Mars, it is.
That was the conclusion of this fascinating, high-minded but very abstract conversation on the future of governance that started in the public Reinvent Governance roundtable and then carried on over private email.
I’ll get to Mars later, but start with the presentation by Jordan Greenhall, a brainy tech entrepreneur who also served on the board of the Santa Fe Institute, known for its cutting edge work in complexity theory.
For those who had the background in design and systems thinking to follow his opening presentation, it was a tour-de-force. (For those without the theoretical underpinning, some of the concepts might have been hard to track.)
Jordan took the challenge of the roundtable seriously: In 1775, Americans opted not to reform the existing Colonial governance system but to build a new system from scratch using the best thinking and tools of that time. What could Americans today do if we set aside efforts to reform our current system and built one from scratch?
In other words: If we were to devise an optimal system of governance now, knowing everything we know now, and using the available tools, what would that begin to look like?
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Jordan approached the problem like a technologist or a systems thinker by laying out the fundamental pieces: What are our current technologies capable of doing now and can be expected to do in the near future? What forms of organization are possible off those technologies? In this case, what can powerful computer systems and new network models allow us to do?
What, in its essence, is governance? One way to think about it in the abstract is collective problem-solving. A way for your society to maximize intelligence to come up with the best paths forward.
So Jordan laid out the design principles of such a 21st-century system. For example, it would have to be decentralized and fluid.
Then he talked about the constraints on the system, the boundaries of what’s possible. For example, given the global nature of the future, the system would have to be able to regenerate itself, since there would be no competing system to take over if it collapsed, as in previous historical eras.
Then Jordan laid out a very simple toy model that would concretely demonstrate the abstract concepts he laid out. In this case, he talked about how this decentralized, highly networked new system would handle basic jurisprudence, which at heart is conflict resolution and keeping the peace. Today, we us a centralized, hierarchical, bureaucratic legal system with judges ruling from the top. In Jordan’s model, the social networks of the two parties in conflict would be called to work it out in a very different way.
Everyone in the roundtable tracked the argument and immediately began to build on it:
- John Robb suggested the place to start would be with local governance structures, attached to much more fluid global ones. He gave an intriguing example of how Singapore might be able to extend citizenship to 200 million of the most talented people on the planet and organize that way.
- Jim Rutt thought the ultimate solution for transitioning to the whole system had to be fractal, meaning that the principals that work at the local level would be the same at the regional level, and national and global level. That would take a particular elegance in design.
- Robb thought the way forward would have to be to create alternative systems and get people to “opt in.” The new systems would then gather popularity and power, and ultimately supersede the old systems. He pushed the entrepreneurial perspective that you have to build fresh and clean and challenge the status quo.
- Michel Bowens countered that in any society there would be conflict and opt-in systems would not have the legitimacy to solve the real challenges of the time. He talked about having two systems, the legacy democracies that could grind out common agreements that held for everyone, and then the more networked opt-in systems. The key would be finding the bridges between the two.
- Tanja Aitamurto cited her experience in her homeland of Finland as making her more confident that the existing legacy systems could be reformed and integrate many of the new tools to enhance their capacities. As she said, she was not ready to throw the old system in the garbage. She’s too pragmatic and wants to make an impact now.
- That’s when Jake Donavan made the suggestion that as a next step we design the optimal governance system for a future human precence on Mars. He rightly pointed out that every time humans have entered a new geographic space they have takien the opportunity to try new forms of governance.
Even the mental exercise of thinking through a form of governance for Mars would free up our thinking here on Earth. Since it’s virgin turf far from any one culture or legacy system, we could genuinely start fresh. There would be no Powers That Be or economic behemoths to fight back at every step.
And the do-or-die nature of the Mars environment would convince everyone involved that they would want the absolute best form of collective problem-solving possible.
As Jordan said, only idiots would not want to take advantage of the best tools available. So in a series of follow-up emails to the roundtable participates, he signed off with his interest in a possible next step, potentially a new roundtable:
“Mars, it is.”
Peter Leyden Full Post →
Let’s do a little thought experiment comparing America in 2013 and 1775:
In 1775, Americans were extremely frustrated by their political system that simply did not work. To fix it, many called for reforms to the existing system, like demanding Americans have representatives in the English Parliament. Others called for revolution that would rebuild the new governing system from scratch. We all know how that, thankfully, turned out.
In 2013, Americans are extremely frustrated by their political system that in many ways does not work. To fix it, an increasing number of people are calling for reforms to the current system, like a constitutional amendment getting corporate money out of elections. Almost no one is calling for a reinvention that would create a fundamentally different governing system optimized for the 21st century and beyond.
This roundtable on Reinventing Governance will.
If you took stock of America in the early 21st century and thought about how to create the best governing system possible, you would certainly start with utilizing the foundation of modern digital technologies. We’ve now got ways to identify and connect up all the information, knowledge and human capital in the country. We’ve now got virtual video platforms that allow people to interact whenever and from wherever they want. This creates a phase shift in possibility that would have boggled the minds of the Founding Fathers.
So then how could governance, or collective problem-solving, work in that new context? How could we maximize the intelligence of this group of 300-some million Americans? How could we utilize the talents and ideas from the exact right people in our society to solve any particular problem?
Jordan Greenhall, a tech entrepreneur who served on the Board of Trustees of the Santa Fe Institute, among other things, will help lead this very ambitious roundtable discussion that starts to rough out the possible contours of the governing system that could come next. He’ll be joined by other big thinkers who have something to add in imagining this next system, and thinking through what it might take to actually get there.
Jordan thinks all the pieces are in place to conceptualize a 21st century system built on current technologies that maximizes the intelligence of a society. He thinks such a system could be bootstrapped into actuality in a relatively short timeframe.
If you asked people in 1775 how a new American Republic would work a dozen years later, they would have had no clue. Lucky for us, they still rejected reform of the old system and forged ahead anyway.
Before we in 2013 get caught up in an effort to patch up the old system, we owe it to ourselves to think through what alternative solutions to governing are now possible – and consider forging ahead too. Full Post →