Civic Engagement

Citizen as Designer

By shifting the responsibility of the citizen from deciding to designing, we can redirect resources away from conflict and toward creating better ideas.

It is hard to escape the feeling that our political structures, built from the materials and mindsets of ages past, are ominously creaking. Signs of stress include declining voter turnout, mass movements of the left and right, and our governments’ inability to deal with major threats such as climate change and fiscal indebtedness. The current US presidential election is perhaps the most poignant sign, showing that peculiar combination of intense animosity and absurd superficiality. That we all lament but yet cannot escape this situation is a clue that we are looking for solutions in the wrong place.

From deciding to designing

Our political structures are strained because their foundations have shifted. The tools of the current political system—voting, legislation, parties—were built to decide between existing options. However, the problems we face today do not come with an obvious list of solutions. Reducing deficits, addressing climate change, and preventing major security threats—these challenges require creativity and innovation more than debate. And so the proverbial hammer finds a nail, and the political system’s attention shifts from the tough questions to those few issues that have preexisting and polarizing options. The result is increasingly acrimonious debate about increasingly immaterial issues, while the important problems fester. We focus our political resources on deciding between options, and leave the design of these options to chance.

This deciding paradigm* diverts institutional resources away from innovation and toward conflict, and fails to tap into the knowledge and ingenuity that we all possess. Our primary role as citizens is checking a box beside our preferred option on the ballot. That the poverty of this notion of what we can contribute does not seem absurd to us only speaks to how entrenched we are in our ideas of what democracy is. In a world where we use mass collaboration to design products, generate knowledge, and create markets, why do we accept such a constrained role in the political realm? This should seem as anachronistic to us as the typewriter or the telegraph—quaint, useful for its time, but ultimately too limited.

So do we replace this with a form of direct democracy? No. This fails to escape the deciding paradigm. Instead of treating ideas and options as constant and focusing on choosing between them, we need an architecture of political institutions that generates better ideas. Currently, our political system answers the question how do we decide between alternatives? Instead, it should ask how could we design better alternatives?

A social architecture for better ideas

We have an opportunity to redefine what it means to be a citizen. Just as the voting system decides between options, we need a system for designing better ideas. A social architecture that brings people together to innovate will have a number of characteristics:

  • It will facilitate mass collaboration. This collaboration will involve both virtual and physical means for citizens to work together to imagine and create new policies, structures, and organizations. Ideas for crime reduction captured from a conversation at the local church will be adapted online by people from across the country, and then used as input for a town hall hosted by a city police commissioner.
  • People will assemble based on both how different and how similar they are. Those passionate about a common topic will come together for constructive conversation. In designing a financial system that works, we need a Goldman Sachs banker, an Occupy Wall Street protester, a financial regulator, a Tea Partier, and a young teacher at the same table.
  • It will generate many ideas and find ways to weave them together. Our global system is vast and diverse, but also intimately interconnected. Any effective design needs a lot of ideas, but our proposed solutions must take into account interdependencies in the system. When an ecologist designs a municipal energy efficiency policy, the policy must be linked to the teacher's ideas about school layout and the engineer's proposal for a new electric grid. Our designing architecture will identify these interdependencies and facilitate context-appropriate solutions.
  • It will draw on both sophisticated theory and lived experience. We need the expertise of advanced knowledge and training, as well as the expertise of individual experience. We need both the pedagogical theorist and the student who can describe what makes a classroom work for her. The urban planner who understands traffic flow algorithms and the parking garage attendant who knows what signs work best. We must integrate not just the ideas of think tanks and party leaders and policy wonks, but also of all citizens.

A political system that focuses its energies on designing better ideas will be more constructive than contentious, more innovative than inertial, and more aspirational than apathetic. Creating such a system will require significant ingenuity to build new and transform existing institutions, and to re-think our role as citizens. Current structures are strained and new ones are needed. We have an exciting design challenge ahead.

*See the book “Managing as Designing” for a discussion of the differences between managers with decision-making and designing attitudes.

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  • Very interesting!! Would be great to see how the details would look like. Some questions would be: 1. How do you ensure efficiency in the designing process? 2. What is the incentive for the citizens to take part in designing? 3. If citizens shift from deciding to designing, who will do the deciding? You would ultimately still need a decision maker, even if there is only one option. (That makes it naturally two options: Yes or No—> still potential for conflict).

  • Tom Hovland's avatar

    BY Tom Hovland

    ON September 7, 2012 11:02 AM

    This is great. I wonder if we could use a model from the past, like the design process of the American constitution as a starting point for the creation of a creative-based system.

  • Great article. Though I agree with the sentiment, I’m not sure if I agree that the solution against the “deciding paradigm” is design.

    Three things. First, how does this type of community involvement change the fact that we still have to vote - and at least in the US for one of two candidates typically.

    Second, in my mind, the problem is not a lack of ideas, but a lack of listeners. Think of a problem and I am sure there’s tons of literature out there with wonderful ideas and solutions.

    Third, we’ve gotten to the point where we can’t even agree WHAT a problem is. Climate change is an obvious example, but a less obvious one is poverty. Seems, for instance, that blaming the poor for their poverty has become about as popular as trying to help them.

    Those two things aside, I think there are areas where this type of community designing makes sense: particularly in a local setting.

  • It has been done for years in several cities as part of the consulting process on the design of new infrastructure.

    Communities having a direct impact on any changes on their landscape or infrastructure, have been consulted as they live there day by day and understand the mechanics of space better than any engineer who visits the site once or perhaps twice during design process.

    Including this as part of the political and governance process is an important tool, however needs to be really quick and swift, there are already several mechanism and they require long legal and hearing processes that just hinder a quick deploy of these concerted measures.

    If you can find a more efficient way to speed up that interaction, superb!

  • BY Brodie Boland

    ON September 10, 2012 11:23 AM

    Thanks for the great comments!

    First, Jih-Ming and Saeid, I very much agree that deciding will still play a role in any political system, and so there will certainly be conflict even in a system that devotes more resources to the designing than the deciding part of the process.  I think we can understand the relationship between designing and deciding using a very micro analogy.  We’ve all been in meetings where the options are already fixed, and the purpose of the meeting is simply to decide between options.  We’ve also probably all been in meetings that are framed more as a question, where the purpose of the meeting is to collaboratively come up with options that we think are best.  I imagine that our experiences of such meetings are similar.  The former, decision-making meetings often lead people to put stakes in the ground, the conversation is one of debate and advocacy, and the result is often a vote or a false consensus-by-peer-pressure.  In the latter, we find that through the process of collaboratively generating the best idea, people often come to an agreement on the way forward.  In cases where there still is a decision to be made, the process of working together to design the best solutions often engenders the trust, listening, and mutual understanding that will make the deciding process less conflictual.  On this more macro, political level, we certainly cannot expect conflict to disappear.  But by devoting more of our attention to the designing part of the process we will change the nature of resource-distribution, of social networks, of the nature of interaction between individuals and institutions, and a variety of factors to be more conducive to effective creativity than conflict.

    Second, Cesar and Tom, thanks for the suggestions of the two models that could be drawn upon.  As to the stakeholder engagement piece, it’s interesting how engagement models are evolving and becoming more of a requirement than a novelty.  The International Finance Corporation’s new performance standards include stakeholder engagement as a requirement for securing IFC funding, and as more organizations meet such guidelines we will hopefully develop more effective ways to engage people meaningfully and at scale.

    As for the specifics of how to make this happen, there are a lot of interesting models of organizations/governments/communities that are already taking steps in this direction. I’ve got some idea as to how it might look, but would love to connect and collaborate with anyone who’s interested, so looking forward to hearing more from people!

  • I totally agree with this view, Brodie. The financial and political systems as we knew them a few years ago no longer exist. We have seen so many and extreme changes taking place around the world, within the last 5 years, that a new way of deciding around things should be implemented. Even the notion of “Citizen as a Designer” is a decision, amongst many different options and scenarios and you reflect the advantages of such a decision very well. I would say that especially in societies, who have faced rapid and intense changes, coming from the top/abroad, such a process is not only recommended but mandatory, in order to regain ownership, self-responsibility towards the community and build the needed social capital.

  • Interesting article Brodie. I would also be interesting in exploring how this would work as Global Citizens emerge and the so called Commons becomes the entire planet. We still have the challenge of the Digital and Literacy divides but I’m sure collaboration can find solutions for all this. What can emerge is truly amazing to even imagine. A much greater Civilization built upon evolving ideas and not conflicting ideas to see which dominates.

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