Thursday, 18 July 2019

WHAT DIGITAL FUTURE SHOULD WE BUILD? AN INTERVIEW WITH PROF. DIRK HELBING

Is it still sufficient for democracies to vote every four years?

It is certainly not enough for a lively democracy, and certainly not to solve energy or climate problems, or to speed up the digitalisation in Europe.

Could it be said that the traditional model of democracy simply no longer fits into a globalised, digitised and fragmented society?

This is certainly the case. Global networking is changing everything. The world today is more complex. We must take the principle of subsidiarity more seriously, according to which decisions should be taken as far up as necessary and as far down as possible, and by the people who are affected by the decisions.

Do we need a new democracy?

Yes, definitely. We should upgrade democracy digitally, and our economic system at the same time.

Do you believe that the digitalisation will or is good or bad for democracy?

For a while it was good. It initially encouraged the exchange of ideas and discourse. In the meantime, companies and governments have increasingly taken over the Internet. Citizens have lost out. Opinions and elections are being manipulated. Our lives are increasingly determined by big data and algorithms, i.e. by computer programs. Artificial intelligence is increasingly used to control people's decisions and behaviour. It is said that "code is law", i.e. computer programs are establishing a new kind of law, which completely bypasses citizens and parliament.

What role do digital media play today in the political decision-making of the younger generation?

They are essential, but they are not really designed to support consensus. They rather promote conflict. Their functioning must be adapted to social and democratic values. What is required is a value-sensitive design, i.e. a design for values. Europe could become a world leader in this new field of business.

Is there a new "we feeling", a new desire for participation and dialogue among citizens? Especially among young people?

Yes, I would say so. And it is absolutely necessary. Companies are having great difficulties in achieving the goals of the energy transformation and the sustainability agenda. Politicians from Berlin and Brussels cannot solve the problems people face in their neighbourhoods and regions. The structural change towards a sustainable, digital society can only succeed if the citizens are taken on board and if they can play their part in shaping it.

Many citizens are afraid of the digitalisation, many experts paint a dark picture of incapacitation and dictatorship, even speak of the end of democracy. On the other hand, you develop a positive vision! I have selected a few key points, perhaps you could explain them in more detail?

Yes, with pleasure. I have a digital upgrade of our society in mind: a democratic capitalism, a socio-ecological financial system, and a digital democracy.

You say that the time we gain with the new, AI- and robot-based kind of automation should be spent with creative, social, and environmental activities. Digital democracy aims to promote collective intelligence. We need to bring together the knowledge and ideas of many minds, because in complex systems the best solutions result by combining many individual solutions, as it takes different perspectives on the problem. Do you see a possibility of interlinking citizen participation and representative politics?

Indeed, this is difficult to achieve today. Representative democracy is based on a misunderstanding. Parliament should actually represent a cross-section of the opinions and needs of a population, and implement the things that the people expect from their policy-makers. Instead, they often act as if they were elected kings on time. However, not the government is the sovereign, but the people. In the future, citizens must be able to play a greater role in shaping their country and their future. In view of our global problems, we see that politics and business have difficulties in finding good solutions and getting them implemented in a timely manner. Instead of rolling out one solution throughout the entire world, however, we must dare to make more local experiments and to learn from each other. I call this glocalisation instead of globalisation. In other words, we need more flexible formats: participative, local projects.

The decisive keyword is MOODs ("Massive Open Online Deliberation Platforms"). In short, it's all about collecting various facts and finding a solution that works for many.

Exactly. In a complex world, one perspective on a problem is rarely enough, and a majority decision may not be the best for society. We have to combine different perspectives to get an accurate picture of the problem, and we need to combine diverse solutions approaches to find solutions that work for most people. Interestingly, when the best individual solution is combined with other solutions, this will often result in even better solutions. So, the success principle of collective intelligence is diversity, the innovative combination of several proposed solutions. This can be worked out in a deliberative process, via a kind of round table that brings together the main representatives of different solution approaches.

Why is Facebook not suitable for this?

Because the platform was not created to solve problems and to promote constructive discourse. It manipulates our opinions, which undermines collective intelligence.

You believe that the platforms must be able to collect, structure and review various ideas and arguments. Platforms such as the "Deliberatorium" of MIT already exist today.

Yes, that's right. Such platforms, however, have not yet become widespread enough. They must also become more user-friendly. Artificial intelligence could help.

What do you mean by City Olympics?

A friendly, participatory competition of cities and regions to find solutions to our global problems...

You have said that new digital technologies, democratically controlled and combined with a novel economic and financial system could solve our resource problems. However, for that we need new digital platforms.

Yes, a socio-ecological finance system. We often call it Finance System 4.0 or FIN+. 

You have said that the finance system 4.0 would establish a multi-dimensional incentive system and at the same time serve to pay for public infrastructures. There would be different currencies for CO2 emissions, noise, waste materials and much more, so that differentiated incentives could be created.

Our approach combines the "Internet of Things" with multi-dimensional incentive systems for real-time feedback. It is inspired by the way an ecosystem works.

You have said that these incentives can be designed in such a way that the goals of a society can be achieved through self-organisation. Economic, social, and ecological goals would not have to be opponents, but could reinforce each other. In this way, everyone could benefit: Citizens, banks and companies. In the sense of digital democracy and collective intelligence, the finance system 4.0 would be managed jointly by business, politics, science and the general public.

Among other things, incentives for environmentally friendly and socially acceptable production would be created. With a multi-dimensional incentive system, these would pay off.

What is democratic capitalism?

The counter-model to surveillance capitalism. Democratic capitalism would have three components: First, a basic income for existential security. This would help us to master the forthcoming structural change. Second, an investment premium, so to say, crowd funding for all. It could be used to finance local economic, social, cultural and ecological projects. And thirdly, a platform for informational self-determination. This would protect human dignity in the digital age.

You have stated that the time is ripe for public debate on where we want to go in the digital age and for wise investment in shaping our future - rather than maintaining a legacy of the past. There is a chance to learn from the automotive crisis that we need more courage to change. It would be a pity if we missed this opportunity. Perhaps we now understand better how we should use digital technologies. If we do it right, we can soon experience a "golden age" - an era of peace and prosperity. 

The crucial thing is to use network effects. These can change everything. A platform for informational self-determination can promote business through combinatorial innovation. The result would be an information ecosystem that benefits everyone: the economy, politics, and citizens. Collective intelligence would make democracy, society and the community smarter and more successful. It would benefit all of us, and we could live together in peace despite diversity. A socio-ecological financial system based on many different incentives would promote a circular economy and sharing economy and a life in harmony with nature.

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