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Redesigning democracy for the digital age

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  • Design
  • Institutional reform

Last month the RSA was asked to contribute an essay as part of the Designing Democracy Inquiry led by the Design Commission. The Inquiry concluded on Friday evening with an event at the V&A where questions were asked about the role of designers in contemporary civic participation…

I was keen to contribute to this Inquiry because we are very interested in the role design might play in improving democracy at the RSA. The Design Commission is an interesting mix of both Parliamentarians and designers and it supports the All-Party Parliamentary Design and Innovation Group – so it is a fertile ground for interesting debate. The commission sought contributions from a range of disciplines from the built environment to digital design to consider how our current democracy is designed, and think through how we might redesign it to drive participation and engagement. In the RSA essay, which I have drawn excerpts from below (and can be downloaded here), I focused on how social media could play a role in the way we understand community in the future – and how digital methods might change our ways of identifying community assets.

Community in the Social Age

Few would disagree that our political structure is under pressure. In a 2013 YouGov survey, 72% people agreed with the statement that: “politics is dominated by self-seeking politicians protecting the interests of the already rich and powerful in our society”. This weariness with the political elite is driving demand for a shift away from old style democracy, based on stringent hierarchy and strong party discipline, to a more direct democracy where citizens are part of – not merely subject to – decisions that affect them. As society becomes more complex and transparent, due in part to the advent of social media, traditional ways of understanding our communities – through locally elected representation and community consultation and engagement – will struggle to keep pace.

In a fast paced modern world, it is, perhaps, the more experimental ways of working inherent to design thinking that could shape the future of civic engagement, such as asset-based community development and co-production. They are experimental, collaborative and do not frame communities simply as bundles of needs, but rather as assets with problem solving capacity. The Connected Communities research team has been using these methods since 2010 to surface “below the radar” local activities through community social network surveys and qualitative methods, offering a multi-layered snapshot of a community – showing its social connections and assets, gathering the data that cannot be found in official stakeholder databases or registries of voluntary sector bodies.

Can communities be understood through a social media lens?

As more and more community activity moves onto social media, the opportunity to apply digital research methods for local community data gathering is becoming a reality. We explored this in a recent short project funded by Nesta with the Royal College of Art (RCA) to understand the ways in which online data-gathering techniques compare to traditional community engagement.

Using The RCA’s Jimmy Tidey’s LocalNets.org to mine the social web by aggregating tweets and local blog posts in a London Borough we produced a digital visualisation of a local community assets (people, events, organisations and places) and their connections to one another. We then contrasted these findings with the RSA’s on-the-ground community networks research in the same location. There wasn’t a direct overlap, but the fact that these maps were different meant that they provided a more networked picture of the community, rather than just a simple list or register. These pictures can then be used to prompt more active engagement and dialogue within communities. And perhaps it is the ignition of these networks that could be key to democratic renewal.

21st Century community engagement

Our current democracy is designed with 20th Century tools – paper trails and ballot boxes – but these must be reconsidered in light of the sea change we are experiencing in how we now communicate both on and offline. To design for a 21st Century democracy we must bring about blended approaches to how we engage communities and seek to understand networked models of participation. From our research, we don’t suggest that digital tools should replace offline methods of engagement – rather we see that they are complementary. Combined through a well-designed and structured methodology, it seems that they can provide a powerful source of insight.

Rowan Conway is Director of Research and Innovation at the RSA. Follow her on Twitter at @RowanElena

The Design Commission is supported by Policy Connect and the Design Commission inquiry report can be downloaded here.

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  • Democratic Participation?  This morning I see a report that there are >900k fewer registered voters than in 2010.  Last week I read that >6million UK adults remain unregistered (>10% of adult pop) - and that despite massive media attention just before registration closed.  I recall that the Oxford Internet Institute reckoned that >10% of people were 'adigital' - i.e. they were very determinedly offline.


    There's some great work being done to improve Digital Inclusion (Tinder Foundation et al) but from a design perspective the reality is that in the UK connectivity is not always fit for purpose.  The incumbent providers have been reluctant to invest - wary of lack of demand - and their cautious designs (FTTC and DOCSIS) are fairly severe technical comprises compared to what is technically (and now financially) possible.  Basically FTTH services are better all round - symmetric and with lower latency and less Packet Loss compared to, say, BT's FTTC semi-fibre services.

    Now research shows that uptake (demand) soars when fully future-proofed FTTH connectivity is offered and these customers are then more likely to have higher digital utilisation - and engender higher revenues for suppliers.   Design therefore has a direct bearing on engagement in online activity of all kinds - even mobile services are considered more favourably in places where backhaul benefits from fibre connectivity.

    I'm sure there are many other design aspects for public services but, at root, people and enterprises need vastly better designed connectivity. 



  • "Bringing design back to all in the community linking traditional and social media where people can be a part of the decision making with proper collaboration is a wonderful way of ensuring direct democracy". 

    Dede Wilson and Ruth Brewer

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