The appeal of the DAO movement is fuelled by the sense that almost all of the democratic processes are broken in today’s society – in that, despite ever greater interconnection, our national and international governance structures are failing to solve problems of the commons. Mismanagement of public health, food supply, water and air quality has dire impacts worldwide. Whether we like it or not, the actions of one person in Wuhan can have global ramifications.

Organisations such as the United Nations, World Health Organization and World Bank are neither democratic nor designed to collect intelligence and respond efficiently and effectively to complex issues. The problems with these control-and-command structures have become painfully evident in the current health crisis. On every level, citizens’ interests are pushed aside for the interests of big business, political heavyweights and even foreign interests who have captured the media.

The idea of a DAO appeals to people because the current systems are simply inadequate to meet complex global challenges.

Unfortunately, DAO technologists have tried to map simple systems onto complex issues, rather than referring to historically successful models for governing commons. The current public health crisis is an example of the failure of centralised systems to govern a common good. While we don’t have large-scale models for commons governance, we do have examples of how commons are managed on a small to medium scale.

Examples include neighbourhood and community councils, cooperatives and traditions of Indigenous peoples for preserving the environment as well as justice and social cohesion. A neighbourhood committee may require people to keep their lawns mowed and their sidewalks shovelled, and if you do not, someone will knock on your door and let you know. In Indigenous communities, rituals and traditions are enforced through storytelling and social norms.

In other words, social norms and social enforcement are the proven methodologies for commons governance. Incentives are proven to polarise and exploit public goods. Whether the incentive comes in the form of financial compensation, attention to a social media post or improved page ranking, all types of incentive are distorting behaviours in undesirable ways. In a commons, decisions tend to be reached by deliberation, mutual respect, consideration of environmental carrying capacity and consensus.