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Building towards Deliberation and Civic Intelligence

I’ve made it to Austria for the third year running, to attend the Conference on e-Democracy. We begin the day with a keynote by Douglas Schuler – and my own keynote will come later today, too. The proceedings from the conference will appear soon on Google Books, by the way – in line with the open access philosophy espoused by many e-democracy initiatives. The Twitter hashtag for the conference is #cedem11, by the way.

Doug begins his talk with the premise that current trends aren’t adequate for the challenges we face – can we intelligently readjust our activities? What’s necessary here are interdisciplinary approaches, aiming for research that makes a real difference. Doug’s focus is on deliberation: we are in desperate need of good decisions and actions, which help fix our current problems. Such decisions don’t necessarily happen through conventional mechanisms (including the free market); we won’t luck into better solutions, but need clear and effective mechanisms for better deliberation to reach them.

If we do this right, deliberation will also lead to more deliberation; it’s not simply providing a solution to a problem, but builds civic capacity for sustained participation and engagement. This has two dimensions, then: deliberation in-the-small, and deliberation in-the-large; both have different courses of action, but can’t exist without one another. Only if they work together can we have effective, sustained deliberation.

Deliberation in-the-small itself assumes a million forms, and happens in a million places; such deliberation, at its simplest, is a form of collaboration that is purposeful. Deliberation in-the-large addresses the broader social and societal context of deliberation; it depends on a variety of factors, including legitimacy, societal access points, and other factors. Without this context, deliberation in-the-small must remain impotent.

At large, then, the potential for social change, the social receptivity for deliberative processes, and the support from social access points (media, government, and other organisations) each affect the success of deliberation initiatives; at smaller scales, overall societal support for deliberation, the popular desire to deliberate, extant deliberation skills, and the quality of deliberation venues also all influence how the deliberative processes unfold.

To some extent, all of this depends on the presence of civic intelligence. This is a type of collective intelligence that addresses shared concerns effectively and equitably; it pursues civic ends through civic means, applying itself to shared social problems. This is an under-acknowledged resource, but can – and must – be cultivated much more than it has been.

There are a number of civic intelligence emergencies, then – areas where elites alone won’t be able to solve our present problems, but where social innovations, building on civic intelligence, are necessary. (The key problem, Doug says, is that if we don’t change our direction we’ll get to exactly where we’re heading…) Our efforts will need to be bigger than they have been so far – deliberation may need to go viral. We need to be operating at the speed of the Internet, rather than at the speed of academic publication. This may also involve some intelligent social entrepreneurialism.

The hurdles to all of this include the presence of professional cultivators of civic ignorance (for example in media and politics), overall inertia, significant temporal differentiation (different speeds of operation amongst different stakeholders), lack of funding, and a notable lack of interest in deliberation (participation in deliberative processes just isn’t sexy enough). We need to make deliberation a high, explicit priority in the future, break our routines, take semi-autonomous, distributed approaches, work in varied groups across disciplinary boundaries, and connect theory, experiment, and action.