The Irony of the Predicament of Detroit

In a recent blog titled “Detroit and the Temptation of Ruin,” Tufts University civics scholar Peter Levine speaks of art, poverty and hopes for renewal. The story, as Levine notes, is tragic in the Aristotelian sense – local art and architecture documents a rise to power, a celebrated era, and a collapse to “700,000 people who live amid the empty shells of its industrial past, while the nation looks away.”

There is a rather contemporary irony in the decline of Detroit, for its uncertain future was foreshadowed in the minds of its local champions a half century prior to its demise. Human artifacts persist as statements made in powerful moments – they are aspects of an extracorporeal memory that is interpreted anew by each generation if not by each new observer. When the wind blows from the right direction, whispers from history breathe depth into the newfound meaning.

In 1965 a decision had been made to conduct a 5-year study of the Detroit area with the objective of anticipating needs for sustainable growth and a high quality of life. The research was intended to link perspectives on the economic, social, cultural and physical problems facing man in communities like the Urban Detroit Area.  The effort was championed by the Chairman of the Board of The Detroit Edison Company.

To lead the research efforts, Constantinos Doxiadis – a then world renowned philosophical architect and urban planner who had served as Minister of Housing and Reconstruction during the challenging post-war recovery in Greece – was engaged to apply the emerging science of complex human settlements (“ekistics”).  Doxiadis worked alongside researchers at Wayne State University, and for generations the implemented designs were celebrated.

The back story is that during this period even within Doxiadis’ close circle of researchers a gnawing truth was cutting its teeth.  Design which is catalyzed, led and owned by the elite layer of a society – regardless of how well intentioned – will be unbalanced unless specific provisions are made to include all distinct community perspectives in authentic participation with the designers.

I am not making the point that greater citizen input might have foreseen the way with which Detroit collapsed, but rather that greater representation of the future from those of us who live life upon the sidewalks that we travel may have called for greater resiliency in the plan. It is, of course, unfair to kick or criticize a man or a community when it is down. All of the then understood precautions were taken to assure that the best of available thinking was drawn into the design of the urban area.

In the short term, good things happened in Detroit, and from within Doxiadis’ team at that time emerged one of the founding members of the Club of Rome who subsequently developed and validated an approach that now does allow individuals of all levels of skill to participate equitably and fully in complex civic planning. This individual —- Dr. Alexander N. Christakis, left the Club of Rome when it found itself unwilling to deal with the challenge of broad-scale citizen engagement in its newly adopted design practice, and Aleco subsequently founded the Institute for 21st Century Agoras.

The Greeks today may still glorify some of the ruins of the past – however, like citizens of Detroit, they also are obliged to take up the struggle to discover new futures. As a statement of hope for the human condition, we might recognize that the experiences gathered during the golden age of Detroit do continue to influence the future even as the city struggles to rediscover itself.

Detroit’s artifacts might well be seen as glorified ruins in a poet’s maudlin and peripatetic eyes, yet in at least this one case the wisdom that flowed through and beyond those specific artifacts is alive and evolving.

 

 

 

US EPA Taking Democratic Steps Toward Community Involvement

The Institute for 21st Century Agoras presented a technology poster at the EPA’s 13th Community Involvement Training Conference in Boston on July 30 – August 1.

EPA Community Involvement Training Conference 2013Our poster is entitled A Democratic Approach for Sustainable Futures, with a more lengthy sub-title “Framing Consensus Views for Collective Action: The Sociotechnology of Interpretive Structural Modeling Embedded within Structured Dialogic Design.”

The technology of Structured Dialogic Design is well placed among other topics in the poster session assembled for this year’s theme … “The Next Generation of Community Involvement.” Dozens of conference attendees stopped by our table to check out our approach.

Among fellow presenters, several topics stood our for us. First is Crowdbrite.com “Crowdsourcing for Better Communities.” Crowdbrite could act as a gathering tool for observations as a front end into the CogniSystem.   Their presenter was very, very interested to hear of the mobile SDD application that the Cyprus group is developing.

The second technology of interest is DASEES: Decision Analysis for a Sustainable Environment, Economy and Society. This is an experimental system being developed by the EPA in conjunction with Neptune and Company. DASEES integrates guidance and decision support tools to implement a five step Bayesian decision process: 1) Understand the Context, 2) Define Objectives, 3) Develop Options, 4) Evaluate Options, and 5) Take Action (Implement and monitor). The opportunity for SDD is as a front end to Steps 1-3.

The third opportunity exists in the model that is provided by the Jefferson Center for New Democratic Processes in St.Paul, Minnesota who engage rural communities in building resilience for climate change. This relates to ongoing interests we have for coastal communities in New England.

Beyond posters, participants were offered seminars, workshops, demonstrations, tours, and the essential mixing bowl of networking opportunities.  As is true of all such conferences, considerable energy is invested in rediscovering friendships and in affirming that that what is being done is being done well.  In any community, and perhaps even more so in academic and scientific communities, opening paths for learning something truly new is challenging.  Most innovations in life are incremental improvements.  Enhancements extend along trajectories that have been in place for years.  Every now and then, a long-sought “game changer” comes along and opens up new trajectories.

The best ways of sensing the early presence of game changers is through the reactions that they evoke.  When a game changing idea is presented, players will be surprised, concerned, defensive for the status quo, or supportive of the shift – which is to say that players will be anything except unmoved by the prospect of a radical innovation.  This is as it should be.  Alberto Rodríguez makes this point with the title of his seminar: “Is Meaningful Community Involvement Radical?”  In the civic arena, the community involvement “game” evolves through incremental innovation and takes a quantum leap only through radical (and frequently disruptive) change.  What struck us, as a team providing a demonstration of a sociotechnology for managing large-group collaborative design, is that participants at the 13th Community Involvement Training Conference who did tour the demonstration sessions seemed hungry for a game changer.

Folks with whom we discussed Structured Dialogic Design were quick to acknowledge problems with sustaining iterative deliberations in the face of rising “dialogue fatigue.”  Where citizen participation was an important element of community involvement, folks felt it was important to have a some means of explicitly considering cognition along with intuition about complex situations and uncertain outcomes.  And people who we spoke to appreciated practices which provided real-time documents of citizens’ statements and clarifications to help sustain focus and momentum when dealing with complex understandings.  The idea of using “an engineering” approach based on an exhaustive (but not exhausting) exploration of interdependencies across a matrix of citizen concerns and understandings was well received by technical audiences.  And everyone we spoke to seemed to value graphic representations of complex deliberation that can help communities grasp the essence of strong community agreement, and then also provide a language tool for extending the deliberations.

We feel that those searching for a game changer seriously considered the impact that might come from an integrated package that transparently combines focused input of cognitive and intuitive understandings, and that presents those understandings to citizens who then collaboratively fashion them in to a systems view of their situation with an easily communicated and easily updated graphic output.  Rode mapping, as a product, is indeed part of planning traditions, but putting the mapping activity itself in the collective hands of diversified group citizens, regulators, and developers can result in a planning model with game changing power.

Policy is more than a product of process; policy is process itself

The London School of Economics and Political Science blog site carries an evocative – if not provocative – post from a Senior Researcher at the Centre for European Studies, at the University of Oslo.  The post is nine months old, and hasn’t drawn much response – however, the commentary does beg for an audience.  Plato indeed may have set the Western tradition innocently in search of philosopher kings, and technocracy may have now quite fully co-opted Plato’s intentions for inquiry with proclamations from elite-led multilateral economic institutions.  It may be time to begin again.

In the LSE blog post, the scholar argues against democratic process in deference to expert managed social systems, with the tacit assumption that the two are incompatible.  It is a sentiment that the Scandinavian scholar Jorgan Randers has voiced repeatedly in his lament over the global apathy toward the findings of the Club of Rome study on The Limits to Growth, which Randers co-authored.  At the core of Rander’s lament is the view that Western Society’s main institutions of “democracy and [capitalistic] economy are based on short-termism, resulting in a slow societal response to challenges, which need long-term solutions and investments.”  Capitalism and democracy are, in fact, distinct frameworks for seeing and interacting in the world, and linking them monolithically could lead us to “discard the baby with the bathwater.”  Catherine Holst challenges the need and efficacy of democracy itself from a policy perspective.

In responding to blog post of Holst’s argument, policy is more than a product of process; policy is the process itself.

Philosophical arguments and practical experience indeed can illustrate that “expertise without the people” and “people without the expertise” are both, in their extreme forms, fatal paths into the future. So it is easy to agree with the author when she asserts “The question is whether we must also include a basic fact of expertise alongside “the basic fact of pluralism” and other basic facts normative political theory must recognize.” The author, however, appears unaware of any method for achieving this end and therefore postulates “To deal with the new risks and hazards, the best available expertise must be mobilized and given the decision-making power needed, even if by doing so we are challenging familiar ideas of democracy and legitimacy.” This is a push to the extreme. And it is not necessary where a mechanism does exist to insert – and also to challenge — expert testimony within local deliberation.

Why stick to traditional ideas of “rule of the people” that may be irrelevant and even dangerous in a world that is in urgent need of decisions based on our best knowledge?”

This is not a rhetorical question. It is, however, contrived. Ideas and ideals of “rule of the people” are far from Western traditions. The modern notion that local acts have global impact shifts the focus from the fact that global systems of interaction and exchange have — and are today having — their decimating consequences at the local levels. It was not local decision making by the people that led to the construction of wobbly and self-serving global fiscal policies. The mega systems were devised by the experts, while the local economies have been colonized and enslaved into the global systems.

The author continues with “My contention is that ambitious democrats criticizing technocracy, juridification and elitism, in the EU and elsewhere, tend to underestimate what they are up against.” It is not clear that the underestimation is one-sided, though. The author asserts that the version that she presents is a “realistic argument” revealing the judgmental bias that counter arguments are unrealistic, and she tacitly enshrouds her claim to realism in the writings that accrue to institutional scholars. In doing this, she mistakes “thoughts” with “thinking” _ “institutions” with “process.” In a fanciful conjecture, the author wonders, “What if elite discussions among the informed and knowledgeable more often produce decisions that are in the enlightened, long-term interest of everyone, than democratic deliberation?” One might equally wonder what if the perspectives of the elite could be melded with the perspectives of the disenfranchised to present a balanced view of a preferred future. The challenge in finding a sustainable future points in the direction of a methodology for collectively envisioning a preferred future. This type of thinking must rely on more than the habits of the past practiced by experts gathered in the rarified halls.

The author calls upon one school of tradition to assert “ … the realist argument touches upon the classical debate on how to understand the relationship between “is” and “ought” (what does a de facto expertise-dependence imply for how we conceptualize political ideals?).” Herein rests a central point. If “is” is taken as essentially “right”, then it does imply “ought.” However, Hasan Ozbekhan asserted almost a half century ago that in planning preferred futures “can” implies “ought.” Extrapolations of the present into the future have limited, short-term relevance in a changing world – or in a world within which change is broadly accepted to be necessary.

To take the author’s side in the proposition, reliance on democracy as democracy has been practice in the past holds little promise for melding the hearts of the people with the minds of their wisest citizens. Democracy, itself, has become corrupt in many ways, and one of the underlying reasons for this is that the freedom to practice democracy has not been matched with the responsibility to practice democracy. The author will perhaps concede that within the expert community, where the circles have been drawn to distinguish anointed experts from non-experts, decision-making is, on balance, democratic. The real issue is who gets to sit at this table. If it is “the case that expertise interaction is more rational and deliberative than interaction among “most people” …” why is this so and what might be done about it? Focus groups, design charrettes, and community surveys all seek to harvest information that is subsequently interpreted by – and forced through the lens of – expert groups. The meaning and the sense of importance of such deliberations are the meanings and the senses that the experts carry with them from their experiences in life – experiences that they have accumulated as they have walked down pathways that have differentiated themselves from the non-experts in the community. This is why community decisions are too important to be left to the tender mercies of experts alone. History is witness to this finding.

When policy begins to focus on the way that all people can collectively make democratic decisions, we might next begin to focus on a policy that assures that all essential stakeholders are fully and transparently represented in civic sector design and decision-making discussions. To do this, policy scholars must see beyond what “is” to discover what “ought” to be. There are harbingers of the future struggling to emerge in the wake of current crisis.

Hyperpartisanism: a consequence of mismanaged complexity?

In an inaugural event in NYC last weekend, the NoLabels movement presented its view of a way to resolve the hyperpartisan crisis in America. “Legislators need to stop fighting and to start working together.”

It is unclear how and when legislators choose to fight. Newly seated legislators don’t come into office with aggressive intent. They typically come from cultures where collaboration has prevailed. Given this, one might suppose that there is either something about the working culture of Congress or about the process of dealing with the complexity of federal lawmaking that causes congressmen to cling too tightly to their parties.

What if our problem is the challenge of dealing with complexity? Compelling legislators to make decisions does not address the issue of the quality of decisions that are made. Do legislators sense that decision-making suffers from poorly shared understandings of what lies beneath the proposed laws? Do legislators believe the reasoning is clear and that philosophical differences are impossible to reconcile?

When legislators who support the NoLabels movement were asked last week if they felt that they had clear understandings of the situations that they faced, the reflex response was that all legislators have strong staffs who raise both the pros and cons of all issues. But what does this mean? Each legislator is a silo of learning, where internal staffers — many of whom have profound allegiance for the success of their formal political parties — frame problems in terms that are shaped by their partisan view of the world. If learning occurs largely or exclusively within such silos, the larger legislative arena becomes a battlefield for debate.

The virtue of debate is that it can soften positions by shattering strong convictions, but the vice of debate is that it can harden positions by defining adversaries. Redesigning complex understandings is a difficult and sometimes embarrassing business. Letting go of one sense of certainty before another sense of certainty is in hand requires an act of genuine courage. Without a realistic belief that a new and better certainty might emerge, we wisely will cling to our prior positions. Our only real hope for finding collaborative solutions rests in our ability to trust in each other and the quality of our design processes.

As an exercise of hope, NoLabels.org is issuing a rally cry to the youth in our communities to defend our democratic processes. NoLabels has foresworn setting any policy agenda other than a policy to continually improve the quality of legislative dialogue. They want us to talk with each other and advocate linking pay with performance; scheduling working sessions for essential interactions, and establishing a consolidated source of facts. Complexity aside, this three-fold focus on improving incentive, opportunity, and information is compelling. They are not trying to engineer agreements. They are trying to remove the barriers that can prevent agreements from emerging, and in doing this to fortify of our institutions of democracy themselves. The bill for this deferred maintenance is now painfully due.

Elinor Ostrom’s Legacy of the Commons

At this time in history, 78 is still far too young an age to be swept into the future. For four decades, Elinor and her colleagues have been slaying a myth that was breathed into life by Ecologist Garrett Hardin‘s misunderstanding of the nature of “The Tragedy of the Commons.” The myth is that people cannot self-govern … and yet that, somehow, a higher mortal authority is imagined to have the elusive capacity to govern with humane wisdom.

This myth brings us to where we have come today. The upturned eyes of hope and blame are focused on national leaders and diverted away from our immediate neighbors. “We the people” was never intended as “They the people” – even in representative democracy. The lazy and simplistic dodge of abrogating citizen duties for understand complex issues has led to a situation in which even our elected representatives now no longer deliberate for purposes of shared understanding. Our elected representatives mirror us and they too dodge the duty to collectively understand situations — and in doing so they yield themselves and our futures up to the influence of forms of veiled thinking that speaks most loudly into their ears at the moment that decisions must be made.

Elinor’s life work teaches us all that things do not have to be this way. Her work tells us again and again that throughout the world, things are not run this way.

Elinor’s message to us is far, far too powerful to be interred into the archives of human thought simply because her living voice can no longer prick us. The story that she and her colleagues brought forward has the power to slay myths and to open up new vistas for humanity. We can self govern. The evidence is in. And yet there are prerequisites for effective self-governance. It is this exploration that should and must become the living legacy of Elinor’s work.

There are many facets to Elinor’s teaching that speak directly to the practice of participatory democracy. She is best known perhaps for her systems view of the ecological Commons, polycentricity (there are multiple centers of agency in governance), and design principles for institutional renewal. One that is of central concern to us is the necessity for people in a self-governing population to clearly see and deeply feel the necessity for working together to sustain themselves. It is a matter of local, community perception. In a culture that looks for top-down guidance, bailouts and salvation … and a culture that offers individual mobility and fosters community disinvestment … we who choose to once again feel an authentic connection to place have our work cut out for us.

It is through a connection to place – what Cynthia Nikitin of the Project for Public Spaces calls “Place Capital” — that we forge our social capital. And as Craig Lindell of the Institute for 21st Century Agoras says, ‘All fiscal capital comes from social capital.’ So, those of us who are worried about the future of our grand experiment in democracy and its twin experiment in capitalism need to reflect on what might be passing from us at this moment.

There are many who might still look at Elinor’s work and claim that she has studied exceptions that only serve to prove a larger rule. There are those who will look at self-organized democratic communities as somehow being quaint or maybe primitive. There are those who will simply resign themselves to the myth that direct democracy is not scalable, and that representative democracy – with all of its contemporary flaws – is the only way. Yet there also is much agreement that the bridge that we are crossing today is crumbling beneath our feet. Just recently, Professor Klaus Schwab, founder and Chairman of the conservative World Economic Forum, was reported to have conceded that “Capitalism in its current form has no place in the world around us.” This is a critically telling utterance because capitalism and its unbridled individual accumulation of wealth has done much to shape contemporary American democracy – and arguably has done even much more to distance governance from the efforts to control influence and corruption which inspired the invention of democracy by the ancient Athenians.

Elinor’s passing is a trumpet call to us all shouting that now is a critically important moment to attend to each other’s business — for the sake of the foundations of the future itself.

Planet under Pressure

Professor Ray Ison of the Institute for Sustainable Futures reports on a Planet under Pressure

We share Professor Ison’s concerns.  A split in systemic thinking erupted in the origins of the Club of Rome in 1970.  An original proposal by Hasan Ozbekhan and Aleco Christakis offered 49 Continuous Critical Problems (CCPs) and argued for a dialogical method for dealing with them.   This dialogue-based proposal was rejected in favor of an expert-design System Dynamics approach that resulted in the publication of  The Limits to Growth.  As a result of the report and parallel efforts, system dynamics became a dominating example of systemic thinking.

Meanwhile, a dialogical approach for dealing with systemic complexity was launched in the form of Interactive  Management through the efforts of Aleco and John Warfield.  In its further refinements IM has become Structured Dialogic Design (SDD).

Tom Flanagan and I have recently published a workbook that addresses the full human complexity of pressures on our planet using SDD.   One sure method of getting a group to agree on priorities for dealing with those pressures is to get them to spend a day focused on the 49 CCPs using SDD.  Perhaps some conference will have the courage to atte3mmpt this.  The book is A Democratic Approach to Sustainable Futures: A Workbook for Addressing the Global ProblematiqueIt is available either at Create Space or through Amazon.

Democracy as the Means to Discover the New Narratives for Sustainable Futures

Democracy is in the business of continually creating a new narrative … oral, textual, and graphic … that can move through and transform communities. While some voices within the Club of Rome have railed against the shortfalls of distorted democracy (and we can see their points), there are few alternative governance approaches which we feel can carry our faith through the changing cycles of national leadership.

A compassionate self-criticism of the Club of Rome’s reliance on the voice of its technological experts is well stated on the Club of Rome blog by Martin Palmer, Secretary General of the Alliance of Religions and Conservation, a secular, non-governmental body founded in 1995 by HRH Prince Philip.

The largest sector of civil society is the religions of the world. And they do not deal in the world of data and economics that have dominated and to a great degree destroyed the potential that the Club of Rome report unleashed 40 years ago. They, like the rest of humanity, know that we are a story telling species. When you introduce yourself to someone new, you don’t tend to tell them the data of your life – how much you weighed when you were born, not even usually the date you were born; nor how tall you are or what size shoes you wear. You tell your stories.” … “The challenge therefore is to assist in the creation of new stories which together can shape the new narrative from which can arise the new values as well as preserve the best of the old.”

What many do not realize is that the quest to bring the voice of the people into the vision of the Club of Rome was one of the Club’s founding principles – however, for want of a technology of inclusive participation in crafting new narratives, the visionary intent was abandoned at the outset in favor of a focus on the voice of technical experts. At that time, the Club’s champions for the voice of the people detached themselves from the quest of the Club and took up the mission to cultivate sociotechnology — a means for understanding situations together which we call Demosophia — to extract new narratives from the wisdom of the people.

As the notion of inclusion rises within the Club of Rome, sociotechnology may now be rejoining physical technology as a means for understanding and interacting within our world.

What would a “national dialogue infrastructure” look like?

The director of the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation recently asked listserv members for responses to the concept of a “national dialogue infrastructure.” The goal was to gather some input for an NCDD summit to be held in Seattle in the fall of 2012, and the request called attention first to the “values” that might be expected of such an infrastructure. 1) inclusive access (“distributed”), 2) collaborative intent (“helping others”), 3) personal safety (“anonymous expression”), 4) integrated operation (“coalition / confederation), and 4 transparency / sustainability (“cost effective nonprofit’).

John Spady provided an initial vision in the form of a metaphor: “… a tree with twinkling lights. Each light represents a community scale organization talking about its own issues and so each light is different. But each light decorates the national tree, and occasionally (when the need calls for it), all the lights glow with the same color because all the organizations are asking their members to talk about the same important issue”. Operational considerations included open questions with respect to how “issues are determined and advanced by the planning board” and how “situational ideas” are funded.

Even as we were considering how we might respond to the request, we were watching comments posted to the NCDD blog cautioning about effects of special interest influence and about overly imaginative structures. In simple truth, we felt that early responses were divided either in the hope of managing a massively scaled up version of familiar face-to-face dialogues using the Internet or in compiling an encyclopedia of like-minded local level dialogues within a Google-like index. While we see both extremes as praiseworthy, we felt that a rare opportunity might be emerging for experimenting with a new way of managing dialogue. Precedent exists for blending idea gathering and consensus discovery with dialogue among remotely located participants. One example is a dialogue which we have called ObamaVision, named in homage to aspirations voiced by with the enthusiasm of a newly elected president. This model might someday be scaled to support a national forum – if commitments were made to learning as we go.

The first challenge for any group process is coordination. This means a focus of thinking and a measured flow of exchange of situational ideas. Anything less is going to be noise from a crowd. The big challenge is not in getting people to shout out an situational idea. The larger challenge is in structuring what is being raised for consideration in a way that makes sense to those of us who haven’t been blessed with a Mensa IQ. A “national dialogue infrastructure” will need to have coordination and focus on several stages.

The first stage.  The first stage for a national dialogue infrastructure would be a mechanism for deciding what topics to discuss. Many folks will be drawn to first talk about the merits of different types of “solutions” to complex situations. In our early educations, we all probably been reminded to first “read the question” before we start to “provide the answer.” This isn’t the way that our dialogues typically unfold for us today, however. Today we most frequently find ourselves in debates rather than exploratory dialogue. Today we are too frequently victims of the collisions of good intentions, each of which might be framed with a different understanding of a complex situation. But, we are getting ahead of ourselves. First, we need to have some form of public auction whereby we decide what complex situations deserve our focus first. This auction should be based on situations to explore … such as municipal infrastructure … rather than options for solving complex problems … such as pension reform. Yes, complex problems can give rise to a cascade of specific issues, each of which can then give rise to a cascade of deeper issues, and all of which can be used as a framework for identifying options for action … but first the focus.

The second stage.  Once we have “somehow” agreed on a complex situation worthy of our collective focus, we need to have a means of collecting up brief (“digital”) situational ideas that will help us understand the elementary structure of the complex situation. The digital sound bites will need to be explained. For example, we cannot say only that “parents don’t understand what is going on inside their schools” without explaining how we understand this specific issue to be true. Explaining a digital situational idea will be very difficult if we seek to co-author this situational idea. Without an individual ownership of an situational idea, the situational idea itself can melt and blur across multiple voices. For this reason, the means that we create for gathering digital situational ideas must preserve the author of the initial statement, while also offering opportunities for others to author new and related digital situational ideas which they identify as carrying distinct meaning. How will the presence of a distinct meaning be discovered? You have to ask, and the important feature of a mechanism for gathering digital situational ideas will be to have a means of checking in with the original author of a digital situational idea to see if their situational idea does or does not carry a specific meaning which emerges as the situational idea is explored by others. There may be multiple ways to gather and clarify digital situational ideas, however the format of the blog might not be too far from what could work for us. The principal situational idea would be to limit the blog post to a specific “digital” situational idea rather than to allow the post to attempt to connect the situational idea to a whole system of thought prematurely. One way to limit dragging a digital situational idea into a systemic context prematurely would be to limit the word count for the post of the digital situational idea. This would encourage us all to spare our readers from digging through pages of words.

The third stage. The third stage would be to help each other recognize important digital situational ideas. We could do this by recording “likes” for digital situational idea posts. Digital situational ideas with a lot of likes could rise to the surface for the broadest possible consideration. In highly complex situations, we might find ourselves confronted with many highly “liked” digital situational ideas. This preliminary preference must be understood to represent situational ideas which feel important before those situational ideas have been joined together in a system of connected interaction. We should also be sensitive to the fact that situational ideas which feel important may overshadow other digital situational ideas which are of a very different flavor. For this reason, we need to understand our set of digital situational ideas in terms of their distinct flavors. To do this we need another step in our national dialogue infrastructure.

The fourth stage. We need a way of understanding how our set of digital situational ideas are similar to each other and distinct from each other. In essence, we need to cluster our digital situational ideas into affinity groups. We can do this if we can agree to identify situational ideas which we feel are highly related to other situational ideas. Hypertext linking might allow us to connect pairs of situational ideas. If we were to gather up our collective decision of which situational ideas are related to which other digital situational ideas, we would be able to see clusters of related digital situational ideas. Why is this important? Knowing situational ideas which are and are not judged to be closely related helps us scan across many types of situational ideas and leads us to explore types of situational ideas which we feel are different and perhaps less familiar to us. This helps us take in a “balanced view” of the range of situational ideas. When our most highly preferred digital situational ideas are assembled into clusters, we can then ask ourselves if we were to take a few of the situational ideas from each cluster and then vote on individual situational ideas again – trying to spread our voting across all of the clusters – we will get a different view of what we collectively feel to be of most importance. Why? The view will be different because we have asked ourselves to be open to all types of situational ideas and because we will have learned more about the system of digital situational ideas that related to the complex situation we are exploring together.

The fifth stage. When we have a balanced view of the range of digital situational idea types relating to a complex situation, and when we have identified our most highly preferred situational ideas, we can then begin to define patterns which connect these situational ideas. This can be done by collecting responses to a “generic question” such as “Suppose we are able to address idea A, will this SIGNIFICANTLY help us to address idea B.” Responding individually, we won’t be able to discuss our reasoning at first; however, when we have collect up preliminary responses, we can show ourselves a map of how the important ideas are connected in our situation. This will open up specific and focused discussions of specific relationships, and we can capture this in a thread of contrasting ideas. Connections which attract a lot of discussion can be opened up to be “re-mapped” with a survey using the same “generic question” once again.

This mapping and remapping might seem like a messy process at first, but consider the alternative. We can only map the ideas because we have first digitized them. And the ideas are judged to be worth mapping because we have recognized them as being important and also as spanning the range of types of ideas that inclusively define our situation. So getting the relationship between the ideas right is worth a few iterative cycles. And in the process, we are inventing a graphic language together that helps us understand how the critical situational relationships interact.

The sixth stage.  Understanding our situation prepares us for the next level of dialogue …. a dialogue to discover possible ways to respond to the distinct ideas that collectively define the situation we are trying to resolving. Because we have co-constructed an understanding of our situation, we will start on the same page. If we don’t agree that we see the situation the same way, we cannot agree that we will understand proposed responses in the same way. This second dialogue will essentially unfold the same way as our situational dialogue.

The NCDD question is profoundly important. I don’t want to suggest that an answer will be easy, but I hope that I did illustrate one possible answer. There are some missing fine points that I haven’t mentioned here. In essence, the online approach is modeled after “structured dialogic design.” In face to face gatherings, structured dialogic design supports co-laboratories of democracy. Our hope is that some of this power can be used in a national dialogue infrastructure. The model that I described happens also to meet your criteria of being Distributed, Collaborative, and (potentially) Anonymous – meaning that an original contributor of a situational idea can use an author name that they select to anchor the meaning to their understanding while not forcing a disclosure of their actual real-world identity. The model supports building coalitions for action and, if implemented wisely, can provide an otherwise unreachable outcome within reachable budgets.

Welcome to the Institute for 21st Century Agoras

People the world over aspire to participatory democracy. Yet the democratic planning and design of social systems, from local urban projects to national health care, is threatened by our institutional inability to engage stakeholders in dialogues that result in effective collective design and commitment.

A Democratic Vision for All Stakeholders
The Agoras Institute promotes a democratic transformation of civil society and government by empowering the capacity of client organizations and educators to produce breakthroughs in the collective confrontation of multidimensional wicked problems. Our immediate mission is to establish and nurture new Agoras of the 21st century – global centers of democratic participatory design and education – in areas of critical socio-political importance or demand.

What are Agoras?
With each shift in human social communication and technology, the means for wise engagement must evolve. In ancient Athens, all citizens could meet face to face in the public arena. Today, our arenas are globally distributed, with unmanageable relational and problem complexity. The Institute supports client organizations with tools, practices, and training to support engagements for addressing projects of high sociotechnical complexity.

At this critical juncture of the evolutionary process of humanity, there cannot be conscious evolution without the capacity to explicate through dialogue the wisdom of the people in the Agoras of the 21st Century Global Village.

 Alexander Christakis