Photo: UN Moldova

Just when we need them most, our governance systems are letting us down. Structures that have been stable for seventy years are cracking under the pressure of social and technological change. Authoritarianism and isolationism are on the rise, populist rhetoric is shaping the public discourse, democracy is in retreat, and civic space is quickly shrinking across the board.

It would be easy to sink into despair. The bright future of internet democracy has turned into a dark net of underhand influence and a rising tech-pessimism. The tools we thought would free us are being used for manipulation, surveillance and tyranny. Our responses seem inadequate - pilots that never scale, social movements that rise and die like mayflies. Digital tools encourage rapid, low cost innovation, but this can make new social movements vulnerable, with rapid scaling-up leaving vacuums of leadership, structure and vision.

We have to move beyond pilots into system change. Here are four directions.

1. Ensure digitalization is an equalizer

A new generation of civic actors is emerging, centered around social movements with very short and sporadic voluntary engagements. This enables new initiatives to connect in coalitions, balancing the power relationships between new or short-term movements and established institutions in the public or voluntary sectors.

H:Art in Bosnia and Herzegovina turns spaces in multi-apartments buildings into public exhibition spaces for young artists, using online platforms for organizing and promotion. Tbilisi’s Guerilla Gardeners counts a community of over 20,000 people, yet has no physical space, administrative structure and a tiny budget to run its activities.

These unstructured “pop-up” organizations are potentially powerful routes for social change. But they need encouragement and support tailored to their needs, so the energy and innovation they bring is neither dissipated nor forced into more traditional civil society frames.

2. Take back digital space

The regulatory power of government has to challenge monopolization of digital space and preserve the openness of the internet as a technical system and as a route for transmitting ideas.

This needs a live understanding of the uses and abuses of openness, and a regulatory model that challenges monopolistic power or the abuse of democracy. It needs to take account not just corporate or individual behaviour, but also of the bias inherent in the use of algorithmic decision making in policy or service decisions.

The new General Data Protection Regulation shows the potential for EU rules to have impact around the world, but the EU must ensure that its values of diversity, plurality and democracy are held at the heart of its regulatory model. It can motivate allies by taking a lead on transparency, accountability and participation, as proposed by the newly-established Open Government Network for Europe. It can build on positive examples from around the continent: Ireland’s Transparent Referendum Initiative brought transparency and openness into the unregulated space of social media ads during the campaign for the referendum on abortion - forcing Facebook and Google to respond by curbing political ads on the referendum on their platforms.

3. Morph physical spaces with digital opportunities

Our relationship with machines is constantly being redefined as they become an extension of our physical self (see: judging people based on how they treat Alexa).

Yet, these types of transformations are lagging behind in the democratic and government space. Merely translating offline methods into the online world underutilizes the transformative potential of the digital age. Morphing the physical with the digital has the potential to unleash new value and create new forms of participation and engagement which transcend boundaries of place and nationality to create issue-based communities.

4. Bring the next generation of politicans and bureaucrats on board

The new model of participation needs a cultural shift as much as a practical one. To reassure individuals that their voice counts and their actions matter, we have to move government thinking in parallel with civil society action, or we will end up with nothing more than an efficient disillusionment machine.

We  need to find the political and administrative leaders who think like the next generation. We can find them in innovative government units like the UK’s Policy Lab, in coalitions like the Democracy Incubator, and in city and national initiatives, from Lisbon to Gdansk. Now we need to bring them together.

We’ll be taking a closer look at these ideas during the upcoming Istanbul Innovation Days (IID), an annual gathering of partners to explore innovative approaches to development and policy making. This year, IID is highlighting #NextGenGov, to take a closer look at emerging global trends impacting governance and peacebuilding. We invite you to join us!

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