, tools and contacts; and an archive or hand-off space for ideas, previous initiatives and past ventures. Nesta has provided some seed funding for this work. Look out for updates in early 2021 of how to get involved.
- The 19 Democracy Pioneers will continue to grow and develop their work in the coming years, in new and impactful ways. Together they continue to work to shake up democracy in the UK.