Two weeks with the inspiring digital democrats of Taipei, Taiwan

A fascinating report from Civic Hall which shows how localities and smaller nations can inspire practices right across the globe.

Two young New York activists (Darshana Narayanan and Claudina Sarahe, otherwise known as Composites Collective) travelled to Taiwan (specifically, Taipei) last September. They want to create a "vNYC", inspired by the Taiwanese experiments in bringing together government, civil society and citizen known as vTaiwan. As Nesta reports: 

The vTaiwan process was established by a civil society movement called g0v, at the invitation of the Taiwanese Minister for Digital Affairs. It followed g0v’s major role in the 2014 Sunflower Student Movement protests, which was started over a controversial trade agreement with China. 

The process was designed as a neutral platform to engage experts and relevant members of the public in large-scale deliberation on specific topics. 

The process itself is designed to facilitate constructive conversation and consensus-building between diverse opinion groups. It does this by creating several stages, including an initial ‘objective’ stage for crowdsourcing facts and evidence, and a ‘reflective’ stage using mass deliberation tool, which encourages the formation of ‘rough consensus’. Finally, key stakeholders are invited to a live-streamed, face-to-face meeting to draw up specific recommendations. 

Narayan and Sarahe's report of their fortnight there reveals a rich, startling culture. On one side very active young digital citizens, who are spreading their hackers' interest in open networks and practices into other areas, like design, media, law, film, research. And on the other side, lead by the extraordinary (and trans) Minister without Portfolio Audrey Tang [featured in the D.A. already], a government which has responded with unparalleled enthusiasm to the demands of this community, inventing new forms of deliberation.

Noting how the orchids are constantly fresh in Tang's office, the minister replied: 

The trick is that they are fresh, if you renew it every couple of days it’s fresh, it’s the same with democracy, if you [only] vote every four years it’s rotten... Deliberation—listening to each other deeply, thinking together and working out something that we can all live with—is magical.

There are interesting limitations to the vTaiwan experiment - as the authors report:

vTaiwan is used for crafting country-wide legislation pertaining to digital issues, such as personal data protection, unmanned aerial vehicle, e-clinic, and cyberbullying. Regulating the entry of Uber into Taiwan is one of the most prominent vTaiwan cases. To date, roughly 24 digital issues have gone through the vTaiwan process. It can’t be used to deliberate non-digital topics such as the death penalty, same-sex marriage, or environmental protections.

Our conversations with Audrey Tang gave us insight into some of the strategizing that went into the vTaiwan process. She believes that a practical benefit of tackling the digital sphere is that it allows the young vTaiwan methodology to be tested and perfected in an arena relatively clear of polarized ideologies and zero-sum thinking. Additionally, she feels that tackling digital issues gives room for deliberation and consensus to get ahead of ideologies, and “vaccinate” the population against future echo chambers.

Yet the spirit of democratic renewal goes beyond the digital. The authors spent some time with NGOs trying to improve the quality of deliberation over contentious issues:

At the end of lunch Lu Cha Hua invited us to a workshop where she taught NGO workers and activists how to facilitate civic deliberation on the death penalty issue....One of the big lessons we learned from watching her is: when hosting citizen participation events, entertainment should not be undervalued! Lu Chia Hua provided a steady flow of jokes and conducted games to keep people moving and interacting. At one point she asked: “What type of animal represents the type of facilitator you will be?” The room filled with laughter as people came up with answers.

...It was decided that to facilitate a productive conversation on the death penalty issue, the topic would be structured as: “imagine alternatives to the death penalty”—not “discuss the pros and cons of the death penalty”—which would hopefully open the floor to discussion, not fights.

It's a detailed and richly illustrated report - highly recommended to read in full.