What is likely to be the future of civic life?

What should it be?

Modern forms of government are largely based on the idea that “the people” should be empowered to solve their own problems. While this ideal remains true, our civic processes and technologies of government have not really changed for hundreds of years. While the public sphere has gone digital, the practices of civic life within our communities have remained largely stuck in the 18th century, with campaigns, town halls, voting, and representatives sent to distant centers of power where we are told that the “real” conversations happen. There is no clarity about how to transform this situation and to reclaim community life as seat of decision making power. What does it look like to have conversations coherent enough to solve chronic community-level problems?

Outside of state and federal governments, groups come together locally to form intentional communities in order to live together with a commitment to certain forms of life. This can be as simple as choosing to live in the same place (neighborhood or town) or as complex as living “off the grid” and on the land and within a unique culture. In all cases intentional communities have inherited the conceptions and skills involved with modern civic life. Consensus based process and other forms of community decision-making have been defined in opposition to simple forms of voting or worse. However, the nature of conversational skills and forms that allow for group decision making at the level of community remain undefined, and largely unexplored. There is no clarity about how and why these more local, intimate, conversationally based processes fail us as often as not.

This situation allows communities to ask basic questions about civic engagement again, as if for the first time:

  • What does effective community problem solving and sense making involve?
  • What is the next step in the evolution of community-level problem solving, after voting, after consensus, and after control of expertise?
  • What allows a group of people to communicate, reach understandings, and create empathetic bonds, even in conditions of difference and uncertainty?
  • What kind of conversations and process need to take place for people to feel they are part of a community?

New questions can be asked about the foundations of our collective lives:

  • In what ways can digital technologies be used to improve in-person interactions during civic engagements?
  • What is known about psychology, group dynamics, and human behavior that is relevant to community-level choice making?
  • What can be drawn upon in other areas, such as design science and anthropology, to build better forms of civic practice?

Human capabilities are changing, and there are questions to ask about the kinds of skills and abilities we will need to handle future challenges:

  • What are the skills and processes that enable powerful and transformative conversations?
  • What are the values and commitments that enable collaborative problem solving and effective collaboration?
  • What are the capabilities required for individuals to play a role in future civic practices?

Finally, there are questions about the feasibility of creating a new form of civic engagement:

  • How can an organization design and implement new forms of civic process without succumbing to political dynamics as we know them?
  • Who are the people that will work to answer the questions in all categories above?
  • When is it possible to re-design the basic structure of community life on a large scale?