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The Case for Citizen Think-Tanks

The Case for Citizen Think Tanks

Not in all communities, but in many communities, there is a growing sense of confusion, frustration, and even anger in America, and it takes its form at the street level upon which most Americans live their lives. The confusion is larger than what any one mind can grasp. It races like a dark shadow ahead of us into our futures, and most of us sense that we can do little more than try to ignore it. Situations which seem too complex to understand remain obscure. We don’t want even to talk about them because we don’t want to feel responsible for thinking about them. We impulsively sense that some will win, and others will lose, and that our tightest circle of like-minded spirits is our greatest hope for weathering the storm. Fundamentalism, of both the civic and the spiritual form, holds us in its grasp this way.

Along with the confusion comes the fracturing. Each church that strengthens its identity unavoidably secures its boundaries. Each labor union that speaks for the special advantages of its own members unavoidably speaks against those of different unions, or those who are not within a union. Each special interest that raises its voice in an appeal for relief masks appeals from other special interests. And each culture, pressed upon by the unspoken mandates for convergence toward a greater cultural norm, senses the loss of its traditions and sets its heels to resist the pull for change. The ideal of “We-The-People” collides with the felt reality of the “Them-and-Us.” We cannot be one people if we cannot think, and then also feel, as one people. But where does this thinking happen? No one can do it for us if we do not participate ourselves. How can we think through the gathering complexities together?

We too often confuse learning with thinking. We equate teaching with explaining. Teaching is all about sharing thoughts about the way that we can think about things. These thoughts travel under various names. Some call them our mental models. Others call them our schema or our frameworks. Still others call them our theories for how the world works. Each model is like the knowledge of the rules for how a knight moves on a chessboard. Or how a bishop moves. Or how a rook or a queen moves. Even for the options for moving as a pawn. The rules for how to move make sense in the game of chess, yet in life we soon learn that there is no level and unchanging chessboard. The options for moving carried within our corresponding mental models are fluid. Swimming within this deep fluidity, we long for a sense of structure. We can see, and we can largely navigate, the waves cresting immediately around us, but we cannot see the safe harbors upon the distant shores.

It is our impulse to cling together. The impulse is written into our DNA. We are not solitary as individuals in the human species. We are, on first reflex, familial, and then tribal. We crave the liberty to move and also the commitments to remain bound to something central in our lives. We are built to orbit each other, like heavenly bodies tethered together with unseen social gravity. And we move together, not alone and lonely, adrift on a starless night, but woven together with navigating stories of our experienced or imagined lives together. Over time, we get stories wrong. We set ourselves up for beliefs that place us at odds with each other. Yes. there are frictions when spirits move and rub against each other in the busy marketplace of life. The frictions can warm us, and they can burn us. They leave hope, or they leave scars, in the stories that linger among us. We have to get our stories right if we are to get our shared community right. And we do have the choice to shape our stories as certainly as we have a destiny to be shaped by our stories. But do we see the connection? Do we see that our confusion is very much a part of how our stories lead us to understand or to misunderstand the world around us? Systems are complex, sure enough. But it is our stories which provide us with the lens through which we see the world. If our lens is distorted, so too is our vision of the world. And if we live in a distorted sense of the world, we rub up against profound confusions.

We, citizens of our communities, ultimately hold the responsibility for the story that either unites us or divides us. We, as citizens, can choose to work for unifying stories or for divisive stories. The divisive stories are easiest. There are thousands of ways that a community can fracture. The unifying stories are difficult. At any moment in time, there are only a narrow set of ways that our hopes can inclusively converge. Our habits for authoring divisive stories work against our capacity for co-authoring inclusive stories. Our inclusive stories need an inclusively co-authored script. Co-authoring is, and has long been, difficult. We tend to get caught up in our language, and leave important unexplored meanings behind. The convergent story cannot begin with swapping our individual frameworks for what the future should be. We are not in a position to teach each other about the proper path into the uncertain future. We need to learn from each other. We need to think together. We need to think from a foundation of the experiences we have lived as we travel the same streets in our communities. This is not a business of swapping models. It is a business of sharing observations, and discovering how we can agree that the observations are connected in the fabric of who we are constantly becoming.

Where does the business of inclusively weaving a new story happen in our community? Our leadership models are anchored to the role of “story-givers.” Whether our leaders lead from behind, as feudal lords, or lead from the front, as heroic warriors, we are longing for the leadership that comes from the middle. We are longing for the leadership that can bring the frontiers of our many aspirations together around the core of our valued beliefs. We are looking for the story that emerges from among us.

Our tradition for thinking about the future is largely a matter of remembering and applying frameworks for what has worked in the past. A problem exists when the world churns and changes, and the frameworks of the past no longer apply. We have to respond to the heavy challenge of thinking up new frameworks. Anyone can participate in crafting a new framework, but we generally doubt our collective capacity, our collective credibility, and our collective legitimacy for inclusively co-designing the future. As a result, most new frameworks will be imposed upon us by remote think-tanks. All those who hold dear the notion of life-long learning will share convergent interests in enabling local, citizen-centered think-tanks. All who hold hope for new frameworks which are crafted with bottom-up wisdom can appreciate the false hope that comes from surveying citizen thoughts and then retreating into expert-centered design. If we get the questions wrong, we get the frameworks wrong. No single citizen knows all of the questions that need to be asked. Yet collectively, citizens can ask each other questions which experts cannot sense. Citizens can learn from each other in ways that experts cannot. Citizens can think together in ways that cannot be duplicated nor effectively substituted.

For a community to have its own street-level, citizen think-tank, it first needs to have its own citizen-centered civic forum. A forum does not tell citizens what to think, but it guides them to discover what they should be thinking about. A citizen forum without a path to a think tank loses its muscle; and a citizen think-tank without the wisdom from a forum loses its way.

Much as communities of the 20th century have valued libraries as a means of supporting informed citizens, today communities of the 21st century need local think-tanks. These think tanks will have to be sophisticated research instruments if they are to serve their need. Just as libraries require skillful curators to accumulate and display relevant information, think tanks will require skillful support for accumulating and displaying relevant citizen thinking. The working engine of citizen think tanks will need to combine and refine artistic inquiry, scientific principles, engineering skills, journalistic capacities, and civic spirit. This function will not replace other forms of civic discussion, such as town halls or campaign debates. It will, however, provide substance that will help citizens make better use of such deliberative traditions.

It might be quicker and easier to enable a think tank as an event without taking on concerns about its sustainable use. However, our crisis of uncertainty calls for a deeply anchored community commitment to a sustainable future. The commitment that is needed is a commitment to work together to give birth to a living, breathing, and inclusively thinking civic institutional capacity. The new institutional life form can start small, but it cannot afford to be ignored as it seeks to find its way into the fabric of our lives.

It will not be easy to institutionalize citizen think-tanks. Support from formal, hierarchical governance swings from season to season. At times, collective insights from citizens are welcomed. At other times, leaders can distrust views constructed by citizens. Citizen initiatives might be sensed as conspiratorial, radical, or even revolutionary. They may be seen as implicitly projecting ambitious expectations for administrative response. As formal leaders swap in and out of leadership roles, a think tank from a prior season, which might have been difficult to construct, can be hastily dissolved. Enduring non-political, non-partisan sponsorship is essential for assuring the local legitimacy and sustainability of both the civic forum and the citizen think tank.

Communities need sponsors who are willing and able to coax citizen think tanks into existence. And these sponsors will need to build a coalition of support in the community. Coalition building can be eased through a network for exchanging experiences among those who are struggling with the same civic challenges. Universities and colleges can help build and coordinate exchanges through such networks. Think tanks might make use of some of the institutional infrastructure existing within universities and colleges.   And colleges and universities might also contribute human resources for supporting and eventually leading civic think tanks, as well as training students for assuming such roles.

All visions need to begin with a model that illustrates what might be. The vision for a citizen-centered think tank is difficult to communicate in words. It is an experienced phenomenon. It takes courage to support an experience in the hope of capturing a game-changing understanding. The notion of democracy, itself, presents a similar challenge. Only when one experiences an authentic democratic governance system, with all of its privilege and responsibility, can one hope to understand the essential and challenging role that must be played by informed citizens.

The story of the American democratic tradition is one of those stories that we tell and re-tell ourselves. In the vision of Benjamin Franklin, our national experiment with democracy was a work-in-progress from its very origins. The story doesn’t provide immutable evidence of the perfect wisdom of our forefathers. Our world has changed as we entered the Information Age. Expertise now diffuses from the few toward the many. The power of advocacy is eroding as expertise declines. Information flows alongside misinformation. Tactics for managing citizens as objects are evolving toward tactics for engaging citizens as subjects. An old culture of telling is seeking to find a new balance with a culture of asking. We struggle with rising complexity and community fragmentation. Our democracy calls out for an institutional upgrade. It calls for better ways to hear and understand the situations experienced by citizens living at street-level. These experiences need to be assembled into a coherent story, and the story needs to be broadly validated at community level. These stories cannot afford to be filtered through partisan lenses.   A great deal of the future rests in our decisions today to support or to withhold support for citizen think tanks. Everything depends upon this decision.


Heraklion DEMOSCOPIO: A vision for democracy, cooperation and dialogue

The municipality of Heraklion in Crete, Greece will soon open the Heraklion Demoskopio, a new institution that will engage the stakeholders of the city in open and focused dialogues. It will be a public space for eliciting citizen concerns, hosting their dialogues, and posting those concerns and results on its walls and windows of the town’s citizens.

It will host open and structured dialogues to cooperatively define and resolve complex issues. The concerns, on account of the deliberations, the definitions, and the selected course of action are posted on its wall and are open for examination by all citizens.

It is expected that citizens, researchers, entrepreneurs, scientists, educational institutions, collective bodies, the opportunity to collaborate effectively in designing innovative solutions to a variety of challenges facing the city leadership. (See also the decision of the City Council here: da65f555c7ac2d643

Dimoskopio_ Heraklion) 

Read also the original idea as formulated and submitted to the Municipality of Heraklion by the Social Systems Design Professor, Dr. A lexander N. Christakis, and the independent journalist Maria Kakoulaki here:

More specifically, the Demoscopio, as indicated in the decision of the City Council, aims at listening to citizens and entrepreneurs, whose voices are never heard on issues that concern them, so that they will be able to converse on equal terms with other actors in society, and to share opinions, proposals, visions for the future of the city. Also groups of students who have creative ideas and want to turn them into viable businesses or products, or to improve the social environment, can display and promote their plans through the Demoskopio capability and facility. Furthermore, it will provide support to volunteer groups, educational and research institutions wishing to codesign practices and innovations, as well as exhibits and museum spaces.

According to officials of the municipality, the economic crisis Greece is experiencing today, is affecting Greek cities dramatically, reducing the available financial resources and manpower, and increasing social security and support needs. This crisis has particularly affected young people, with unemployment rates have soared sharply from 2007 onwards.

The Municipality of Heraklion intends to contribute to addressing this reality through the institution of the Demoskopio, which encourages and develops a culture of social dialogue, cooperation, development, innovation, and entrepreneurship, particularly among young people. It has been observed that in recent years a wave of young people with talents and skills, that exploit new technologies for services and products, need support in translating their ideas into viable businesses. The Demoskopio will act as a node in a social network for generating ideas, innovation, and entrepreneurship.

The Demoskopio will provide three main types of services. The first category concerns the application of Structured Democratic Dialogue (SDD) for the design and promotion of social and business cooperation, consensus and networking with the wide involvement and participation of all perspectives. The second category concerns the business interconnection services, which include the participation of young people in innovation competitions, entrepreneurship and mentoring workshop. The third category concerns business acceleration consulting and support services.

[Official publication of the decision in the “stepfather” newspaper, 01.02.15] =#.VvmyX8eMAcg

A Digital Approach to Democratic Dialogue

The essence of a democratic act is the co-construction of a coherent understanding of a shared circumstance. All else flows from this constructed understanding. It has never been easy, and today may be much more difficult that it has been in the past. This is frustratingly ironic to many who turn to the Internet as mankind’s last best shot at a democratic global future.

As I see it, here is the rub. Modern internet technology makes gathering voices straight forward … if and only if the channel for expressing one’s voice is broadly shared. This means that a central URL (a universal resource locator) is needed which will provide a strong and sustainable forum or venue for democratic exchange. This wing of the problem is well within current reach, but not without its problems. As we feel our way forward toward a more perfect digital platform for democratic practice, we will see frictions among alternative efforts as they become constrained in an earnest traffic jam rushing toward a single destination. The best of intentions will collide. And in the race to recruit voices from the public, the reservoir of public bandwidth will be sucked dry. This is because the public has a finite capacity of energy to invest in democratic practice, and efforts to engage the public places pressure upon public attention – resulting in a form of dialogue fatigue. Unless the venue through which the public is created energizes the public in meaningful ways, that venue risks teaching the public to ignore urgent calls for collective engagement. The hunger for meaning that people instinctively feel as a sentient species will become satiated by stories that will be crafted without an inclusive voice – and delivered on plates that are ideal for swallowing stories easily.

The second wing that will lift democratic deliberations aloft is a cycling three-fold means of listening to all of the responding voices, recruiting unresponsive voices, and assembling a coherent picture of the understanding that links all respondents in a sense of common situation. These requirements for inclusive understanding have to be met before efforts to nominate or prescribe specific remedial actions are initiated. We cannot hope to collectively fix a situation if we do not first have a shared understanding of that situation.

Creating a shared, coherent view of a complex situation is a process that struggles toward an end-point. The end-point is an ideal destination, and the human effort is a pragmatic step toward that ideal destination. We cannot expect to get to 100% closure on a complex view of the future – however, we can hope to get full closure on a coherent statement of where the preferred future will be found. In other words, we can come to agree upon what we do feel we know, and at the same time recognize that there are important things that we can be watchful for but cannot yet fully know.

Before taking on a mechanic’s view of how to find closure on an incomplete yet coherent view, and how to translate that view into collective action, one might well ask if an effort to force a shared understanding is worthy of our time when we recognize from the start that any such understanding will necessarily be incomplete. The short answer is “yes” – most profoundly and urgently “yes.”

Agreeing upon a way to move through a jungle of uncertainty is essential when it is impossible to point to the one true direction out of that jungle with certainty. If we can agree how to meaningfully explore together, we can agree how to learn from our explorations together; and if we agree how to learn from our shared explorations, we can agree to find the best possible options for our futures. Now we all should realize that it was not too long ago when such a string of logic would be held to be absurd – and we should all also realize that in many parts of the world today this same logic is still reviled as foolishness. The singular authority of hierarchical leadership can and will ordain directions for others to follow. With near-term horizons, this is natural and proper … if we are to put out a fire that is roaring around us, we need a command-and-control response. If we are seeing the fire upon the horizon – even as that horizon draws ever closer – we are capable of more than a reliance upon hierarchical, authoritarian leadership. Hierarchical decision makers do rightly fear becoming bogged down in a quagmire of irreconcilable differences. Traditional leadership often lack experience where vastly differing positions are efficiently and powerfully intertwined into a coherent basis for action. Hierarchical process needs experience applying democratic process for dealing with diffuse and far-horizon action – just as democratic process needs skillful application of hierarchical process for dealing with management of focused and near-horizon action. Democratic process is not at odds with autocratic hierarchies. Autocrats have their advisors – the democratic urge is to include among those advisers equal voice from “all” perspectives of the governed.

Now for a mechanic’s view of assuring a shared construction of a coherent vision of a situation – as a prelude to a shared construction of a coherent imagining of real options for responding to the situation: v First, collect a large set of (unique) ideas that express matters of concern from an inclusively diverse pubic audiences regarding a specific situation. v Second, get a preliminary view of the specific ideas that the public broadly feels to be of most “highly important” to keep in mind when trying to understand the situation. v Third, begin exploring relationships among this set of highly important concerns in a pair wise fashion – searching for ideas which are judged to strongly influence the successful resolution of other ideas. v Fourth, display a model which will reveal the initial pattern of influence across the system of highly important matters of concern. v Fifth, use this initial pattern to search through other expressed matters of concern which might take up positions of still deeper and greater influence upon the emerging system pattern. v Six, reflect on the patter of influence for the situation being explored, and seek out additional concerns with even more deeply influence the successful resolution of the system of concerns. v Seventh, overlay ideas about possible actions which could address each of the concerns contained within the influence map of the situation. v Eight, in groups which self-nominate themselves as desiring to collaborate on resolving the situation, craft action scenarios that draw upon the action options overlaid upon the influence map of the situation. v Ninth, compare alternative scenarios and first identify actions which are common across all scenarios. v Tenth, engage reflection upon action options which are progressively unique to specific action scenarios, asking for clarity on why one specific course of action is advantageous with respective to an alternative (on possibly in combination with an alternative) action of a specific item of concern in the influence map of the situation. v Eleven, converge upon a small set of real alternatives for action, and develop narratives for the preferred action alternatives which will feature both their commonalities and their differences.

The mechanical process for constructing a coherent view from a multitude of individual concerns will be reduced to digital mechanism through iterations over time. The work has begun already and is largely nearing completion. Yet while two wings will lift democracy into flight, democracy requires one additional element to come to roost. Democratic initiatives need to be reflected broadly in the public dialogue. This will involve bringing the digital back into the first person world. Extending the mechanic’s view, three additional activities are needed to curate, survey and enact democratic decision making. v Mechanical step twelve places into a public venue both a complete, transparent, and (where possible) illustrated record of ideas of concern, patterns of influence among ideas, options for acting upon ideas, and a resolved set of real options for action. v Mechanical step thirteen captures (unique) statements in response to the public communication of the democratic process, and incorporates those public statements into the retained public communication of the democratic process. v And mechanical step fourteen calls for an informed electorate to express the will of the people through public vote.

The practice of democracy is more than a human right alone: it is also a human responsibility, and along with all sets of responsibilities come some rules of process. The mechanic’s tour of democratic process lays out a sequence of activities all of which must be substantially complete before the next task is engaged. For example, the democracy platform must segment “situation exploration” from “situation resolution” activities so that respondents can be assure that actions will be contemplated with, and only with, a shared understanding of the situation that calls for resolution. Orchestrating the construction of coherence from a multitude of highly different individual perspectives, traditions and beliefs is going to be difficult. In many ways, the way that we think is who we are. We self-identify with our approach to making sense out of the world, and we define our communities through our traditions for including or excluding others in our thought processes.

Today, as we straddle the physical world and the digital universe, we are developing new traditions through which we will come to know the community of mankind. Our digital technology can either liberate us or constrain us. The way that we choose to use this technology is within our hands. It is up to us to imagine together how we will implement digital democracy.

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 “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, 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.

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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.