What do we need?

If the transition to sustainability requires the public wisdom, and if we currently have no practical and effective mechanism for ascertaining that wisdom, then we need to develop something better.

What would such a mechanism look like?  Here’s a wish list:

  • It would generate public wisdom in the fullest sense – i.e. the collective considered opinion based on large-scale deliberation.
  • It would be generating that wisdom on all major issues, including new issues as soon as they arise.
  • It would make that wisdom available to anyone at any time.
  • It would by inclusive in the sense of providing a practical opportunity for any interested citizen to participate, and would in fact involve participation of numerous and diverse members of the public.
  • It would be politically neutral and completely independent of control by government, corporates or any other powerful interest group.

A National Virtual Forum

Surveying the wish list, it is obvious that any mechanism capable of delivering the goods would have to be internet-based. It would have to be, in other words, a kind of national virtual forum (NVF).

No such forum exists today.  The good news however is that a NVF plausibly could exist.   As everyone knows, the internet hosts innumerable forums already; many are focused on serious social, economic and political issues, and support deliberation that is often of surprisingly high quality.  While it is de rigueur to sneer at the quality of online discussion, and indeed much of it is rubbish, we should at the same time acknowledge that every day literally thousands of Australians jump online and vigorously debate the major issues of the day.

Further, and more profoundly, there is the fact that internet-based environments or systems have been proven capable of synthesizing collective intelligence or wisdom of various kinds.  Wikipedia, prediction markets, Amazon.com, and Stack Overflow are all well known examples.  To be sure, none of these generate collective rational consensus of the kind expected from the NVF.  How exactly that form of collective intelligence will be assembled or extracted is a major design challenge.  But important precedents do exist, and they do more than just prove that collective intelligence can be generated: they provide a wealth of insights and hints for the development of a NVF.


A NVF would clearly face numerous major obstacles.  In my view, these are best regarded as challenges to be overcome rather than fatal objections to the whole exercise.   Here are four, with brief hints as to how they might be tackled.

  1. Critical Mass.  The NVF will have to attract many and diverse participants.  To do this, first and foremost the NVF must be easily accessible – simple to use and available via any major channel (website, mobile apps, etc.).  It must be thoroughly and effectively integrated with social media (Twitter, etc.).   “Gamification” techniques will help deepen participants’ engagement.  Finally, a major media alliance will situate the NVF in the public’s attention (similar to, say, the Oursay cooperation with The Age).
  2. Representativeness.  For its outputs to count as the wisdom of the public as a whole, the participants would need to be sufficiently similar to the public – i.e., to statistically represent the public.  On the face of it, this will be a problem if the NVF has an open-door approach, allowing its participants to self-select.  Despite this various strategies can be used to approximate and enhance representativeness, approaching full representativeness as a kind of limit case.  For example, assuming there are demographics on participants of a known degree of reliability, and a sufficiently large and diverse set of participants, it would be possible to select suitable subsets of participants to form the pool for the purposes of computing group wisdom.
  3. Gaming.  If it builds any kind of momentum, the NVF will become a target for “gaming” (e.g. astroturfing) as groups attempt to manipulate the outputs to suit their own interests.  This problem can never by fully solved, but could be handled adequately.  The problem of distinguishing genuine from bogus participation is similar to the problem of distinguishing genuine email from spam, and Google has shown that this can be done remarkably well.
  4. Credibility/Influence.  The main point of setting up the NVF is to help governments make the best decisions.  For this to work, governments would have to take the NVF outputs seriously.  I’m optimistic that this problem would start to solve itself just insofar as the NVF achieves critical mass and delivers its intended output – not because governments will be virtuous and do the right thing but rather because they will inevitably start to respond out of pure pragmatic political self-interest.  If the genuine considered opinion of the public on a major issue is available, and if it diverges significantly from the public attitude as expressed in the polls, then it will constitute another kind of political cudgel which can be used by either the government or the opposition.

Conclusion – Now is the time to start

Clearly, establishing a NVF of the kind described would be no mean feat.  Yet as I’ve argued, we need such a thing if we’re to make a smooth, timely transition to sustainability.

It is high time we had practical and effective mechanisms for knowing what the public really thinks on the major issues affecting it.   The ubiquity and sophistication of the internet and the systems built upon it provide us the opportunity to realise this democratic ideal.

The NVF proper will not be built in a day or even a year.  Rather, it will evolve in a serious of stages, incrementally approaching the full vision.

Eight years (from here to 2020) is probably a reasonable time-frame within which something worthwhile could be achieved.  Remember that Twitter is less than eight years old, and has already played a key role in democratic movements worldwide (e.g. North Africa).

This post is the third part of a draft chapter What Do We Think? Identifying the Public Wisdom to Guide Sustainability Decisions, in preparation for the volume 20/20 Vision for a Sustainable Society, being put together by the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute.