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The many faces of Digital Transformation – Societal Scenarios XXI

A rendering of a possible form of democracy 2.0 where direct democracy flanks and overlay representative democracy. Image credit: BusyBeta

Democracy 2.0

Wiston Churchill once said:

The best argument against democracy is a five minute talk with the average voter

underlining that the average voter does not have the knowledge and political skill needed to cast an appropriate, aware vote (this goes hand in hand with Bertrand Russel aphorism: Democracy- the fools have a right to vote, Dictatorship- the fools have a right to rule). However, he also said:

Democracy is the worst form of Government except all the others

noting that in spite of all its shortcomings representative democracy has proved to be the form of government that works better than any other “in practice”.

Democracy goes back to the Athenians time, some 25 centuries ago (although only a minority of people were eligible to participate in the “polis” government) as an alternative way to kingdoms to support centralisation; its problem is that direct democracy does not scale. When it was reintroduced in modern times it had to take the form of representative democracy, people delegate one person to represent their voice in a governing body (parliament or other assembly).

There  are three fundamental problems in the scaling of direct democracy:

  • the cost (money and time) involved in having all people (millions of them in a Country) to dedicate time to debate and govern;
  • the limited time available to people. Government can be a full time job and people have to do many other things for living;
  • the knowledge on government issues that are getting more and more complex as the number of people grows. Politics is the art of the possible.

The Digital Transformation can: 

  • solve the first problem leveraging on basically free tools like discussion groups, artificial intelligence abstraction of consensus possibly involving people’s digital twins, electronic voting;
  • help in addressing the second problem by using artificial intelligence to analyse issues and their implications, summarise different view points, highlight the different impact of solutions under discussion to different constituencies and even propose alternatives and compromises (technology is not completely ready now but it can be ready by the end of this decade). Notice that this is a rational approach to the second problem. In practice politicians are not spending their full time in solving problems, rather in pleasing their constituency to get re-elected.

Solving the third problem is beyond the Digital Transformation power. However, the power of the Digital Transformation to address the first two problems has stimulated some direct democracy experiments, like the one of the Movimento 5 Stelle in Italy. Notice, however, that so far the numbers involved in these “experiments” are marginal if compared to the addressed audience. In Italy, as an example, out of few tens of million voters the direct democracy experiment is reaching just a few hundred thousands (although a few millions voted for that Movimento at the last political election). In addition the calls for opinion, vote of confidence, is usually seeing a participation of less than 100,000 people. This compared to the audience of millions is clearly a tiny fragment.

The shift to a direct democracy is often addressed to as “Democracy 2.0” (although in a sense it would be a return to Democracy 0.1). 

Because of the open third problem it is unlikely that a fully blown Direct Democracy can really be implemented moving to a full decentralisation. However, leveraging on the cyberspace, and on the Digital Transformation, one could expect that citizens (or at least those interested in it) may play a more significant role in the decision taking process of the government.
Actually, Democracy 2.0 might in a way play out along the lines of industry 4.0 where all players in the value chain interact with one another and more specifically the end users (the citizens in this case) can strongly influence the production chain (the government and the implementation).  This can lead to a mixture in centralisation and decentralisation.

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the New Initiative Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He is a member of the IEEE in 2050 Ad Hoc Committee. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.