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Reflecting on the future

By Dave Snowden  ·  July 20, 2013  ·  Reflections

Foresight week over and I am flying back to the UK today.  I will  then take a few days off to complete some more sections of the Wye Valley Walk and to return to my agricultural roots with the Welsh Agricultural Show; time for some reflection after a long week of sessions, meals and meetings.  The question of democracy and how we make it work in a world with increasing constraints on natural resources came up throughout the week.  Coincidentally I have been reading a few books & papers which purport to explain how complexity theory might apply and have not been impressed.  Like a lot of work here they are good at parroting some of the key phrases and concepts from complexity but then it kinda stops.  The best you get is a repacking of old methods, the worst is some ideological psuedo-anarchistic argument against any form of control.  On the academic side, well then we have Models Galore and if you haven't got the reference watch the film!

Thinking anew, acting anew requires something more substantial that this and at best we can start to look at the direction that solutions might follow.  So for starters, here are a few:

  • To some extent the idea of universal suffrage as a condition for democracy carries with it some of the ideas behind Wisdom of Crowds. That is to say, multiple independent agents making decisions independently of each other.  The problem is that opinion polls and press bandwagons, together with the instant response mechanisms of social computing make this difficult.   Banning opinion polls would be a starter as that produces herd behaviour. As far as possible you want lots of individual choices.  Being fined for not voting, an Australian innovation would also be a good idea.
  • If you look back in time there was a good chance you knew your representative, now unless you have a problem and it is unlikely and even then you are likely to deal with staff.  There is a principle of people validating people not just policies.  The American constitution had it right around the office of the President.  The idea there was that you elected someone you trusted to the electoral college and then they made an informed decision between the candidates.   If we look at EU elections we get low turn out, extremist parties get elected and the whole thing is a farce.   One can imagine a three level system of election would allow judgement to be exercised at each level.
  • The idea of the nation state is being hit by two things, one the growth of regional identities and the other is the growth of the city.  That might mean we are looking to a future in which we get coupled networks of different identities within trading and financial blocks that also handle defence and international issues.  You can see traces of this now and it adds in an interesting aspect in which international companies would be some of a similar identity along with culturally cohesive regional (often former national) groupings.  We need a little ore mess.
  • We need control mechanisms that allow locally contextual solutions to emerge.  That is neither the universal offering idea of some socialist thinking or the free market of capitalism.  It follows the idea of interaction within constraints that is a part of complexity thinking and there are a range of health and educational systems that would benefit from this.  Some communities do things very differently than others and the nature of care in the community (to take one example) is very different in the country from the town.  Constraints can also apply to tings like top/bottom wage multipliers and the like although I am less sure of that.
  • Measurement is key, but it has to allow for innovation so the outcome obsession and near soviet style planning that has characterised the last two governments in the UK (one Labour one Conservative) has got to stop.   We also need to stop thinking of citizens  as consumers, it's a very different model or way of thinking.  Like applying industrial best practice of Government which cannot (well Detroit can) go bankrupt in the way that industry creates control over time.  That means constant feedback loops and the engagement of citizens in understanding problems not just creating solutions.
  • We need tension between the interests of a professional civil service with long term objectives and the shorter term objectives of politicians.  It's a bit like the problem with stakeholder alignment in industry.  There managers used to want to build something over a longer term, shareholders wanted shorter term returns.  The tension between the two was good, alignment meant short term thinking all round.
  • Finally we have to educate people for citizenship, the idea of virtue I talked about during the week.  Education should not be about skills transfer at the cost of teaching people to think critically, and responsibly.

Still thinking about all of these, so take them as jottings for the moment.