Over the past few decades our world has lived through a revolution – created by the birth of the world wide web and the rapid development of digital technology. This digital revolution has disrupted industries with new products, services, business models and thinking. Following recent election events in Europe and the US there has been a greater focus on how we may harness digital technology to ‘disrupt’ the contemporary notions of representative democracy.
In the past, the use of digital technology in the democratic process has been focused on the use of online voting however in recent years the discussion has shifted toward an expanded role for technology in the democratic process. This discussion has now moved past a focus on the digitisation of existing processes to the reinvention of various democratic institutions and methods. These ideas have caught hold in some circles, and have begun to be implemented in various guises around the world with varying levels of success and a selection of them are summarised below:
- MiVote: a blockchain enabled platform which aims to make democracy in Australia far more informed, far more direct, and far more democratic. People are informed and vote in advance on a number of topics about their preferences, rather than specific pieces of legislation. The system is non-ideological and instead seeks to focus on the ‘end-state’. There are also some non-technology based innovations such as not accepting corporate donations and a two term limit on parliamentary representatives.
- Flux Party: another blockchain enabled platform that unsuccessfully contested the 2016 Federal Election in Australia (but will seek to contest future elections). The party has no policies, but instead, members of the public would vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’ on each bill before parliament via the Flux app, which would instruct the party’s senator how to vote. However, participants don’t have to vote on every single piece of legislation. They can save up votes to have greater influence over issues they do care about, or trade them with other users.
- Pol.is: a machine learning-powered piece of technology which uses AI to make mass conversations far more coherent. When used in Taiwan this has resulted in tangible changes to laws and policies and engaged many people in debates they wouldn’t necessarily otherwise have access to.
- e-Estonia: an e-residency platform which makes the Estonian government’s digital platforms available to people outside the country. Questioning the notion of a nation itself and pioneering the concept of ‘NSaaS’ — Nation State As A Service.
- Iceland’s Crowdsourced Constitution: proof that large numbers of people can create a rigorous document with qualitative data. Unfortunately a political technicality and gaming by entrenched interests ended up stalling this initiative which had been voted in by 70% of the people.
- DemocracyOS / DemocracyEarth: examples of how technology can mediate politics by putting in place a party which follows the will of people’s online votes. Arguably one of the most genuine and purist examples of an attempt to embody the will of the people.
While these initiatives have their differences an essential feature of all has been a focus on increasing the engagement of citizens in the democratic process. By using digital technology as a means to achieve this there is also an opportunity to increase levels of awareness, transparency and accountability, and the consideration of a wider diversity of opinions, arguably leading to better policy outcomes. Perhaps most importantly, it has the potential to empower greater participation in our democratic processes and create a society that is more responsive to the challenges of an increasingly complex world.
Ultimately, the path to a digital democracy will not be a short or straightforward one and as we have seen with recent attempts there will be a number of possible implementations. It is likely that there will be a number of successful initiatives that breakthrough prior to any consolidation and convergence on a new democratic platform. However, the primary premise of utilising digital technology to enhance the democratic process is an ideal that is unlikely to disappear and this will have important implications for society. As we have seen in many other sectors of society, the digital revolution has shifted power balances and led to new challenges and opportunities. The promise of digital democracy is no different in this respect and the impacts and lessons from this will be explored in a follow-on post.