It’s time for the participatory society

The world abounds with both opportunities and crises. We live in a time of unparalleled progress – scientific breakthroughs offer to achieve everything from a cure to cancer to self-repairing glass. We are more connected than ever before. We have the opportunity to replace many low quality jobs through automation. And we have more information about the world than in any previous era. But these opportunities are clouded by the rise of political chauvinism and threats ranging from climate change to antimicrobial resistance.

Citizens are more educated than ever before, but we have legacy systems of decision-making. We still vote once every 4 or 5 years, and while governments often consult on what they do, this involves relatively small numbers of people in a meaningful way. For all its achievements, consultation is failing to match the expectations of a demos which expects high levels of inclusion in decision making through the market, and in the workplace. The popularity of participatory budgeting schemes, and other manifestations of participatory politics – such as the Brexit Citizens’ Assembly – hints at the potential for wider deployment of participatory methods. These methods have been taken up by the House of Commons Housing, Communities and Local Government committee to investigate the future of adult social care.

While there are many causes for optimism, we know that, left to trawl the internet for information people may be taken in by ‘fake news’ and conspiracies. But we also know that when people are deliberatively engaged in the process of decision making – through the sorts of participatory techniques that underpin Participatory Budgeting and Citizens’ Assemblies – that those people can properly assess the opportunities and threats, and have access to rational consensus.

When the political theorist Edmund Burke wrote that an MP “owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion” he did so in a context where most were unable to assess and judge the great issues of state. It is odd that politics and public policy decisions remain so impervious to involvement. This is especially so in a society where basic education is universally available and citizens are continually engaged in judgement and decision-making through much more autonomy in the workplace and regular consumer decision-making. Bringing these skills into public decision-making is not just the right thing to do, it is now a necessity for the survival of a democratic society.

There are a number of areas where this is particularly important. When it comes to harnessing the opportunities of ubiquitous and pervasive data, we urgently need a participatory process that allows a realistic assessment of the risks of government use of data. The Nuffield Council on Bioethics has pioneered some of the techniques required in this task (and is considering expanding the discussion to data policy), but this needs to be applied much more widely, and with levels of participation that reflect how widely the effects of any decision will be felt.

We can understand the underlying issue as a failure in the public sphere – where the intersection of public institutions, media and citizens is incapable of synthesising the available information into appropriate courses of action. We have both the tools and the opportunity to move beyond the public sphere and towards a deliberative society. Now is the time to seize this opportunity.

Recent technological developments make this opportunity even more important. The last decade has been marked by a transformative increase in the availability of data. This new data comes in many forms: it is easier to track steps using a phone or personal fitness device than it is to count them yourself. It is easier to count mobile phones passing a turnstyle than employing someone with a clipboard to do the same. It is easier to assess what economic activity there is in an area by web-scraping job adverts than it is to undertake a detailed study. This new data should turn our understanding of the world on its head. Where previously when making a decision we needed to go into the world to actively pursue information, now much of that information is close at hand. While we still need to access it, that is much easier than it once was.

Collective intelligence offers us the opportunity to make human interventions of more value. Instead of expending time and effort measuring what’s happening, devices are doing this for us. We can bring these data sets together to make sense of the world. This can greatly improve decision making.

And improved decision making is becoming ever more important. We all know that there are a variety of serious challenges facing the world today – from antimicrobial resistance to climate change, and on to the aging population. Our cities are struggling to deal with air pollution, and our some are even at risk of running out of water. These challenges are easy to agree to – but often prove difficult to resolve. They work across disciplinary, governmental and other boundaries. The solutions to these problems don’t fit into the silos through which our legacy systems work.

A different way of solving problems comes when we set them out as challenges. A challenge approach works by setting out a problem, such as regulation of urban drone use or managing variable supply in a renewables-based energy network, and inviting researchers, developers and citizens to pitch ideas on how to solve these problems. It can break down disciplinary boundaries and administrative silos, create understanding, investment and ultimately – solutions that we might not otherwise have found.

These challenges could be of direct political contestation – as with abortion rights in Ireland, or they could be more local – on approaches to air pollution in a particular municipality. Or they could be longer-term issues – such as the regulation of artificial intelligence. There will be particularly significant opportunities for bringing arts-led approaches to help understand, represent and interpret the evidence and arguments that are required to involve participants in the citizens assemblies, and to more broadly communicate the work of the Institute. The opportunities to bring music and art into debates about the future will increase the impact of the this approach, and allow alignment with creative imaginings of the future.

In the Republic of Ireland Citizens’ Assemblies have been used to deal with a variety of issues, ranging from equal marriage to abortion. These issues have proved intractable through traditional political structures –- which are marked by self-interested approaches. By bringing together demographically balanced groups that reflect the major views, a resolution emerges.

At the same time, we have more methods for bringing people into decision-making processes. Both online and in-real-life we can build more effective ways of including people. Where social media has connected people much more effectively than ever before, so participatory approaches can make use of digital tools to make better decisions. By better identifying the challenges that people see, and matching this with the many exciting possibilities we can rebuild our public sphere.

These approaches are particularly relevant to institutions of learning. With Universities now measured on their impact (and with this measurement becoming more significant), and seeking new ways to make sure that their research is more relevant to challenges, a new opportunity arises. A process of identifying great global challenges, assessing different approaches to addressing these challenges through participatory methods and using this to inform research guarantees impact. It is a win-win, allowing academics to validate their research, and citizens to be involved in the process of commissioning and design of research.

How could this work in practice?
The opportunity to deliver on a programme of this sort is enhanced by the substantial investment in estate and curriculum that has been delivered through the City Deals for both Edinburgh and Glasgow. In Edinburgh, the rhetoric of ‘challenge’ has already been taken up in the design of the Edinburgh Futures Institute. This adds physical manifestation to an already existing public sphere and creates the conditions to catalyse the move towards a deliberative society and participatory democracy. The University of Edinburgh already has substantial expertise in this area through the work of Oliver Escobar, co-director of What Works Scotland and the Smart Urban Intermediaries programme.

The dominant political approach in any era is manifested in its architecture. The German theorist Jürgen Habermas identified the Palace of Versailles as a bricks-and-mortar example of absolute monarchy. So physically vast and so overpowering as to leave the subjects of the French King in no doubt of who wielded power on behalf of god. We have the opportunity to create a concrete manifestation of the participatory society.

By bringing together a challenges approach with a citizens assembly methodology, we can identify, test and surface the areas where change is needed. When we bring researchers and practitioners together we can begin to address these areas where change is needed. By including citizens at every point we demonstrate that research aligns with popular concerns. The process has impact woven through it and will begin the process of prioritising problems, accounting for social, environmental and economic change, and rebuilding trust in society.

This is not an attempt to replace curiosity-led research, but rather to allow researchers and practitioners to better understand which questions should be addressed, and to – if they choose – direct their research to answering these questions. The approach itself will be open to experimentation, iteration and development. By comparing the effectiveness of different ways of identifying challenges, building participatory techniques and measuring impact we can create learning that can be widely shared.

If the Palace of Versailles was a manifestation of the feudal political order intended to awe subjects into submission through the sheer scale and majesty of the buildings, so the aim of Edinburgh Futures Institute should be to create a deliberative space where citizens can realise a participatory democracy. It can be a built manifestation of the participatory society. And through harnessing the information now available to us, and the insights of citizens, we can create a public sphere worthy of awe.


Re-elect Peter McColl!

As many of you will know I am the serving Rector of Edinburgh University. I want to continue working for a fairer, more sustainable University, as I’ve done during my 3 years as Rector.

As your Rector I think I’ve made a real difference to the University for students and staff. Campaigning for free education, a better deal for staff and fairer accommodation has helped create a better University community. I want to continue making that difference.

I have supported and led campaigns for:

• A better deal for international students – freezing fees through course of your degree;
• Fairer housing – a landlord accreditation scheme and 106-bed housing cooperative;
• The new student housing just opened and nearing completion;
• Better feedback for students;
• A more sustainable University – withdrawing money from the arms trade;
• Better conditions for postgraduate tutors and demonstrators;
• Living wage for staff and an end to unfair zero hour contracts.

I am running for a second term to continue the fight for staff and students:

• Opposing fees: free, fair and funded education for all;
• A rent cap and tenants’ union – fairer housing;
• Investment in teaching quality and feedback;
• Ethical investment of University reserves.

If you want to get in touch, please do so below.

Address to the Welcome Ceremony, Edinburgh University Freshers’ Week 2012

Welcome to Edinburgh, and to the University of Edinburgh.

I address you as Rector. An interesting position and one that tells you a great deal about this institution and Scottish Higher Education more generally. Rectors are directly elected by students and staff. They Chair the University’s governing body, the Court. They are a reminder of what George Davie called “the democratic intellect.” This was the term he used to describe the culture of the 19th Century Scottish University.

It is particularly appropriate given that we are here in the room where the re-convened Scottish Parliament met for its first 6 years.

The University of Edinburgh was never an institution solely for the rich. Unlike the ancient Universities in England the University of Edinburgh was an institution devoted to fostering the intellectual life of the city and the nation. At the heart of this institution was a commitment to what we would now call popular education.

Education was provided to those who showed promise. Not just those who could afford to pay.

Not that that education flinched in its commitment to rigour. Possibly the greatest founding figure in British philosophy, David Hume was schooled in this University and in this tradition. For the Americans among you, you may be interested to know that Arthur St Clair, the penultimate President of the Continental Congress also attended Edinburgh University.

This tradition of education for those who could benefit from it rather than just those very rich who could afford it led to such intellectual fervour that Edinburgh could host a renaissance in the 18th Century to equal all others. By offering education to all, Scotland was able to produce some of the most extraordinary thinkers, scientists and intellectuals in history.

So profound was this legacy that Arthur Herman was able to make the slightly hyperbolic claim that the Scots invented the modern world. In conjunction with a near-universal scheme of parish schools Scotland became the world’s first literate nation.

This intellectual fervour manifested itself in a collegiate governance that, from the mid-19th Century led to the direct election of Rectors. I am here to make sure that your voice is heard at the very highest levels of the University, and I look forward to meeting you over the coming days and weeks.

The concept of Rectorship has been so successful that earlier this year a Scottish Government commissioned report suggested the creation of directly elected chairs of court at all Scottish Universities.

And if you’re here until 2015 you’ll get to participate in a Rectorial election!

You are very welcome, then, to join us as the inheritors of this legacy of great engagement with the city and the world. You will hear how you can get involved with sports and societies, with your students’ association and with your city.

I wish you well in your time here. Enjoy learning at a wonderful, democratic, institution. Get involved with societies. Help to build the great popular tradition of this institution and this city. It will give you back much more than you give it.

Better accommodation will be my first priority as Rector

I’ve been out and about meeting students over the past couple of weeks. And as part of that I’ve been hearing their concerns. I believe Edinburgh is a great University and a fantastic place to study. But there are lots of ways in which it could be better. There are a range of important issues that need to be addressed. The transport links to Easter Bush just aren’t good enough. International student face a range of problems from the gold-plating of Home Office ‘check-in’ regulations to rapidly rising fees. People are very worried about the impact of the £36,000 fees that will be charged to students from the rest of the UK. But the concern most students have raised with me is about accommodation.

Accommodation is important because of the impact it has on all of the student experience. Good University halls can get your stay in Edinburgh off to a great start. Living in a shared flat is a brilliant learning experience. Too often, though, this is spoiled by cynical landlords and a shortage of accommodation provided by the University.

The Rector of the University of Edinburgh enjoys a special privilege. He or she gets to chair the highest decision making body in the University, the Court. The Rector is elected by staff and students to ensure that their views are heard at the highest levels of the University. As part of that I’ve been going to meetings, doing some door-knocking and I’ve got an online survey on accommodation. You can fill the survey in here.

There will also be a question in the coming EUSA referendum to address these important issues.

I’ve heard about private landlords who are taking deposits, despite there being no damage to the flat they’ve let out. Some landlords seem to see this extra money as a perk. In fact it’s a dishonest practice that often deprives students of hundreds of vital pounds. I’m hoping to work with others to create a tenancy deposit guarantee scheme. This will ensure that students get their deposits back unless there is a genuine need for the landlord to repair damage done by tenants. By working with organisations like Edinburgh Council, NUS and Shelter we can make sure that students don’t lose vital cash.

Some of the things I’ve heard have been really surprising. These include students being forced to share rooms in Pollock with a stranger, despite not wanting to. It’s vital that students get the best possible experience in their first year. So finding out that students had been housed in a youth hostel was really disappointing.

The revelation that Masson House is being used as a hotel for businesspeople while students are being housed at the Queen Margaret University Halls in Musselburgh is extraordinary. These halls are nearly over five miles from the University, and so the students living there will inevitably be isolated from student life at Edinburgh University. Businesspeople can be housed anywhere, students should be given priority at Edinburgh University halls.
It’s important that students in University Accommodation are housed in affordable accommodation. I’m keen that students are not placed in accommodation that’s more expensive than that for which they’ve applied. This will reduce the number of students forced out of University Accommodation in first year.

I’ve also heard that students want better recycling facilities in University Accommodation. This is both better for our world, and will save the University money. It should be easy for students to recycle, and I’ve found a level of frustration about the complexity of recycling facilities. Similarly, students need better cycle facilities across the University. It should be safe and easy to lock your bike up both where you live and at your place of study. It would be great if there were more covered bike storage.

You can vote for action on these issues in the upcoming EUSA referendum.

It’s been great to meet students and to be able to hear their concerns. I’m sure there are lots of other things that could be done to improve accommodation for students, and I’ve very keen to hear what those are. So if you’d like to get in contact with me you can email me, or through the survey here. I look forward to hearing from you!