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.