Technology and Democracy

Technology can enable us to build resilient places for communities to thrive, but only if it underpins democracy.

Too often “technology” is treated as a spectacle, as a thing that will either solve all our problems, or create more, which may be insurmountable. But it only really means something in a social context. This makes democracy more important than ever.

The German philosopher and social theorist Jürgen Habermas argued that our capacity to make value judgments and discuss shared goals has been diminished in a public sphere dominated by technical and scientific knowledge. This is an important observation, because how we use the tools and ideas that emerge from technological progress depends entirely on how we organise and make decisions.

Take the issue of urban resilience to flooding as an example. Last Friday, at the final meeting of the UK National Observer Group for RainGain (an EU project to build better, more accurate flood-prediction kit) we heard about some really exciting work being done to improve radar, data analysis, and surface water modelling. There is huge potential to draw this together into a tool that will enable citizens and the state to collaborate and enhance resilience to flooding.

But cities are large, sprawling networks of people, families, communities, businesses, and they host all kinds of innumerable interactions, transactions, and individual decisions. It is not possible for any individual or institution to hold enough knowledge about this interconnected web in order to govern these places well in an entirely instrumental and linear way.

There is a large literature on governance in complex adaptive systems, which generally indicates the need for networked, decentred forms of decision-making, where power and knowledge are dispersed throughout the system.

Our usual approach big social problems will not suffice, whereby we see an issue, experts and politicians design an intervention, they implement the intervention, and we expect a particular result, solving the problem. It doesn’t always work like that.

Physical infrastructure is is absolutely necessary to make  places, cities, resilient to flooding. But it also requires dialogue and collaboration at the local level, involving the local state, communities and citizens, usually independent of central government, but underpinned by new tools, software and digital platforms. This should nurture strong social networks, shown to be vital for individual and community recovery following crises, but also essential for adaptation to mitigate the effects of a crisis in the first place.

Crucially though, building resilience is an exercise in democracy, supported by technology, not led by it. Communities are not passive. They are one of the key agents of change that will help to overcome many of the big challenges we face. There are some great examples of innovative approaches that have enabled communities to develop their knowledge and design urban adaptation strategies in collaboration with local government.

Technology will play a positive and transformative role in these debates as a social tool that deepens and underpins civic action. Democratic engagement will provide the capacity to use these tools effectively so that we can adapt over the long-term

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