31 JANUARY 2020 – I am writing this on my return from the World Economic Forum in Davos last week.
Exactly a week ago I was at the George Soros dinner there together with gathered media and Soros Foundation beneficiaries and staff.
At the dinner, Soros announced USD 1 billion for a new “Open Society University Network” (OSUN) and we all got a copy of his latest book as a freebee.
At 89, Soros remains dedicated to his lifelong cause for Open Societies. He called OSUN’s efforts to combat authoritarian governments “the most important project of my life” and hopes to ”see it realized whilst I am still around”.
Open Societies have been close to my heart since I, like Soros, came in contact with Popper’s “Open Society and Its Enemies” during my London School of Economics days.
A New Software for Open Societies
In his book, Popper identified the dangers to Open Societies, which need trust, sound governance and citizen participation to grow and stay robust.
Today however, many perceive our democracies as fragile and in decline.
But anybody who takes a closer look will see that most of our disagreements in liberal democracies are about the means, not the goals: there is broad consensus about the desirability of most outcomes e.g. accessible healthcare, quality affordable schooling, avoiding climate distasters, etc. However we can’t seem to agree on how best to get there.
Our thesis is that we’re simply lacking the tools. We’re not using available technologies to innovate in governance: we’re not writing governance software or releasing new versions of an “Operating System” for our democracies. Voting is still largely paper-based, elections are held only every 4 or 5 years, and there are no citizens’ Apps that enable wider participation in decision making.
We need a toolbox to solve problems of coordination in society, including some “ragequit” function for those who don’t subscribe to the broad consensus and want to escape the “tyranny of democracy”.
Our Application to the Soros Foundation
Following the Soros dinner, I was encouraged to apply for a grant from the Open Society Foundation.
Today, we sent in a proposal making the case for a grant to study and develop new governance models that may help solve coordination problems in Open Societies.
In our application, we highlighted Distributed Ledger Technology (“DLT”, commonly known as blockchains) – which ideologically grew out of a movement against increased centralization of economic and political power – as the key enabling technology for a new Operating System for Open Societies.
We argued that blockchains, by ensuring uncensored, self-authenticated transactions on a decentralized open ledger, hold the promise of an unprecedented level of citizen participation as the basis for such OS.
Finally, we quoted some daring recent ideas e.g. how “quadratic voting” using blockchains could change how we vote and participate in decisions.
As a first step, a lot more study needs done on the design and feasibility of such new governance models. Our proposal is therefore in essence an application to fund a small-scale study centre.
Our idea is for such School to commence as a small institute with visiting scholars from around the world, including members of the DLT community and teaching staff from across academic disciplines.
The setup would suit a peripatetic approach in which knowledge is transferred informally within a communal setting. In the spirit of the open software movement, all technology development is to be open source, and contributions to its code repository could be made from anywhere by anybody.
Beyond research, the key deliverable of the Center would be an open-source toolkit of ready-to-use applications to help countries implement new governance and voting protocols that increase citizen participation.
We believe that developing such toolkit could help solve coordination problems across a wide spectrum of organizations, from private companies to the polis of a country and even the governance of supranational – and some day interplanetary! – organizations.
Finally, we proposed Vancouver as a possible location for the School since Canada is arguably the world’s strongest liberal democracy.
Waiting for George’s call
We’re now waiting for George’s call and working some backchannels.
Irrespective of a Soros Foundation grant, we plan to accelerate fundraising and are building a website under the Otonomos Foundation.
We’re also seeking to attract voluntary staff and have been looking at possible sites and Universities that can host the School.
We cannot let this cause die of neglect: technology presently increasingly provides the tools for surveillance, which in turn leads to a compounding of power in the hands of the few. It is in our hands to build the freedom tools that guarantee censorship-resistant, “trust-less” participation for each of us as shareholders in our collective future.