Upside-down democracy

Our ‘All sorts of technology and democracy’ discussion on 16th September 2010 was a bit of exploration on our part, a bit of setting off on a journey without knowing quite where we were going, how long it might last, or who was coming along with us. We didn’t know what sort of a response we’d get on the day (not least due to our last-minute promotional efforts), or where the conversation might take us, but we’re grateful to The Media Centre (who hosted the event as part of their ‘Knowledge Sandwich’ series) for giving us the opportunity to find out.

For starters, we discovered that lots of people are interested in this subject – our discussion was over-subscribed, with some very welcome ‘gatecrashers’ (their word, not ours) and several other people sending their apologies. We had an interesting mix of participants, including members of charities and community projects, council officers and people who work with digital media.

Andrew valiantly led the expedition with a look at some different democratic models (which you can find out more about at: www.delicious.com/fisharepeopletoo/all_sorts). This got us thinking about what we mean by democracy. Some suggestions were that democracy is about representation, that it’s about choice, or that it’s maybe about everything. Most people seemed interested in very local action (or interaction), but we didn’t reach any consensus about what democracy means to us on a local level.

What quickly became apparent to me was that we were exploring two very different ways of looking at democratic engagement. Some people talked about how we might use technology to have a say about what (or where) services are provided – how to influence the existing system. Others talked about how we might turn the whole thing on its head by creating alternative ways of doing things that aren’t dependent on service providers at all – how to help people get things done for themselves.

The conversation made me realise that my own view of democracy is the upside-down version, because I’ve already seen alternative models working in my own neighbourhood. Timebanking is one such method of valuing what people have to offer and of building up community networks. Alan made the point that this is a very different approach from most service provision, which starts with looking at what people don’t have – with gaps and deficiencies – and fails to value those things which we have in abundance. I’m interested in finding out how we can use technology to do more things that build on the skills people already have and to make connections between them.

We also talked about the value of connectedness. As we were discussing ways of people getting things done for themselves, Steve asked the question of whether there are really enough people within our neighbourhoods who are willing to take on the responsibility of power. He quite rightly said that taking responsibility for doing something where you live is about far more than joining a social networking site – standing on your head can be quite a strain. So how can we use technology to grow those essential offline networks, to build confidence, strengthen our communities and find new ways of doing things?

It was a thought-provoking discussion, which could have gone on much longer, and which has kept us thinking (and doing) since. It was only afterwards that I realised how little we’d talked about councillors (I think councillors only got a mention once, with a comment that most people don’t know who their councillors are) and that we’d barely touched on issues of accessibility and inclusion. You can get a good sense of the full discussion by looking at our Tweets from ‘All sorts of technology and democracy’.

Most of all, this was a conversation about how to get things done, perhaps with some wildly differing views but also with a common will to use technology in a way that helps people to achieve things. So really we had to conclude our discussion by deciding to do something. And what we decided to do was to make a collection of places to listen, to find out what’s important to people, and to look for the people who can tell engaging stories about the places where they live.

And I decided to carry on standing on my head – who knows, I may eventually find my balance.

Andrew’s blog:

Any Plan Will Do. But We Came Up with a Good Plan

Summary of our discussion:

Tweets from ‘All sorts of technology and democracy’

Themes from All Sorts of Technology and Democracy

Models of democracy:

www.delicious.com/fisharepeopletoo/all_sorts

Notes from All Sorts of Technology and Democracy introduction

Example of a local Timebanking project:

Newsome Ward Timebanking

The ‘triple bottom line’ approach:

nef (new economics foundation) – Valuing what matters

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