Each year on 15 September 2023, we celebrate the international Day of Democracy. More than an opportunity to publish widespread or uniformed knowledge about the state of democracies. For us, Collective Intelligence is not an empty buzzword, but our fundamental ability to solve problems and revive the democratic model to solve global pressing challenges.
Celebrating the international day of democracy can be used by many to underscore the threats that democracy is currently facing. Believing that hope is the best fuel for change, we also want to stress for the coming months that there’s a lot to be hopeful about.
And celebrate we can. Historically, the democratic model has flourished over the last 200 years: from zero democratic states in the 18th century and a handful of propertied white males, we now have achieved a 50/50 split with autocratic regimes. “Liberal” democratic regimes, the most open variant of democracy where citizens enjoy increased individual and minority rights, now represent a third of democratic regimes. For more details on this long-term trend, explore this gorgeous our world in data chart.
But looking closer and the data obviously also paints a disquieting picture of democratic regression. From an all time high of 44 liberal democracies in 2007, only 33 remain today. Similarly, from 96 electoral democracies in 2016, we now have 90 in 2022.
If simply counting the number of democracies doesn’t convince you, the number of people living in democracies might: between 2016 and 2022, this number fell from 3.9 billion to 2.3 billion people, most notably because of democratic decline in India, Turkey and Venezuela. Countries that have led political scientist Yasha Mounk to identify the factors behind what he called “democratic deconsolidation”.
In our view, the agenda for today’s rulers, now informed by the science of collective intelligence, is: “How could we engineer our institutions to foster more creativity and innovation, for more legitimate, informed, and timely policy?”
Collective Intelligence is not an empty buzzword, but our fundamental ability to solve problems. In short, to be intelligent together. Far from wishful thinking, it is now a documented and studied fact that even the smartest will be outperformed by the group as a whole… under the right conditions.
Facing a multitude of pressing challenges, sometimes even dubbed “cruel” problems because they offer no clear feedback to learn from, there’s no single expert with all the knowledge. Sometimes there’s even no identifiable expert. As the saying goes, “Nobody knows everything, but everybody knows something.” The tricky bit is figuring out how to gather, combine and make sense of these diverse insights.
If we’re to make any meaningful progress on these issues, especially on the deepening economic inequalities that hasten democratic deconsolidation, as Joseph Stiglitz recently stressed, we’ll need to improve our ability to quickly understand such problems, generate new, consensual and useful solutions, to make bold decisions and learn from the past.
To achieve this, many of our traditional institutions – arbitrarily formed committees, panels of political allies or small groups of like minded experts – will not be enough. Top down logic (although some degree of hierarchy is always necessary) only gets us so far, and cracks have appeared: undiscovered blindspots, vested interests, cascade effects, and conformist groupthink accentuated by polarization have plagued even our smartest leaders, from Kennedy’s Bay of Pigs debacle to the EU’s counterproductive biofuel legislation that ended up producing 3 times the emissions of regular diesel.
We will have to get smarter, together, and the science of collective intelligence is our best bet to achieve wiser nations, cities, communities and even companies. We are seeing a wave of democratic experiments, all aimed at increasing the variety of inputs into our governance systems, involving citizens, interest groups, experts and policy makers in smarter formats. The interest in The Routledge Handbook of Collective Intelligence for Democracy & Governance since its publication in June and in Smarter Together gives us hope.
We too see the threats are everywhere. Yet, all is not doom and gloom. We have witnessed prolonged phases of autocratization in the 1930s and again in the 1960s and 1970s, and we overcame them. Progress is not linear.
Democracy, in its current representative form, is far from perfect. Many adhere to Churchill’s famous quip, that “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” Or to Osho’s blunter view that the problem with democracy is… “that the people are retarded”!
We beg to disagree. While it can be made yet smarter, democracy constitutes our best bet at building a collectively intelligent system by its very nature, with its checks and balances, separation of powers, rule of law, free press and its openness to citizen participation. For Helene Landemore, the reason democracy has the greatest probability of making better decisions over time (vs. autocratic regimes’ likelihood of committing errors) is because it can take advantage of its inherent cognitive diversity, and two key mechanisms: deliberation (to understand) and majority rule (to decide).
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