I often speak about the importance of experimentation.
What about experimenting with how we govern ourselves?
As we enter election season, I’m struck by the question, can we run meaningful experiments with government: how we vote, create policy and legislation?
The US method of governance was set up hundreds of years ago. Surely things have changed, and I would bet there’s room for improvement.
Shouldn’t we be experimenting?
This post is an exploration of three opportunities that might offer the prospect of iteration around governance.
Option 1: Small, Isolated Geographic Regions
Despite the fact that “all land has been accounted for,” I think there are a number of small communities, countries, city-states, and towns that should step up and test different governance models.
Their “smallness” is important — it gives these groups agility, tight feedback loops, and a chance to test ideas with relatively minimal resources (financial, human and otherwise).
On the country scale, we’re already seeing countries like Finland (5.2 million people) and Switzerland (8 million people) experimenting with universal basic income. While this isn’t a “new political system,” it’s at least a new feature within one that (1) is tricky to test and (2) might have dramatic implications on other, larger systems.
In academia, groups like the political science department at Stanford have formed research networks of social scientists applying experimental methods to the study of governance and politics in developing countries.
And even at the smallest scale, we’re seeing communities like Burning Man (~70,000 people) experimenting with some radical governance ideas by gathering for a week in the middle of a desert. Attendees, known as “burners,” agree to a set of 10 principles, such as “radical” inclusion, self-reliance and self-expression, community cooperation, civic responsibility, gifting, decommodification, participation, immediacy and leaving no trace.
We need to encourage more communities to step up and try new governing models and then share the results.
Interestingly, improvements in our transportation systems (autonomous driving, point-to-point aerial transport, Hyperloop) will stimulate growth of new cities in underdeveloped areas all over the world — perhaps many of these will try to reinvent their political systems from first principles.
We’ve also seen the emergence of free-trade zones. This concept started as an experiment in Shannon, Ireland. It was an attempt by the Irish government to promote employment within a rural area and generate revenue for the Irish economy. It was hugely successful and is still in operation today.
I imagine smaller nations, from Iceland and Cyprus to Tonga and Isle of Man, might take it upon themselves to experiment.
But where would they experiment? I’d love to know yours. Where would you experiment? If you have ideas, tell me here. I’ll curate the best ideas and send them out. Here are a few of my ideas.
An all-digital, decentralized currency: There are many advantages to having a decentralized, digital currency like Bitcoin, built on the blockchain protocol. I’ve talked about this in great length, but to review, some of the advantages include: the transparency/accountability of transactions would deter corruption; there would be no fees associated with transferring money from country to country; there would be no large banks or centralized government agency as middlemen in the transactions and a much lower risk of capital being stolen (when managed properly).
A digital vote (true democracy): One person, one vote on everything! If everyone could vote from his or her smartphone, we’d have record-shattering voter turnout. But what about votes on subjects that I’m not knowledgeable in? Sure, I could vote for the U.S. president, but what do I know about educational reform or tax laws? How might the average citizen vote on these matters? Well, that’s where the next experiment comes in…
A new form of representative voting: Rather than assign my vote to a congressman or senator, what if I assign my vote on a specific topic to a colleague who I trust who knows the subject? So, for example, you might say, “If the vote has to do with space, assign my vote to Peter Diamandis. If the vote has to do with genetic issues, assign it to Craig Venter.”
Option 2: Colonies on Mars and in Space
Speaking of underdeveloped, unclaimed areas, let’s not forget about space…
In the long term, what kind of governance will we have on Mars, the Moon, or perhaps in a free-floating O’Neil colony?
Humans will become multiplanetary in our lifetime. Entrepreneurs like Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson, Paul Allen and yours truly are working diligently to make this a reality.
Google Lunar XPRIZE teams are planning to execute the first private robotic landings on the Moon by the end of 2017.
SpaceX is aiming for a manned mission to Mars as soon as 2024.
This will be an incredible opportunity to explore entirely new ways of building communities, literally from the ground up.
Surely we can do better with these new societal developments than we have on terra firma.
Option 3: Virtual Worlds
In my opinion, perhaps the most exciting opportunity for experimentation lies in the governance of virtual worlds.
As VR technology exponentially improves, I believe that we are going to be spending a lot of time in virtual reality over the next two decades.
As such, each of us may end up having “multiple citizenships” in the future.
You’ll have a citizenship in the country where you were born, defined by your geo-location at your moment of birth.
But more importantly, we’ll also have a citizenship by ‘choice’ in the virtual world(s) where you spend the most time socializing, playing and working.
You can join communities of like-minded individuals based on your interests and values, rather than your geographic location at birth.
There might be a part of a virtual world for people who love space. Or those interested in exponential technologies and solving grand challenges (like what we are creating at Singularity University). Or for artists and musicians. Or for athletes or magicians. Only your imagination will be the limiting factor.
These worlds, digitally inhabited by human avatars, will become places for rapid experiments with governance systems and political processes like those mentioned above.
But in the meantime…
Why Is Change in Governance So Hard in the Real World?
Why is it so difficult to try new things with our existing governance systems?
Well… largely for three reasons:
First, those who rule, make the rules. Special interest groups and incumbents write the rules that benefit them most. Laws were created to support the current establishments, not to support possible future interests.
Second, most of today’s legal systems were designed hundreds of years ago, before things like information technology, the Internet, mobile phones and computers even existed.
Third, one of the major reasons for government is stability. Most people hate change and like waking up in the morning knowing that much hasn’t changed, that the rules of the game are still in play. But while governments are linear in nature, technology is exponential and requires agility.
Beyond this, self-interested parties, corruption, disagreement on ideology and cultural values create extraordinary gridlocks, preventing change.
The reality is that governments don’t change gracefully — they change disruptively.
My hope is that these new outlets (small communities, space, VR) will allow us to experiment and iterate, rather than radicalize and disrupt.
Hopefully, we will find ways to better organize ourselves and work together.
Our future requires agility. A lot is about to change.
Image credit: Sinn Féin/FlickrCC