Collective Intelligence for Democracy as a Design Challenge (I)

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This article is part of a trilogy of entries that I am going to publish in this blog to discuss the possibilities that Design offers to conceive participatory spaces that reinforce the democracy.

In this article, I define “collective intelligence for democracy” as the ability to reason, learn, create, solve problems or make decisions in a large group through participatory and legitimate mechanisms that return power to the citizenship.

One of the great challenges that collective intelligence for democracy faces is scaling, due to its demandingly high coordination costs. That is why one of the questions that should be asked is how can interactions be designed to manage collective intelligence in very large groups. For instance: does scaling generate a structural and unsolvable failure that makes good deliberation on a large scale impossible, or could that failure be corrected through design?

Is good Collective Intelligence sought for or found? Is deliberate design possible?:

Another question that many people ask is whether good collective intelligence is something that can be sought for, or that is only found. My answer is that it is a bit of both: a combination of emergence, spontaneity (because the ‘micro-macro problem’ has a variability and complexity that is difficult to predict) and design understood as a deliberate intervention. A good design does not explain everything but it greatly increases the chances of a collective project going well.

Under certain circumstances one comes to think that spontaneity is overrated when managing collective processes. For instance, there is more design than chaos in Wikipedia. As Kevin Kelly says: “The hive mind is not enough; We need top-down design. Wikipedia looks like simple smart chaos but its success is largely explained by a deliberate effort to design interactions, a thoughtful and experienced “architecture of participation“. So, if that’s true, the design concept that Alexander White proposes makes more sense than ever: Design is to bring order from chaos and randomness”.

A well-designed participatory architecture creates the conditions for, in Tom Atlee‘s words, the emergence of “structural collective intelligence”, that is natural, “by default“, in large-scale deliberative processes.

There is a lot of ideology in design. Biases in design condition the type of users it attracts and the predominant culture of interaction. When you design for democracy, you try to return power to the citizens through an intelligent redesign of the mechanisms of deliberation and decision. One option can be restricted to a sort of “advisory autocracy” with a reasonable degree of deliberative democracy but no binding in decision-making. Other models can go further and commit to the public view to the ultimate consequences of that what the people decide and is the decision that is taken.

Another of the great challenges we have in designing participation to effectively respond to today’s complex challenges is to overcome the limitations of a democratic architecture conceived on an overly simplistic model. The design of current democracy is too simple because it abuses the “Majority Rule”. That’s why we need to introduce corrective mechanisms by design, to address this complexity.

Two strategies for a more effective and legitimate democracy:

We basically have two options, which are complementary:

1. Collective culture and instruction:

This responds to a change management strategy that teaches people to participate, through action, that is, by participating in real world collective projects. At the same time: The great challenge is to promote civic education in co-responsibility to minimize passive and/or free-rider behavior in citizens.

The (proactive) collective appropriation of politics by citizens demands a balance between rights and duties. Participation without co-responsibility does not work. It is simple ‘adhesion’.

2. Design of effective participatory architectures:

Collective ineptitude can be corrected or attenuated in part through design, with an appropriate participatory architecture. From this point of view, we should assume that if a group behaves in a “stupid” way, there may be in principle a design problem. As we already know, environment shapes human behaviors so we can modify these contexts to favor a type of participation with better quality. For instance, if you want people to act collectively in a certain way, make it easy. And if you want people not to do something, make it difficult. Ultimately: Adopt a design approach: make the right things easier, and the unwanted ones more difficult

The Funnel of Collective Intelligence:

To successfully address this design challenge, it is important to understand that the participatory dynamics with impact function as a funnel, which I like to call Collective Intelligence Funnel, which is structured in several phases from the creation of ideas to their collective implementation.

This would, in principle, be a breakdown of the different phases through which the IC funnel goes, and that need a specific design approach:

1. Attracting attention: Convening Power (participation)

2. Collective creativity: The more (and more diverse) ideas captured, in principle the better the result

3. Deliberation and collective reasoning (learning): Enrichment of ideas through exposure to diversity of views

4. Evaluation, filtering and collaborative selection: The process of weighing, hierarchizing and rejection of ideas, to keep the best or a successful combination of the best

5. Aggregation and decision making: Moving on to collective action by generating an impactful intervention that turns collective “creativity” into “innovation“, that is, outside the lab.

As I said before, each of these phases requires a specific design response, although we should take care of an integrative vision of the overall process.

A proposed taxonomy of design challenges:

The following figure graphically summarizes the five types of challenges that I propose to address when designing participatory architectures that trigger healthy collective intelligence practices for democracy:

CI Design challenge

I do not want to extend the explanation of the figure too much, because I will dedicate an independent article to that model, but in principle is quite self-explanatory:

1. WHAT: There are certain challenges or tasks that benefit more from collective intelligence than others; as well we should know how to choose them.

2. WHO: We must devise mechanisms that filter the participation of a way in which we can capture (through self-selection if possible) the people who can bring most value, without punishing legitimacy, a critical requirement in politics, in excess.

3. WHY: To generate engagement, design of an adequate structure of motivations and incentives for participation is a decisive factor in these processes.

4. HOW: One of the most determinant challenges is the design of collective aggregation mechanisms that generate “intelligent” results from the combination of individual opinions. This is perhaps one of the most complex challenges that we must solve in the future, especially for large-scale groups.

5. GOVERNANCE: An architecture of collective nature needs a model of leadership that is also responsive to distributed patterns. We therefore have a great challenge in designing structures that facilitate an adequate distribution of power, which is something consubstantial to genuine democracy.

In the next post, the second of this trilogy, I will propose an equation that summarizes the main factors to consider when designing participatory architectures inspired by collective intelligence.

Notes: The image of the post belongs to Foter.com. You can also visit the author’s personal blog o his Blog de Inteligencia Colectiva in its spanish version.
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