The Design Paradox of Democracy

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The series on paradox continues as the matter of politics, democracy and the power of the people get puts under the spotlight as we consider what it means to empower, express power and re-claim power in this post-liberal, globalized, information age and how we can do better, by design. 

It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time – Winston Churchill

Winston Churchill’s often paraphrased quote was uttered in the British House of Commons at a time when Britain (and Europe) was literally and figuratively rebuilding itself after horrible continental war that killed millions of people and left an echo that is still firmly felt today. The European Union and its various associated trade and cooperation agreements were, in part, a designed solution aimed at bringing the continent closer together as a means of preventing the kinds of conflicts that had ravaged Europe for centuries. And yet the European Union is just one of many examples of a situation where enhanced cooperation through democracy is creating some of the conflicts it was meant to solve.

Democracy has different forms, but ultimately is about individuals having the freedom and means to choose their own path on collective matters. It sounds fair and reasonable, but as Churchill knew too well: it has a lot of problems associated with it and they are ignored at our peril

On matters of complexity, these problems become all the more clear.

Complexity by referendum

Earlier this month we saw what many thought would be the end to the 50-year war between the FARC rebels and the Colombian government as a peace agreement was made and put before the people for a vote, where it was defeated to the surprise of the world. How could this happen? many asked after so much effort when into the agreement — something that many thought would never become reality. The answers can be found looking deeper into the rationale why people who consistently and uniformly wanted peace also demand fairness and justice and for many that wasn’t seen in the agreement. Add in real-world issues of weather, logistics, voter turnout and you have something that may have partly earned Colombia’s president a Nobel Peace Prize disintegrate before the world’s eyes.

Referenda are blunt instruments used to shape complex social phenomena. On matters of identity politics we’ve seen relatively narrow defeats of proposed separatist/independence referenda in Quebec (Canada) in the mid-1990’s and in Scotland (United Kingdom) in 2014 . This year, we saw another separation-focused referendum put before the Scots and the rest of the United Kingdom and it was narrowly voted for, hence ‘Brexit‘.

No matter what your perspective on any of these initiatives, there were substantial costs and benefits to be weighed for each decision and those were all bundled under either “for” or “against”, which is part of the problem. We have a very complex set of issues treated using a tool that is both inappropriately simple and rational when neither of those conditions are (solely) present in the problem itself.

Complexity tools: the heart and the brain

In the United States presidential race, Donald Trump is showing that facts, truth, ethics, morals or integrity don’t matter as much as many think when it comes to who should lead the nation. That he is even the Republican candidate for president in itself should be shocking to anyone, no matter what your political leaning is, when you consider the vast litany of things he says (and has said) and does (and has done). Yet, this man who recently admitted to statements caught on tape that confessed to assaulting women, still has support among 38 per cent of decided voters two days after the video of that confession was released — a number that is just four points lower than Hillary Clinton, his opponent.

Do Americans not care about all these things? Do they love Trump so much that they are simply blind to his flaws, perhaps thinking he’s just misunderstood? Are they stupid? The answer is: (mostly), no. So why? Canadian newsmagazine Macleans ran a cover story on Americans who had thrown their support behind Donald Trump and found surprisingly nuanced thinking underlying their choice architecture on the matter. But what struck me was this reported felt sense that something was wrong, had been that way for a long time, and that Donald Trump brought an entirely new way to approach an old problem

What often comes through in these accounts is a feeling that something isn’t right and a resonance for a person or group that is reflecting something that comes closer to mirroring that feeling. We respond strongly to mirroring as a form of social persuasion and relating to one another. Human behaviour is this complex weave of social, cognitive, biological and inter- and intra-personal influences and too often we focus our energy on just the cognitive (rational) parts of this relating when it comes to change-making. The thinking is that if we just convince people of things using the best evidence, we’ll win the day.

You see this with Trump. “Surely this is will sink his campaign” or “he’s done, now” and phrases of that kind have been uttered now for 18 months and he’s still here with nearly 2/5 of the polled population behind him.

What Trump is doing is bringing to light a manifestation of that felt-sense of injustice that people are experiencing and they see a shock to the system as a remedy for changing that system.

Systems change: shock and awe vs slow and steady

As a recent cover story in the Economist in a defence of globalization pointed out “Since the 184os advocates of free trade have known that, though the great majority benefit, some lose out. Too little has been done to help these people“. Trade deals are a mix of both shock and awe and slow and steady, which make them very tricky things to evaluate. The shock comes with the rapid change in policy from one day to the next, the slowness comes with the impact on the system as certain industries fade, others emerge and yet others adapt. Whether one agrees with any particular deal or not, it’s undeniable some benefit more than others and what hurts is when people feel they lose, unfairly.

This is a matter of justice. This feeling of justice is what these referenda — and elections, which in the case of the United States’ political system is ultimately a referendum on the candidate for President — are all about.

justice |ˈjəstəs| , noun

1 just behaviour or treatment: a concern for justice, peace, and genuine respect for people.

• the quality of being fair and reasonable: the justice of his case.

On social matters, justice isn’t black and white. Social issues are multilayered, contextual, and dynamic and referenda treat this complexity more as static. It’s why change in complex systems is better done through a slower, less dramatic, but persistent set of actions connected together than through a dramatic shock. In the case of Brexit, Colombia and the US election the issues that people are complaining about are large, persistent ones and those aren’t easily rationalized, but they are felt. This is the emergence of slow change, and its powerful and is often disguised as a shock. The two are siblings and live together when it comes to complexity and paradox.

Even on matters of crime and punishment, there is a real disconnect between the logic of a a sentence or decision and the experience of those around them. Those who commit a crime and their victims may have their lives completely transformed because of one moment of poor decision making that isn’t greatly changed after ‘justice is served’. There is still that cauldron of emotions — regret, anger, loss, confusion, resentment — that can linger well past the term of sentence or the financial compensation, if any is received. Yet, justice is often viewed as a decision, a single event, meted out through rational argument, application of law and rules, deference to evidence.

This isn’t how people experience it.

Getting out of our head

This need to feel and not just think about the issues one of the reasons an approach like sociodrama, used by change leaders like John Wenger, can be a useful tool as it allows not only for thinking about an issue, but feeling it and doing so within a social context. Another approach is the dialogic design method that my colleague Peter Jones has been undertaking through his design practice and DwD events in Toronto.  Bodystorming is another approach that makes design feel more real and less ‘in the head’ and more ‘in the body’.

Designers at their best know this connection between heart and head and body well. The bodymind is a guide. Legendary Finnish product designer Alvar Alto designed a three-legged stool that by most rational accounts is one of the worst ideas ever for a piece of furniture, yet it’s style and utility was embraced and is still made today more than 80 years after it was created. Alto’s approach was rooted in how people saw themselves, their lives, their environments and that philosophy was what contributed to the design even if there are many other ways of doing a stool that are more stable and functional. He got his designs out of his head and into the world he was designing for.

If we are to expect to do anything about our democracy our designs have to be better  at allowing us to communicate, decide, and influence the world around us that ensures the heart and head are heard and justice not just served, but lived. In doing so, we may still find ourselves wanting to make similar choices about staying or leaving or on certain other policies, but we might be better at asking the right questions at the start and also avoiding decisions that risk putting someone like the man pictured above into positions of global power.

Photo credit: Donald Trump by Gage Skidmore. Thanks for offering your images to the world, Gage.

One Comment on “The Design Paradox of Democracy

  1. Very interesting read as usual. I have been playing with the idea that justice is too abstract a notion for it be a goal. I have been watching the #blacklivematter movement and the idea of want justice is very elusive. What I think we forget is that most decisions are emotional. What you call heart. Design or ethnographic approaches have the potential to get us closer to connecting on that heart level, the real human level. Anyway interesting blog.

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