Archive for the ‘Participatory Democracy’ category

Bursting at the Seams

October 16, 2007

Jeffrey Sachs – Speaking on solving global problems at the Reith Lectures. He may be a one-man Club of Rome.

And how can it be, ladies and gentlemen, that we think we can be safe? We think we can be safe when we leave a billion people to struggle literally for their daily survival, the poorest billion for whom every day is a fight to secure enough nutrients, a fight against the pathogen in the water that can kill them or their child, a fight against a mosquito bite carrying malaria or another killer disease for which no medicine is available, though the medicines exist and are low cost, thus letting malaria kill one or two million children this year. How can this be safe? How can we choose, as we do in the United States, to have a budget request this year of $623 billion for the military – more than all the rest of the world combined – and just $4.5 billion for all assistance to Africa and think that this is prudent? One might say it is science fiction that a zoonotic disease could arise and somehow spread throughout the world, except that AIDS is exactly that. How many examples do we need to understand the linkages, and the common threats, and the recklessness of leaving people to die — recklessness of spirit, of human heart, and of geo-political safety for us?

President Kennedy talked about a way of solving problems, and that too will be a theme of these Lectures. We are entering I believe a new politics, and potentially a hopeful politics. I’m going to call it open-source leadership. If Wikipedia and Linux can be built in an open source manner, politics can be done in that manner as well. We are going to need a new way to address and to solve global problems, but our connectivity will bring us tools unimaginable even just a few years ago.

We have new, old, and reinvented tools – online and offline – for generating collective wisdom toward solving complex social problems. What’s missing is the same thing that has always been missing: a bit of vision from the stakeholders, who might be committed to resolving differences among the different holders-of-stakes, to attempt a true dialogue with a meaningful consensus for action.

Dialogic design may be a means for such open source politics. It provides a means of engaging people with a problem in common in an open, democratic, and productive design thinking process. Policy making is a design problem, wherein a large and variable set of unwieldy inputs and voices overwhelm the decision maker, and a sensemaking process ensures to arrive at a decisions that intuitively organize the meanings and needs of the policy into a course of action. This is very hard work for politicians and policy wonks, neither discipline of course, being trained in design thinking. But it is a problem of designing, nevertheless.

In dialogue, you are heard and your contributions are honored, as are all contributions. Wisdom is that which emerges from the common through the exchange, understanding of the problem space, and generation of design possibilities. It is not wikiality – whether online or on-face, its the real deal.

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Perspectives on Dialogue: What Matters?

August 23, 2007

In Why the Crowd Has No Wisdom I pushed several issues with the “wisdom of the crowd” idea:

1. What is distributed wisdom? Wisdom can be considered an emergent pattern of meaning from participants in a dedicated search for meaning and guidance.Collective wisdom emerges from a dialogic engagement among observers that have actually pondered a situation. Is Wikipedia “wise” or just really a helpful set of editors sharing what they consider factual and informative?

2. Can the crowd help me with a problem? What is the intention of the group from which we expect to find wisdom or even knowledge? Where knowledge is the entry fee we pay to generate wisdom from the group, it is not the outcome of the group. More knowledge is not what we need, we usually need some sort of contextual direction based on understanding of a situation.

3. Are large groups effective? When generating distributed knowledge from a large, generally unknown group – like a prediction market – can we achieve anything better than a measure of popularity or sentiment? Do we have any evidence that large groups have any better sense of the future, or any consensus toward solving difficult problems facing us? Maybe an individual in the group has a killer idea, but won’t that idea be washed out by too many uniformed participants? If the crowd was right, wouldn’t everyone in stock markets be buying the same stocks?

Margaret Mead and Peter Block hold the small group as the best working unit of wisdom generation. While dialogue circles can scale to large sizes, their effectiveness to make group decisions based on a group understanding diminishes in correlation to size.

There are several demographic studies that compel attention toward a less-informed populace, not more, Internet be damned. Even the French (friends of the intellectual life) have weighed in on their cultural decline – consumer caprice!

School Faced With Consumerist Barbarism

By Philippe Meirieu, Le Monde,Thursday 22 March 2007

In France, debates concerning education are too often reduced to debates about school. Our history certainly invites that: no other country is built through and around its school system more than ours. And if we don’t restore hope in an institution that today has been broadly reduced to a triage center, we will have to face both the explosion of youth and the depression of teachers. When fatalism triumphs and disappointment is the rule among those who incarnate the future, we have something to worry about…. In consequence, let’s celebrate the way the electoral campaign has made a place for scholastic problems.

We are faced with a completely unheard-of phenomenon: caprice – which used to be only a stage in the individual child’s development – has become the organizing principle of our collective development. We, in fact, know that the child always goes through a phase in which he believes he can boss beings and things around. Whether one talks about initial narcissism or infantile egocentrism, one always emphasizes the same phenomenon: the child, enmeshed in desires that he cannot yet either name or register in an encounter with someone else, is tempted to move to action. The educator should therefore accompany the child; teach him not to react immediately with violence, not to rush headlong into a collision…. To take the time to question himself, anticipate, reflect, metabolize his impulses, construct his will. That’s the business of pedagogy.

The bolded sentence advises self-dialogue, an interesting orientation to pedagogy. While not directly supporting a case that crowds are less wise than we may hope, it suggests the selection of population sample (or stakeholders) is very important.

My colleagues have responded with some compelling distinctions.

Dr. Liss Jeffrey of the eCommons/Agora and New Democracy Workshop (see the Netizen News) makes an impressive case:

I would say that I take a more conventionally grassroots democratic view ( as in demos or perhaps ‘demosophy’) as crowd sourcing seems to me an interesting and worthwhile if never infallible or even reliable ‘ bottom up’ approach.Nor do I share your disdain for “the mean” ( this used to be the mass I guess, an equally flawed concept of some kind of abstraction of a person quantified. I have a lot of respect for the common sense of Canadians.I refuse to blame Americans en masse as this position lacks nuance and suffers from obvious contradictions).

I think part of the point is to inform people and provide opportunities for them to inform themselves and others on a given question and topic. I do not always know what matters, (who does?), and anyway it may change.

Dialogue is powerful, but creating the conditions for dialogue so it seems to me takes education, information, lots of hope and many other tactics .That’s where I think the real struggle is situated, nurturing those conditions and building platforms and practices for the dialogue engagement.

Restricting the dialogue to an ‘intentional small crowd’ while this may be practically useful (maybe the room only holds 30) seems to me on principle objectionable.

I do not know on a given day with whom I may need to or may find myself in dialogue, as I make my way through the public part of my life, however surely that readiness for dialogue is part of what we are trying to achieve – those of us who make dialogue part of our practice …

Dr. Peter Pennefather of the University of Toronto suggests a middle way, that we frame any dialogue (online or F2F) well enough so that multiple perspectives are encouraged and accommodated.

Peter Jones responds to some articles cited earlier in this dialogue about blogging and the possible outputs of a million monkeys typing <as well as the above article by Meirieu complaining about the capriciousness of crowds and more specifically of millennials.) This article reflects a common complaint about the capriciousness youth and their lack of commitment to a defined doctrine or a consistent worldview. This seems to have a parallel in a longing for the good old days of insurgency when the battle was over running the nation state in contrast to the fuzzy foes of today’s Brave New Wars who just want to exert influence over a bit of turf they can call their own and will stop at nothing to drive away competitors who compete for that influence.

Unless there is a framing of the dialogue it is difficult to recognize the points of view or perspective that drive elements of the discourse. This is what I think is most important about all the blogging that is going on. Not only are opinions being recorded, but it is now possible to interpret those opinions in terms of the writer’s identity and perspective that can be deduced from other information on the web, often nicely arranged and summarized on their home page.

It’s not the collective knowledge of crowds that is emerging but rather an ability to recognize the collective diversity of perspectives. It is this multi-perspectival view that helps locate information artifacts and to characterizes their nature more completely.

Perspective is developed and usually enabled by “standing on the shoulders of giants” (or monsters). An ability to consider things from multiple perspectives leads to perceptiveness. Perceptiveness is a property generally associated with the culture of ideas. One quality that makes a written text literature is that it is widely recognized as having the quality of perceptiveness. Intellectuals and scholars train themselves to be perceptive and to have the capacity to provide a sophisticated analysis of events. Thus, for focused questions it is efficient to establish a dialogue amongst key informants.

However, in my opinion, all dialogue is useful and increases the overall perceptiveness of the participants. The consensus that can sometimes emerge from dialogue is not a homogenized mean but rather an appreciation of different points of view and a better appreciation of where the uncertainties lies or the level of facticity of the observations bandied about. I agree with Liss that assessing a situation and responding to that situation invokes different cognitive and neurological systems. However, I would not like to separate dialogue from action. It is the coordination of information input and action outputs (including dialogical inquiry to obtain more information) that increases our ability to adapt to what the world throws at us.

The democratic and dialogical principles that should be brought into at play during a staged discourse on a limited platform of ideas aimed at providing long term guidance for the operations of government (e.g. during election campaigns) are different from democratic and dialogical principles that should be applied during a focussed dialogical inquiry aimed at assessing the value of possible solutions to a specific focused but difficult problem. Nevertheless, in both situations there will be common forms of knowledge, skills, attitudes, and beliefs that will favour participant satisfaction with the process. The skill of being able to inspire imagination in others and the belief in widely dispersed wisdom to be found in the most unlikely places are two such useful elements. These common elements can be developed (taught) through various exercises and must be maintained through continuous use

Is this a middle way between amusing sophisticated discourse by insiders and mindless mass mouthings (typing) of platitudes?

These are all principles of structured dialogue: Demosophia (Wisdom of the People), Framing the Dialogue, Embracing and including multiple perspectives. Thank you for contributing to our shared collective wisdom!

In Toronto: Escape from Suburbia

May 25, 2007

OK, first of all Toronto IS our escape from Suburbia – We leave the Dayton area and spend a week or more of every month working in downtown Toronto. I have collaborative projects that have developed over the last year or two, and Patricia works on her book projects. A small-ish work/live studio in Liberty Village suffices for now. Our next door neighbor at the Fraser Studios happens to be Greg Greene, director of End of Suburbia and cinematographer for the Yellow Springs-based (our other neighborhood) project on Community Solutions (How Cuba Survived Peak Oil).

Greg pre-screened the second documentary in the trilogy project, Escape from Suburbia, last night at the No Regrets restaurant in Liberty. Escape from Suburbia shows us the committed, seemingly “early” responses of people followed from New York, LA, and even Portland to their new lives in eco-villages and rural farms. Notice that we, and Greg, remain in the city for now.

Toronto is a wonderful place to live and work, and our future location of choice. But the facts are that the GTA is the 5th largest metro area in North America, and much of it is sprawl. The regional food supply is very limited – as with much of the US, the food is flown and trucked in with about a 2-day supply. Transportation to the city and in the city is problematic – although better than most US cities.

Regardless of how your frame the phenomenon, resource costs and diminished supply are here now. The cheap oil-subsidized illusion of progress and pereptual growth is crashing, in parallel with Peak Credit, Peak Debt, Peak Consumer/Housing, leading many of us to Peak Anxiety. The documentary forces the realization that we are on our own, the governments and corporations are not here to help. We each have to create sustainable communities, wherever we choose – and we have to choose very, very soon or the choice will be made for us. See the trailer – its a witty fist in a reality glove.

Three Dialogues in search of democracy

April 15, 2007

The New Democracy Workshop is an ongoing working group at U of Toronto consisting of new media and social democracy researchers. We held dialogues last week on personal healthcare and innovations in dialogue.

Peter Pennefather presented the basics of Collaborative Diagnostics. How medical procedure aimed at directing decisions about therapy should be explicitly democratic and how trends in the health care system to recognize patient autonomy may allow such a dialogical approach to emerge. Peter argues that when procedures and personal care records within the health care system become more transparent, the prospects for such an emergent democratic dialogue will be

I shared about our current thinking in dialogue practice, including Web-based applications in e-dialogue.  Working from a new presentation on structured dialogue, our method for democratic, consensus-based dialogic design based on social science and collaborative cognition is articulated. I presented a case for moving dialogue beyond the Understanding phase (“just listening”), illustrating the necessity for a democratic approach to social system design and action based on dialogue.

More on Dialogic Design at the Blogora (please visit and engage with us!)

Dialogue as unmediated design

March 1, 2007

Or at least, less-mediated design. A goal and an inherent value of participatory design is that of engaging users directly in a design processes, to minimize the translation of features by designers. The goal of direct participation is not to reduce the cycle time incurred between cycles of user-centered design, prototyping, and user assessment, although that happens. The goal is to maximize user ownership of the design for their own work practices, and to minimize the influence designers have in articulating the significant features in the application space. Participatory design has a values orientation that respects the intelligence and autonomy of participants in their own work practices.

Dialogic design also aims to minimize designer mediation, even if through a facilitated process. By enabling participation of all stakeholders in a design dialogue – aspires to immediacy. The principle of requisite autonomy is honored in all SDD sessions, which requires the autonomy and authenticity of all individual stakeholders to be preserved. Nobody can alter a contribution made by a participants in structured dialogue.

Dialogue happens with a committed group of people, during a particular time only, with all the raw materials generated by the participants themselves. While the classic writers on dialogue include philosophers Habermas, Gadamer, (and the later interpreter Kogler), and thinkers such as Bohm and Krishnamurti. But why not also be inspired by un-mediation writers and artists such as:

  • Joseph Beuys, and his expression of direct democracy and non-mediated direct engagement of social sculpture.
  • Guy Debord, situationist and confronter of the phenomenon of spectacle
  • And a little more recently by Hakim Bey’s Immediatism (1994), also available in its anarchic entirety on the web. (You can see the revival of this meme in full sway in our household, in the recent blog by my partner (and wife) Patricia on Slow Learning)

So given that Structured Dialogic Design is mediated by facilitation, structure, and software – what does disintermediation mean and demand of our interaction? SDD is not Open Space – it is highly intentional, disciplined approach to dialogue, designed to generate results. But then, Beuys intended democracy, and Bey confronts the directness and meaning of media we employ to live lives of full participation and F2F intimacy. These same values are held sacred in SDD. To the degree our structure is transparent to participants, allowing them to focus on meaning in their committed contexts, then we have reduced the distance between people and their ownership of authentic dialogue.

To the extent our design is direct – or experienced as direct by participants, then we are eclipsing the role of “designer” with a process that achieves designed outcomes and true consensus for acting on the design.

IDEO Smart Space – A transformation of what?

February 25, 2007

IDEO’s Urban Pre-Planning

Can its “Smart Space” practice shake up the lumbering world of infrastructure, zoning, and public process?
IDEO gets so much press on their approach to architectural projects – perhaps because its a relatively new space for design, and few other firms are taking it on in the way they can. They have the size, the rep, and a diverse mix of design disciplines. They have balls, you have to give them credit – their developing practice in urban planning, land use, and housing planning is taking on a complex, hyper-sensitive, “sprawling” territory where results will be hard to measure, because cities and new initiatives in urban spaces take time and community commitment to happen. IDEO does not have to care if they design it, and nobody comes. So they can reach far with ideas and aim for excitement and inspiration.

But it is not innovation of urban planning, it seems to be a innovation of urban packaging. This has implications for design strategy, because IDEO gets to set the top bar for the profession. If conceptual design planning is the product and deliverable, how does this actually lead to better urban spaces? And who is the ultimate customer – the city planners and developers? Or the people living in the community?

“It’s not clear that works, mostly because it’s too early to tell—but also because the team at IDEO is messing with the DNA of the planning process. They’re changing it from a concrete process of infrastructure and building to an imagined one of narrative and identity; they’re exchanging the idea of a place for place itself. In an urban realm already threatened by privatization—not just by developers but by a broader trend toward place-making as marketing—IDEO’s approach could be seen to further erode the idea of city-building as a democratic process (if it ever was) because of the way it applies the shiny language of marketing to the gritty mixed-up world of the city. As IDEO emphasizes, its communication skills have been honed in the corporate world, and its “user centered” approach is often cast as a particularly empathetic version of market research.”

This is a case where process has implications for everybody involved. As a zoning board member in an Ohio township, I know the regulatory and planning processes are not sexy, and its hard to get real citizens engaged in designing their own future. It should be easier going getting people involved in a gritty, hip location in a large city. But who IS the user here, if this user-centered? This is the problem of transformation design – if a design process is not democratic or even participatory, who then has the rights to design, package, and market on behalf of the citizens? The “client” – the planners, or in many cases – the developers of Potemkin village greens that are becoming popular at the edges of failed urban centers such as my Ohio town?
My last post engaged Liz Sanders’ Design Research article, with her model differentiating between designer (expert)-led and participant (user) led generative design. It may be very cool to have IDEO design your urban area’s brand package based on “user” research, that may have included real people like you that live in the locale. But they seem to fall short of actual planning, and drop off before working with the political grind and zoning/use negotiations that establish the affordances for building, infrastructure, service delivery. At the end of the day, the trade-offs between officials, developers, and the public lead to livability and community. This is an interesting front-end approach, but it could lead to high expectations that do not become realized in transformation of community space.
So to what extent can people be empowered to direct the planning and design of their own communities? To what extent can they – community dwellers – mobilize the tools of design – with design facilitation by IDEO-like firms? And should innovation firms take on the slog through architecture, zoning, and planning to engage themselves as committed players in such projects? If they don’t “have a dog in the fight” now, how would the level of trust and possibility of real community-centered design be actualized if they did have such a commitment to results?
One of the most inspiring practices I’ve encountered in the world of conceptual arts is Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s total commitment to a project, often involving years of negotiation with planners, public official, and public hearings. To a great extent, this is where the art happens – its a multi-year, mixed-temporality performance, leading up to an event and land sculpture. Ands the real takehome lesson for me is that their process is participatory, in the very real sense that when they take on a wrapping or public space project, they engage fully in the public hearings and discussions as a type of community-sensitive collaboration. Its behind-the-scenes participatory art.  As designers considering public or transformative work, should we at least be working with local planners and educating people in public hearings, if not reflecting on the full range of stakeholders in our design processes? Who do we collaborate with to make this happen? What design research methods do we use?

Twilight of the Republic?

February 16, 2007

A series of articles, just since late 2006, wonder seriously if America’s soul – its character and shared values – dropped over a tipping point. Each of these are from a different perspective, revealing an interconnected complexity of problems, even if each takes a single focus. These underlying concerns have been building since 2001:

Since 2001, what have these old white guys with bad haircuts done, in secret, to what was once the most-respected nation? What kind of government has actually emerged now to take the place of a democratic republic? What are the possibilities for citizen engagement in their own democracy, and are we up to the job of creating one?

Inside, looking out at the mess we’ve made. Andrew Basevich asks in his Commonweal essay, a section of which I’ve fair-used here, the question titling this post.

A serious attempt to pacify the Islamic world means the permanent militarization of U.S. policy. Almost inevitably, it will further concentrate authority in the hands of an imperial presidency.
This describes the program of the “faster, please” ideologues keen to enlarge the scope of U.S. military action. To paraphrase Che Guevara, it is a program that calls for “one, two, many Iraqs,” ignoring the verdict already rendered by the actually existing Iraq. The fact is that events there have definitively exposed the very real limits of American hard power, financial reserves, and will. Leviathan has shot his wad.

Seeking an escape from our predicament through further expansion points toward bankruptcy and the dismantling of what remains of the American republic. Genuine pragmatism-and the beginning of wisdom-lies in paying less attention to “the way that they live” and more attention to the way we do. Ultimately, conditions within American society determine the prospects of American liberty. As early multiculturalist Randolph Bourne observed nearly a century ago, ensuring that authentic freedom will flourish at home demands that we attend in the first instance to “cultivating our own garden.”

Will we recognize the US when Iraq is finished with us? In the past, we have ignored reflection and bypassed the opportunities to learn from mistakes. With a real war debt US $2T, we will not have the luxury of “moving on.” If you have ever been in debt, you may recall there’s interest to be paid. How much, and how long?

Outside, looking in. Jan Morris, British historian and writer, writes in the Guardian: Once the most beloved country in the world, the US is now the most hated. You have to read this just for the comments, if not the (actually hopeful) argument she makes in the editorial piece:

Perhaps, with a future new president already champing at the bit, we are about to witness its rebirth. As a foreigner I am immune to the rivalries or seductions of American party politics, but I have loved the old place for 60 years, and I simply pray for an American leader to give us back its baraka, as the Arabs say – nothing to do with religion or economics or power or even ideology, but the gift of being at once blessed and blessing.

Of course nobody can claim that the old dreams of America were ever perfectly fulfilled. They often let us down. They were betrayed by the national reputations for crime, corruption, racism and rampant materialism. … Nobody’s perfect, still less any republic.

But I think it is true that only in our time has the American Idea lost its baraka. A generation or two ago, most of us, wherever we lived, loved the generous self-satisfaction of it, if not in the general, at least in the particular. The GI was not then a sort of goggled monster in padded armour, but a cheerful fellow chatting up the girls and distributing candy not as a matter of policy, but out of plain goodwill – everyone’s friendly guy next door. … one could watch the lachrymose patriotic rituals of America – the hand on heart, the misty-eyed salute to the flag – with more affection than irony.

These are not political impressions as much as they are values impressions, which is why they’re more important. Values shifts endure long after the crises that inspired them – because my parents grew up as Depression-era kids, I learned to respect neighbors, saving, and preparing for the future.  That may be way old-school, but your personal values don’t change every month. Organizational values change slowly – a national culture’s values change very slowly.

Values are not political ideology, left or right – but most of us would not remember this, since our values have become as mediated as our political experience. Most Americans are working too hard (“staying employed”) to particpate in our own cultural and democratic renewal. By the time we’re home, what left for us to engage in our community or national issues in a meaningful way? We leave the mangle of real participation to the fanatics and the heartbroken, and then we wonder why our laws do not reflect our values.