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Published March 10, 2012

New Democracy: more than just voting

How is the nature of what we know as democracy changing, to cope with and adapt to a rapidly changing world? Tim Bird finds out more about Sitra’s New Democracy and discovers some new ways of thinking.

As part of a project called Synergize Finland, Sitra is involved in Learning Forums which, explains programme director Mika Kalliomaa, “are all about bringing together people with a wide range of ideas, innovativeness and ability to look at topics from different perspectives, and to come up with new and practical solutions to the challenges we are facing today.” The conclusions of the second of these Forums, on the theme of New Democracy, were being processed in late winter 2012.

“We had an open call for projects and ideas that regarded themselves as having something to do with New Democracy,” Kalliomaa says. “We found over 140 projects – a concrete sign in itself of something happening! We also came up with 12 small pilot projects that aim to try something new in the field of democracy.” These included participatory budgeting, the civil servant as facilitator, a web pilot or application to request open data and public information from officials, and the possibility of allocating a small part of taxation to projects championed by individuals.

“Democracy today is so much more than simply voting every four years,” says Kalliomaa. “Participation is much more than acting through political parties, and the media, for example, has become something completely new and not just an institutionalized watchdog.

Paradigm change

Mika Kalliomaa says Sitra’s involvement is explained through the idea of paradigm change: “One of the key issues today is that people are changing from objects to subjects, exercising their power daily; in the social media as active citizens producing their own knowledge, as consumers deciding where to put their money among global or local companies, and in everyday life deciding more and more for themselves instead of institutions deciding for them. The way we have organized our societies is changing drastically.”

Democratic institutions in Finland, he argues, were created when Finland was still a predominantly agricultural society in the 1860s and Finnish institutions derive from the industrialization that gathered pace after the war, along with the construction of the welfare state.

“This model has been a great success story for Finland but we can not lean towards it now that the world is changing so fast. This applies to democracy, too. According to our Synergize Finland Forum, New Democracy is participatory democracy rather than just representative democracy.

“Citizens should have open access to information and the chance to influence decisions in the preparatory phase. Politicians and institutions should open up and have much more interactive relationships with people. And co-creation should be a normal way of doing things between governance and people. We have to preserve what is great and functional in the old way of doing things but we also have to actively create new ways of doing things in our democracies in order for democracy to preserve its legitimacy.”

Picking British brains

Four days of the New Democracy Forum were held in London, observing and discussing the ways in which a flourishing social innovation and participation manifests itself, for example, in the form of digital tools and other practices.

“The biggest lesson learned from the UK visit was that by thinking innovatively about participation you can really deliver results,” Kalliomaa reports. Good examples were the organizing by certain municipalities of picnic and butterfly walks for families, during which talks were held on important issues – thus getting away from the traditional, stuffy Town Hall arena. Elsewhere, the Time Bank concept showed how it is possible to build on abilities and prevent deprivation.

“In the Time Bank, I can bake a cake for you and you can help me to change the tyres on my car,” says Kalliomaa. “Everybody’s time is equally valuable and everybody can participate. It builds up cohesion in the neighbourhood and a sense of belonging.”

“Finland and the world are in the middle of a paradigm shift from the post-industrial era and thinking towards a more human-based and solution-centric age,” says Kalliomaa. “In this new era you can’t define a grand national strategy or one solution. Instead, you have to learn how to navigate in turbulence, since goals are constantly shifting. This requires new thinking in many fields. Democracy is one of those fields where new thinking and innovations are needed.”

Tim Bird