In December 2019, Nesta launched the Democracy Pioneers Award, to seek out projects and organisations reshaping and re-energising democracy in the UK. Here we share the programme's outcomes and learnings.

About the programme

After receiving hundreds of applications to the Democracy Pioneers award, Nesta selected 19 organisations to be the Democracy Pioneers. These innovators are working in fresh and creative ways to shake up democracy and civic participation. If mainstreamed, these innovations have the potential to reconnect people meaningfully to democracy, and better enable people to participate in and influence the issues that affect their lives. Through the programme, Nesta worked with these innovators to better understand barriers and opportunities for democractic innovation in the UK, and uncover where they felt shifts and impact would be possible, and vital, in the coming years.

Working together, the Democracy Pioneers, researchers, practitioners and experts in the field explored ideas, visions, trends and scenarios for more vibrant, local, everyday democracy in the near future. These scenarios can be explored in our interactive experience, everyday democracy.

Exploring future democracy scenarios

A new everyday democracy

Set in a fictional place in the near future these scenarios bring together different ideas and ways of working that could broaden and thicken the experience of democracy in our cities, towns and neighbourhoods. 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.

What inspired this?

Across the world, democracy is struggling. Commentators, academics and leaders have increasingly argued that our democractic institutions, processes and ways of organising are no longer fit for the challenges and opportunities that we face. These commentators are not alone. Analysis in 2019 found the highest level of democratic discontent on record – and this was before COVID-19 tested democracies even further.

For too many people, democracy remains something done far away, exercised only when we cast our vote every five years if at all. Democracy too often feels disconnected to the very real things that shape all of our lives – health and social care, education, housing, safety, the economy, and our neighbourhoods. Over time a gap has grown between the way in which citizens go about their daily lives and the way in which politics and democracy are carried out.

“Let’s not call it democracy, because people don’t like that word. Let's call it changing the world.”
– Civil society interviewee

Yet there is a field of innovation bubbling away seeking to build a better democracy with and for them. But our ability to imagine new ways to improve our democracy is a challenge. In the maze of politics and traditions, and amidst declining trust and disconnection with formal democracy, we have perhaps lost confidence in thinking about how things could be different in practice. Whilst individual ideas and products are developed and sometimes implemented, there is little done to grow new ecosystems to support participation and democratic innovation. The urgency and need for democratic innovation is just as great as the challenges of ageing populations, increasing inequalities, or the climate crisis – how we do democracy fundamentally shapes our ability to address these challenges. They can only be met with democratic innovation – in our neighbourhoods, towns, cities, and of course at a national and global scale.

This exploration aims to look at ways to connect up innovations and ideas in places, that enable us to take part in a better everyday democracy, that enables us all to have a say over the decisions that affect our lives, influence wider debates and build the neighbourhoods and communities that support us to thrive.

While we talk a lot about the future, in reality many of these changes could be achieved right now. In our interviews and explorations with Democracy Pioneers, we heard repeated feedback that focus is too often placed on individual products or service innovations and too little on the institutions, architecture and changes to behaviors, mindsets and ways of working that are needed to make these innovations work at scale.

We hope the paper and digital scenarios will help to discuss, provoke and inspire.

How was this created?

To shape the scenarios and ideas for the future we carried out a four stage process:

  1. Research: We started the process with a rapid literature review. At the same time, we 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. This was designed to tap into both theoretical expertise and the experiences of people working to build better democracy in the UK, informing key drivers, barriers, enablers and trends for democratic innovation.
  2. Exploration and futures workshops: We collaborated with creative designers Eva Oosterlaken and Finn Strivens to run two workshops with the Democracy Pioneers and others to explore the future of local democracy. As part of this, participants developed more than two hundred ways to forge routes and opportunities for democractic innovation. These helped groups create scenarios of how a place or site in their local community could transform into a high energy democracy. As a final exercise we mapped connections between future scenarios and visions.
  3. Synthesis: During the interviews and workshops we identified more than two hundred ideas for place-based democratic innovations and more than one hundred and eighty goals to drive future democratic innovation. These were then clustered into six actionable and inspiring areas for future democratic innovation, with thirty-three everyday democratic interactions.
  4. Storytelling: Together these ideas and scenarios have been weaved together to create an interactive story of near-future local democracy.

What next?

The changes to democracy and civic participation imagined in the scenarios for everyday democracy and Democracy Pioneers: Exploring possible futures for better local civic participation and democracy in the UK would add up to a fundamental shift in how people understand and participate in the decisions that affect their lives and the services and neighbourhoods we all need. They may or may not be your preferred ideas or scenarios, and you may have bigger, bolder, better ideas that could also shape the future. But what is most important is that we all start to reimagine the ecologies, systems, processes, institutions, and interactions of our democracy in new ways, keeping the best and bringing in the new.

We think there should be thousands of these explorations around the country, imagining what democracy and civic innovation could look like in the coming years. These conversations and processes must create new spaces for citizens to revisit the meaning of democracy itself, allowing a reconnection with our roles and what we want from our institutions. Methods and approaches outlined in work such as our toolkit on participatory futures, Our Futures: By the People, For the People, or in the resources we outline in Section 4 of the paper are a good place to start designing these plans.

"Democracy too often feels disconnected to the very real things that shape all of our lives – health and social care, education, housing, safety, the economy and our neighbourhoods."

We’d love you to share your vision or ideas on social media at #democracypioneers. What would you shift? What would need to change? How might this be done?

The future of everyday democracy

Explore the scenarios

Authors

Carrie Deacon

Carrie Deacon

Carrie Deacon

Head of Social Action Innovation

Carrie was Head of Social Action Innovation at Nesta, leading our work on social action and people-powered public services.

View profile
Khyati Modgil

Khyati Modgil

Khyati Modgil

Programme Manager, Government Innovation

Khyati was a Programme Manager in Nesta's Government and Community Innovation team. She is interested in democracy. civic participation and nurturing inclusive organisational cultures.

View profile
Katherine Zscharnagk

Katherine Zscharnagk

Katherine Zscharnagk

Programme Coordinator, A Fairer Start mission

Kat was the Programme Coordinator for the new A Fairer Start mission launched in February 2021.

View profile
Camilla Bertoncin

Camilla Bertoncin

Camilla Bertoncin

Project Manager and Researcher

Camilla is a Project Manager and Researcher working in the Explorations team on the Centre for Collective Intelligence Design.

View profile
Rosalyn Old

Rosalyn Old

Rosalyn Old

Researcher, Government Innovation

Rosalyn was a researcher in Nesta's Government Innovation team.

View profile
Kyle Usher

Kyle Usher

Kyle Usher

Mission Manager (Scotland), Innovation Programmes

Kyle is Nesta’s Mission Manager for Scotland working on the A Sustainable Future mission and based with the Scotland team in Edinburgh.

View profile