Geeking Out on Governance

I have a secret to share with you: I am a governance geek.

Before I came to Singularity University to lend my skills and energy to the Ecosystems Team, working with our amazing Chapters, I founded a successful consultancy that primarily designed communication and decision-making systems in democratically owned and operated organizations. Good governance is crucial to the success of any organization—from your local PTA group to your state government to the United Nations—but in an organization which weaves “one member, one vote” into the fabric of its operations, it becomes even more critical.

Here at SU, we have defined Governance as one of our global grand challenges (GGCs). Specifically, we aim to empower, educate and inspire people to create a world with “equitable participation of all people in formal and societal governance that is in accordance with principles of justice and individual rights, free from discrimination and identity-based prejudices and able to meet the needs of an exponentially changing world.”

Our global community members are our partners in achieving this audacious mission—and through my work supporting our Chapters, I get an (extremely geeky) inside view of how many of them are walking this talk and creating this future, every day.

Kate Sassoon

So, what exactly is a “democratically owned and operated organization”?

But before we dive into how our Chapters are using exponential technologies to drive participatory governance in their work, let’s take a brief international tour of what a “democratically owned and operated organization” looks like.

Many Americans will hear the word “cooperative” and immediately think of natural food stores with bulk granola and tofu—but a canny consumer will know that REI is a consumer co-op, and many rural residents will intimately know the history of the rural electrical cooperatives which brought electricity to their homes, and which are now working to bring them broadband. In fact, an astute business person will know that the National Co-op Bank reported in 2018 that the US’s top 100 cooperatives posted revenue totaling approximately $214.4 billion USD.

Cooperatives are also surprisingly pervasive and important to the global economy. In 2014, the United Nations conducted the first Global Cooperative Census, which found the global output of cooperatives in 2014 to be $3 trillion USD, and that “1 in every 6 people on average in the world has a membership or is a client of a cooperative.”

The International Cooperative Alliance, founded in 1895, “is one of the oldest non-governmental organisations and one of the largest ones measured by the number of people represented: more than one billion cooperative members on the planet.”

How do they define a cooperative, in this deeply global context? In their own words:

“Cooperatives are enterprises based on ethics, values, and principles. Through self-help and empowerment, reinvesting in their communities and concern for the well-being of people and the world in which we live, cooperatives nurture a long-term vision for sustainable economic growth, social development and environmental responsibility.  

Cooperatives are not a marginal phenomenon:

  • More than 12% of humanity is part of any of the 3 million cooperatives in the world!
  • The top 300 cooperatives and mutuals report a total turnover of 2.1 trillion USD, according to the World Co-operative Monitor (2017).
  • Cooperatives contribute to sustainable economic growth and stable, quality employment, employing 280 million people across the globe, in other words, 10% of the world’s employed population.
  • The world’s top 300 co-operatives operate in different sectors: insurance (41%), agriculture (30%), wholesale and retail trade (19%), banking and financial services (6%), industry and utilities (1%), health, education and social care (1%) and other services (1%).

As member-owned, member-run and member-serving businesses, cooperatives empower people to collectively realise their economic aspirations, while strengthening their social and human capital and developing their communities.”

Governance AI

Exponential technology and participatory governance

Darlene Damm, our Vice Chair of Global Grand Challenges, has previously written here about some of the different ways our community is working on the Governance GGC, for example:

  • Improving government services and decision making through digitization
  • Exploring blockchain solutions for governance
  • Applying big data, AI, and drones to aid governance and humanitarian work
  • Leveraging exponential technologies to increase citizen participation
  • Using exponential technology to further human rights and security efforts

In thinking about innovations in citizen participation driven by exponential technologies, Darlene mentioned Swae, a new software platform to help groups make collective decisions and govern together in a more bottom-up fashion, founded in 2016 by SU alumnus Soushiant Zanganehphour.

This piqued my interest, as I’d been following a worker-owned cooperative social enterprise that had developed an open source platform with a similar purpose in 2012. This organization is called Loomio, and it’s part of the Enspiral Network, a global network organization which “works together to build collaborative tools and processes to build our livelihoods together” and shares finances, decision making, and information through distributed participatory governance tools like Loomio and Co-Budget.

In the Loomio team’s own words, “Loomio began in 2011, when activists from Occupy Wall Street and social entrepreneurs from the Enspiral Network realised they needed to solve the same problem: fast, inclusive, effective decision making without meetings. In 2012, we formed our cooperative and released a prototype (Loomio Beta). We found that many others around the world needed the same solution.”

Harnessing the power of our digital technologies for connection and collaboration in governance is clearly an idea whose time has come. However, in the case of Loomio, its creation was not a response to witnessing the poor decision making that takes place in the absence of effective collaboration, but rather as a way to transpose their existing democratic deliberation and decision-making processes into a digital space, in order to scale the reach of their model and all its benefits.

This is the untapped power of democratic organizations—they are organizations that are already experimenting with forms of shared governance in literally everything they do. They are grand experiments in operationalizing good governance, across industrial sectors, cultures, economic brackets, and nations. We here at SU have a lot to learn from them—and many of our global partners are showing us the way.

Dharmishta Rood

SingularityU Chapters practicing participatory governance

SingularityU Chapters facilitate vibrant local innovation ecosystems, whose participants focus on convening collaborative conversations to further the SU mission of leveraging exponential technologies to solve humanity’s grand challenges.

In the spring of this year we were privileged to approve a new Chapter, SingularityU Auckland, and in my delightful conversations with the leadership team I learned that many of the Chapter leaders had not only been members of a large cooperative enterprise in New Zealand but were also naturally applying the cooperative mindset and practices to their work.

I circled back around with them to go a little deeper on what this looks like for them, and to learn how they are integrating platforms like Loomio into their Chapter operations. Here’s our conversation:

Why did you decide to use Loomio in your Chapter work?

“We became aware of Loomio after meeting one of the key founders at an event for New Zealand Co-operatives, and having a great conversation on how Loomio supports collaboration & decision making, particularly for remote/non-co-located communities. We were very interested to understand more, being aware that as a new Chapter, driving participation and ensuring the Chapter meets the needs of its members will be critical to its sustainability.”

How does it empower and engage your community?

“We haven’t yet implemented Loomio, but see it having a number of benefits for us, and particularly the ability for multiple voices to shape an agenda, and provide meaningful input into key decisions. For us, this may be seeking input on getting the balance right between running formal events with speakers and having informal meetings for networking and connections. Or understanding what exponential topics our members are most interested in, and shaping agendas around that. There are many ways we see Loomio having potential to add real value to the way the Chapter operates, ensuring the community is really engaged in the strategic direction of the Chapter.”

How did your experience with cooperatives and democratic governance in your daily work influence your approach to engage the community as a Chapter leader?

“All our current Chapter leaders have a background which includes working within New Zealand’s largest cooperative, a $20 billion company with 22,000+ employees. As such we’ve seen that cooperative organisations can be successful, both small and at scale. We also have a shared belief in the value of participatory decision making and inclusive organisations, which leads itself naturally to Loomio.”

The Chapter team’s experience with a thriving organization which is cooperatively owned, and which values participatory decision making as a part of that success, really resonates with me, and with the data we have on cooperative enterprises. It turns out being able to truly empower all participants to shape the vision and work of an enterprise makes a difference in how much you can achieve together—and those who are part of a cooperative can tell you this collaborative mindset makes a valuable difference.

“At the secret heart of all such organizations, corporations and governments alike, it still came down to a finite number of fallible people talking to each other.”
—Lois McMaster Bjuold, Cryoburn

At the end of the day, governance is the lifeblood of a thriving organization of any scale—if you can’t talk and take action, nothing will flow, no matter how great your machine learning algorithm is or how resilient your drone delivery tech gets.

But if you can apply the thinking and capacities of exponential technologies to the foundational issue of good governance—if you take lessons from the applied democracy of coops and scale them through exponential technologies—imagine what kind of world we can build.

Imagine if we didn’t have to wonder how each and every member of a local (or global) community was impacted by a global grand challenge—by hunger, by poverty, by natural disasters. Imagine if they could directly participate in shaping (and even owning) their on-the-ground solutions through distributed governance platforms and cooperative practices. Imagine if they had full agency in the process and a real stake in the outcomes.

In other words, imagine what we could do with a truly empowered global community—a community with not just a voice, but a vote. Distributed governance systems—like those being developed and tested within the cooperative movement—might just make those imaginings a reality.