Democracy only works if people trust each other and trust social institutions and decision-makers. The goal of the Democracy and participation theme is to seek solutions for strengthening social participation and trust and to find ways to take advantage of new technologies.

What is this about?

From a global perspective, the state of democracy has been deteriorating for the past 15 years. In 2020, partly due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the balance between democracy and authoritarianism shifted “in favour of tyranny”, according to the annual Freedom in the World report published by the research institute Freedom House. Countries where democracy deteriorated outnumbered countries where development was positive by the largest margin seen since the decline of democracy is said to have begun in 2006.

The global pandemic has contributed to the deterioration of the development of democracy. Authoritarian governance systems have exploited the pandemic to limit individual freedoms and media freedom. At the same time, the number of systematic disinformation campaigns within and between countries has increased rapidly over the past few years.

Finland is not beyond the reach of these large-scale trends. Although we are a country of high trust according to international indicators, Finnish people’s trust in public institutions, government and the political system is on a downward trajectory. This was the observation made by the OECD in its report on trust published in spring 2021.

OECD’s report also revealed “the Finnish paradox of participation in society”, which means that while trust in – and satisfaction with – public institutions is high, people’s belief in their own ability to exercise influence is lower. If these gaps in trust were to grow deeper, Finland’s ability to manage the major challenges of the future – such as climate change, the sustainability gap caused by the ageing of the population and the transformation of work – would be diminished.

What do we do? 

The aim of the Democracy and participation theme is to renew and strengthen democracy so that everyone in Finland has the opportunity to participate in and influence the development of an inspiring future. The new theme area will commence its work in summer 2021.

The theme will support the renewal and development of the structures of democracy, the operating methods and means of participation and interaction, among other things. In line with Sitra’s strategy, we will also focus particularly on how network-based operating methods and algorithm- and data-based means of operating and influencing can be harnessed to support democracy, participation and collaboration.

The aim is to renew and strengthen democracy so that everyone in Finland has the opportunity to participate in and influence the development of an inspiring future.

The power of networks – combined with the increasing significance of data, information and knowledge as key factors of production – influences changes in economic systems and even in social systems in unpredictable ways.

There is increasing tension between the operating models of the “old power” (hierarchies and institutions) and the operating and governance models of the “new power” (networks). The ongoing transition from democracy of the analogue era to digital democracy requires a reform of the practices and procedures of democracy. It also makes it necessary to prepare for new and unexpected threats, such as the manipulation of networks and individuals, influencing through information and confusion-based campaigns.

The Democracy and participation theme will produce information on how the digital transformation shapes power and institutions and seeks ways to influence the direction and impacts of this transformation. The theme aims to promote new methods of participation and influence (such as citizens’ juries, citizens’ initiatives and participatory budgeting) through experiments and digital/technological innovations.

Who is involved?

The renewal of democracy can only be achieved through broad co-operation. This needs to include both horizontal co-operation across silos and vertical co-operation between institutions, public and private organisations, the media, decision-makers, public officials, researchers and individuals. In a similar way to how the boundaries between influencers and those being influenced are becoming blurred in today’s media environment, from the perspective of democracy we all have several different roles in different situations.

Through individual reform-oriented projects and other broader projects, the Democracy and participation theme aims to create a movement of democratic reform that is as easy as possible to participate in for people and institutions representing various roles and perspectives.

The work of the new theme will not start from scratch but will be based on the foundation laid by Sitra’s previous democracy-related work.

Between 2018 and 2021, this work was carried out in projects implemented within the framework of the Updating Democracy project in particular. Sitra’s Foresight and insight theme has also examined the future of liberal democracy and assessed the impacts of Covid-19 on democracy. During 2021, Sitra Lab has also focused on identifying and overcoming the obstacles to democracy.

Other examples of Sitra’s previous democracy-related efforts also include Timeout – a tool for constructive societal discussion – various projects that support data-driven decision-making and the Next era vision, published in 2017.