Elina Kiiski Kataja: Towards better public participation in society in future
One topic for discussion that has prevailed in Western societies for a couple of decades already is the erosion of democracy, or even crisis of democracy. Election turnouts and party memberships have been in steady decline. Last year’s political developments across the world have shown that democracy is now being impacted by various trends and drivers. One particularly important question is in fact how to strengthen citizen participation in decision making, in other words, how to bridge the widening gap between decision making and people’s everyday life.
Wellbeing and trust – guarantees for a functioning democracy
Wellbeing and trust are closely linked to how democracy works in society. In Finland, trust in public institutions and fellow citizens is still relatively high. Globally, though, a feeling of distrust has become a strong trend that is directed towards governments, institutions and business. The global Edelman Trust Barometer showed that two thirds of the world’s countries were in a state of distrust in 2017, while in 2016 this was true of roughly half of them. This is a worrying trend, so Finland, too, must work to make sure trust stays at a high level.
To ensure a sense of trust, institutions must be effective and encounters between public servants and citizens need to work well. In everyday life, genuine encounters between different types of people and doing things together are instrumental. So the one-thousand-euro question for the future is: how do we, in today’s world of intense digitalisation, enable face-to-face interaction so that we can build a ‘social infrastructure’? How do we encounter each other and manage to put ourselves in the shoes of people who think and live differently?
There is no one single magic bullet for achieving democracy and participation, so we’ll have to look in many directions.
With lifespans becoming ever longer, lifelong learning has greater bearing also from the point of view of democracy. While the bulk of education currently takes place when people are young, the new focus will be on learning continuously throughout our lives.
Fast advances in technology also bring new challenges to democracy. The logic of algorithms, (ro)bots that are active in the social media, and fake news have all sharply changed the public space in which voting decisions are made during elections, for example. In future, to ensure that democratic forces can continue to jockey for position in virtual airspace, politicians, political parties and governments must be in the vanguard of technological understanding.
Another particular challenge for democracy is that both the global and the local level will play a significant role in future decision-making processes. Climate change, clean water, arable land and natural resources are some of the issues that concern the entire planet. This means that we need to take into account the role of democracy when making decisions on such issues that affect the whole globe. At the same time, though, grassroots democracy will play a bigger role. In other words, with the world around us being ever more complex, we feel a greater need to exercise influence on our own surroundings. This is why the models and tools for developing both global democracy and grassroots democracy should be taken seriously when deliberating the future of democracy.
During the centenary of Finland’s independence in 2017, Sitra is trying out a concept called ‘Timeout’ in an effort to trigger constructive public discourse together with citizens and local players across Finland.
Elina Kiiski Kataja is a leading specialist in foresight at the Finnish Innovation Fund Sitra. Her work consists of capturing important trends already present in society that may have significance for our future.