For Southeast Asian cities to thrive in terms of societal well-being, it is important to use the digital as a tool to increase state-society engagement and connectedness, and to address urban societal challenges. Driven by an accelerated adoption of digitalisation, a Digital Sociocracy framework is proposed to build resilient and regenerative communities via an AI-driven platform to serve as an agent of social and physical cohesion in order to ensure better accessibility and inclusivity, to encourage stakeholder participation, and to build trust and consensus. This new social contract calls for a design of digital hardware, software, and a creative system of governance and policymaking, writes Joanne Lim
For over a decade and particularly during this time of physical distancing, conversations on digital technology and its impact on society have dominated virtually all areas of our daily lives. From the internet to robots, AI, IoT, and IoE, digital has been regarded as both a disruptive and democratic tool, encouraging the formation/emergence of either new “networked publics” (Boyd, 2010) or “refracted publics” (Abidin, 2021). Democratic erosion and societal discord have led to further debates on how governments must serve their citizens better and evolve in positive ways.
Blockchain Research Institute CEO Don Tapscott (2020) urges for a new social contract in the digital age by 2030, stating that “these technologies also created transparency that further revealed deep problems in society.” As Japan strives towards an ambitious shift from Industry 4.0 to Society 5.0,the rest of the world is accelerating into the second era of digital revolution. Despite the promise of telemedicine, online learning and e-services, digitalisation appears to be more disruptive than interventive, especially when these grand initiatives are attempted by governments intending to overhaul entire cities under the grossly (mis)used ‘sustainability’ agenda.
For Southeast Asian countries with large segments of community in the urban areas still struggling to obtain basic necessities such as clean water, unpolluted air, electricity, education and healthcare, the digital era, if not urgently confronted, will threaten to delegitimize entire nations and further exclude voices within society, leading to an extremely segmented social structure.
With countries like Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines expecting the share of urban population to reach 86%, 73%, and 62% respectively by 2050, the discourse remains largely about power and space and to what extent the “smart growth agenda”, with community interest and social inclusivity as a goal, has been superseded by the requirements of capital accumulation and political interests. Unlike countries such as Australia, Denmark, Norway, Switzerland, New Zealand and even Singapore, several Southeast Asian countries are experiencing the death of democratic governance as they face unbridled corruption and the robbing of public funds, political polarization, social inequalities, institutional racism, vampire capitalism, and militarism, amongst other challenges.
This inadvertently raises questions around trust, manipulation and deceit amidst severe curtailing of society’s freedom of speech and failures to engage the public in meaningful conversations about improving the quality of life. Instead, laws and policies are imposed in a top-down, prescriptive manner only to further increase the gap of social inequality, intensify polarization and cause widespread discrimination as resources are being distributed unfairly and unjustly. To address these challenges, there is a need to revisit the intent of social cohesiveness and to explore how a post-Covid, resource-constrained 21st century can be resilient, self-sufficient and digitally regenerative.
Digitally Regenerative Intervention via a Rhizomorph Network Approach
Effective regeneration requires a breakdown before a breakthrough can take place in urban societies. Crucial to this process is the need to screw up the status quo followed by a change of mindset. This includes challenging beliefs and patterns, revealing disruptive insights and eradicating ineffective processes and harmful relationships. My research explores the sentiments of society in five Southeast Asian countries, namely Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Philippines and Vietnam in embracing an alternative to the current disruptive sustainable development models that threaten to overhaul entire cities. Through strategic design of hardware, software and ‘innovative’ policy, a Digital Sociocracy seeks to understand how smart regenerative societies can embody spatial territories that bring digital technologies and people together to enhance innovation, knowledge-building and problem-solving, particularly, in addressing urban societal concerns.
Based on data gathered from over 750 survey respondents, online interviews and text mining on popular social media sites and discussion forums, it becomes evident that the challenges faced by communities in the urban areas mainly stemmed from distrust towards the state, and a lack of meaningful engagement between state and society. The majority of the respondents believed that the current system of governance in their country is indeed failing, citing Corruption, Unequal Distribution of Wealth, and Political Polarization and Disinformation as major contributing factors. Civil society, having spent decades rallying against an ineffective regime, has resorted to taking matters into their own hands and use digital means to intervene, to mobilize, and to impact. But this too has its own failings and setbacks. In Southeast Asian countries that rank amongst the lowest in the World Freedom of Speech Index, societies find ways to circumvent authoritarian forms of punishment, often organizing and mobilizing via digital platforms amidst a culture of fear. However, this only perpetuates distrust instead of creating a ‘safe’ environment for opportunities to collaborate between state and society.
The proposed Digital Sociocracy entails both state and society to digitally feed information through sociocracy methods into an AI system, which will impact on law and policy making, eventually reducing and replacing politicians holding autonomy and power over key areas of society, particularly education, agriculture, health, entrepreneurship, environment, energy & resources, and transport amongst others. Digital Sociocracy needs to be 1) non-disruptive; 2) non-overlapping; 3) based on trust; 4) holds “power” accountable; 5) through dialogue, negotiation, and other measures short of war or violence. Through digital rhizomes, the emergence of regenerative publics will also ensure that all ‘stakeholders’ are able to contribute to any issue(s) at any given time, thereby encouraging conversations between the different areas to allow for a more inclusive model of problem-solving to emerge.
In referencing three relevant models from multiple disciplines – 1) regenerative agriculture (which is a system which seeks to replicate nature instead of constantly trying to overpower it. While there are several models developed in the area of regenerative culture (Wahl, 2016), they remain at the level of questioning and acknowledging that regenerative culture manifests differently based on context.), 2) sociocracy 3.0 for growing agile businesses (the sociocracy 3.0 model allows for changes to be made one step at a time, without the need for sudden radical reorganization or planning a long-term change initiative. The circles form adaptable patterns, mutually reinforcing and serves in a coherent way to ensure integrity and develop agility within organizations (see Bockelbrink and Priest, 2015)), and 3) the philosophical concept of the rhizome (Felix, Guattari. and Gilles, Deleuze., 1987), Digital Sociocracy proposes a new social contract in the digital age, which, if designed as an AI, is able to collect and collate data for the purpose of law/policy making. The focus of a digitally regenerative intervention is on the use of digitally-obtained information, feedback, comments, and even complaints to improve society’s well-being in a way that builds the capacity of a decentralized ecosystem needed for future growth. These interventions encourage increased social interaction and regenerative behaviours between all stakeholders within the ecosystem: government, business communities, civil society, NGOs, associations, academia, students/children and the elderly.
The generative and dynamic ‘digital rhizomes’ ensure that the system remains heterogeneous and open, and seeks to replace the framework that has long conditioned political behaviour and dialogue in society. This tactic of openness towards collective organization, distribution and production is far from mere schizophrenic behaviours (research on civil society groups in Southeast Asia have evidenced that while rhizomatic behaviors can be observed via digital platforms, the rhizomatic characteristics are less ‘schizophrenic’ than expected – instead civil society groups rely on instinctual micro-strategizing through the use of creative, non-confrontational paths. The rhizomes ‘become’ more innovative and even thrive in intensely difficult situations especially when governments are connected to the rhizome (Lim, 2017)) – using the tools of AI, this organism-like organization enables sociocracy that is connected with digital tools and methods designed to be contingent, curious, collaborative, exploratory, experimentative, and emergent, never frivolous and meaningless. Unlike the present condition whereby state/civil society initiatives either overlap or exist in silos, these digital rhizomes form assemblages that are interconnected and interwoven through the multiple and mutually related social aims of decentralization and civic empowerment existing within the rhizome.
At the heart of these assemblages is sociocracy whereby decisions are made by consent – consent here is a consensus that society trusts the process/system and believes that it is worth ‘trying’. Instead of a hierarchical command-and-control structure, this system functions as circles of equals – resourceful, connected and clear, consisting of built-in support, transparency and flexibility. Aligned to the regenerative model, Digital Sociocracy is about perpetual co-designing, engaging in continuous redefining and rediscovering of ways to address issues and challenges in society.
The possibility for individuals to group, regroup and mobilize allows for deliberate collaboration among various stakeholder groups and between the different areas (i.e. health, education, environment, agriculture) to jointly achieve a policy outcome. The key to this approach, given its deliberate rather than accidental nature, is that it prioritizes the optimization of usage of resources by avoiding overlapping and contradictions in intentions and implementations, which will inadvertently improve effectiveness and efficiency of the initiative(s). For this to succeed, there must be a mandate at the policy level, which allows for societies to hold governments accountable, and for stakeholders to ensure that they are able to significantly and meaningfully impact the system they live in. A simple juxtaposition of the principles of regenerative agriculture with the vision for regenerative publics produces a clear and important trajectory: to restore and to re-integrate.
A key stakeholder here is the meaningful involvement of the government which we find missing in various community participation models. This rhizomatic network social contract involves a dynamic process that allows for creative destruction to enable new creation – destruction here is about removing institutional power or autonomy on this platform and replacing it with blockchain technology.
Blockchain protocols are used in a decentralized network like this to ensure that different aspects of the platform work as intended; primarily for checks and balances, to ensure there is no single entity controlling the environment. Blockchains can embed electoral promises into smart contracts such as DEX (Decentralized Exchanges) currently designed to allow for direct peer-to-peer cryptocurrency transactions to take place online securely and without the need for an intermediary. Herein lies the answer to building a safer more protected environment for all stakeholders. The absence of intermediaries can ensure a more fluid execution of smart contracts which is key in a decentralized environment.
For Southeast Asian urban societies to thrive in this digital age, there is a need to build on its existing strength: collective unity. Where societies have seemingly lost its relationship to the local ecosystem whilst struggling to navigate a highly chaotic, disruptive and destructive (digital) environment, here is an opportunity for regenerative societies to use digital technology to reverse the cycle of societal degradation and to restore trust in the system, in order to make way for a new commitment to justice, new models of labour, education, identity, and inclusivity. We need to view the collapse of an existing system of governance as being part of building resilient communities that are ready to embrace the otherwise threatening era of a possible Digital 6.0 that I envisage will involve societies to be governed by a digitally-enabled hegemonic entity which will completely alienate the user and will result in not merely a denial of voices but a total loss of societal control over key areas including legal systems and financial institutions. The advent of Digital 6.0 without Digital Sociocracy at the heart of it will render individuals as drones!
Abidin, Crystal. 2021. ‘From “Networked Publics” to “Refracted Publics”: A Companion Framework for Researching “Below the Radar” Studies’, Social Media + Society. doi: 10.1177/2056305120984458.
Bockelbrink, Bernhard, Priest, James, David, L. 2020, A Practical Guide for Evolving Agile and Resilient Organizations with Sociocracy 3.0, https://sociocracy30.org/_res/practical-guide/S3-practical– guide.pdf, access date: 20/08/2020.
Danah Boyd. 2010. “Social Network Sites as Networked Publics: Affordances, Dynamics, and Implications.” In Networked Self: Identity, Community, and Culture on Social Network Sites (ed. Zizi Papacharissi), pp. 39-58.
Felix, Guattari. and Gilles, Deleuze., 1987. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and schizophrenia. Trans. by Massumi, B.)., University of Minnesota, Minneapolis.
Lim, Joanne B. Y. 2017. ‘Engendering Civil Resistance: Social Media and Mob Tactics in Malaysia.’ International Journal of Cultural Studies, 20, no. 2: 209-227Wahl, Daniel C. 2016. Designing Regenerative Cultures. Triarchy Press Ltd.
*The cover image is copyright of the Author.
* The views expressed in the blog are those of the authors alone. They do not reflect the position of the Saw Swee Hock Southeast Asia Centre, nor that of the London School of Economics and Political Science.