Reflections on Wise Democracy in practice

New Co-Intelligence Institute board member Andy Paice tells the story of his work with communities in the UK, bringing the theory of Wise Democracy and Co-Intelligence into real life practice. He explores the importance of context and the lessons learned from using opinion mapping technology in a London borough.

Reflections on Wise Democracy in practice

Hi! I’m Andy Paice, one of CII’s new board members and I’m passionate about bringing the theory of Wise Democracy and Co-Intelligence into real life practice. 

In February 2018 I fired off a random tweet to an aspiring Mayoral candidate seeking to bring a more open participatory approach to local democracy in my London borough of Newham.  Amazingly she responded and we ended up chatting in a cafe. Subsequently in May 2018 when she became Mayor I got an offer to work for her administration setting up community and citizen assemblies throughout the borough. A dream was coming true.

I’d already been learning about Wise Democracy with Tom in the Ways to a Wiser Democracy course and then frequent Zoom chats with him where I immersed myself in the worldview of “seeking to evoke and engage the wisdom and resourcefulness of the whole on behalf of the whole”.

Now fully underway setting up assemblies in Newham, I tried out different processes and explored how the theory of the Wise Democracy patterns could be applied in different ways. Continuing my conversations with Tom, we teased out how we could design things to work with the inherent limitations and opportunities of different public engagements as they presented themselves.

One of the main elements of designing  community assemblies was ensuring that people really felt heard. In addition, their comments were recorded by  facilitators using laptops and the Mentimeter interactive software and large screens where people could view their comments. The assemblies were very successful.  Residents were able to set priorities for their local areas and have budgets for projects allocated to those priorities. People felt invited for the first time into authentic conversations about how they might be included in Newham’s decision making. 

In 2019 Tom’s research into the incredible participatory democracy movement of vTaiwan brought to my attention how the digital platform called Polis could resolve thorny societal issues. Users respond to a problem by entering statements and possible solutions which others vote on. The algorithms of this interactive survey then identifies clusters of opinion to map out how people are divergent in their thinking. But most importantly it also identifies statements of consensus across the divides.

Those consensus statements can be brought into forums of in-person discussion, making common understandings and solutions much more likely. So Polis is a great example of ‘evoking and engaging the wisdom and resourcefulness of the whole on behalf of the whole’. 

I got my first opportunity to use Polis in a real life engagement once again in my local borough in a forum on the contentious issue of parking restrictions and how the streets and places of the borough could be best used. What became immediately apparent for me, though,was the significant effort required to get people to spend time on the platform, submitting statements and voting.

My colleague and I decided to do a huge outreach campaign, posting the survey on Facebook Groups, on Twitter, calling community groups and then actually going out into the community to the libraries, shopping malls, markets and underground stations with iPads and getting passersby to enter statements and vote. You can see a video of this here.

After 3 weeks we managed to get over 1000 voters but this was way under what I’d hoped for in a borough of 350,000 people. Nevertheless the results were useful and brought to light a split between those that felt concerned about issues like air quality and climate change and those that were worried about new parking charges that might reduce their mobility.

The great thing about Polis is that you can present back a representation of the whole. I’ve experimented with showing an iceberg image where the polarisation is depicted as what we see above the water, and below it are all the needs and concerns that everyone shares. Information on differences and commonalities became very useful inputs for the in-person community forums. 

I’ve continued to use Polis for public forums notably in three Citizens Assemblies where randomly selected individuals represented a microcosm of the whole community and they could get to see what the macrocosm were thinking through the Polis results. 

In these cases the results were less clear and less successful. The communications for spreading the word were addressed by the commissioning organisations rather than by myself. Despite a warning about just how much community outreach would be needed, they weren’t able to spread the message as much as I would have liked. On these occasions we had between 120 and 170 users.

So a few weeks ago when presenting the Polis results to the Arts and Culture Assembly in Coventry on the question of “How will arts, culture and creativity shape a better future for Coventry?” I got a very big push back from the Assembly members saying “170 people is nothing, it’s not representative!”

I agreed with them whilst pointing out that the survey nevertheless did map out differences of opinion and overlaps that would be present in the community. But they were not impressed and felt the responses were mainly by the city’s arts crowd.

Which brings me to one of my big learnings of bringing Wise Democracy principles into practice in the real world: context plays a massive role. In the context of vTaiwan the history of the Gov Zero movement there and the geopolitical threat of Chinese intervention means there is a populace who are ready and willing to participate on a known platform such as Polis.

In the UK getting city dwellers to give their attention to a civic engagement platform rather than Netflix or any of the other millions of distractions is challenging. It’s not impossible but it requires a good strategy and dedication. Careful reflection is needed on how best to frame the discussion, bring people into an understanding of the sophistication of the tool and how to accessibly explain its gifts and limitations so people can get it and enjoy it. 

So when we think of creating an ecosystem of tools and processes to generate collective wisdom and experiment with how we bring these together we have to think about context: place, people, backgrounds and cultures, the times (what’s going on in their community, nation, world), familiarity with the topic and so much more. As Tom likes to say “there’s more to it than that!!”

This is a taster of what I’m doing and there will be more from me and my adventures in bringing Co-intelligence and Wise Democracy to life in future blogs. The new CII board is committed to helping practitioners like me grow capacity to use the tools and processes highlighted in the Wise Democracy Pattern Language in ways that attend to the varied real-world contexts we’re in so that we can better fulfill its prime directive

So stay tuned and we’d love to hear your thoughts and questions in the comments section below!  Do you have any stories to share from your efforts to bring Co-intelligence and Wise Democracy to life?


PS: Don’t forget to SAVE THE DATES – January 24/26/28 (9am-2pm PT each day) – for the 3-day co-intelligence/wise democracy Open Space “unconference” – Cospiring Co-Intelligencia – open to everyone inspired by Tom Atlee’s and CII’s work. It will be a great time to think together and network about all this. Registration and more info will be forthcoming January 1st.

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Tom Atlee, The Co-Intelligence Institute, POB 493, Eugene, OR 97440

Evoking and engaging the wisdom and resourcefulness of the whole on behalf of the whole

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