How Do You Design an E-democracy?

Almost forty years ago, the design critic Lucius Burkardt wrote, “Design is invisible.” After all, designers create not only objects, graphics, user interfaces, and rooms, but also complex systems that can’t immediately be seen or felt. Democracy is one such system—it doesn’t arise naturally, but is the product of a design process.

Until now, we haven’t seen the design of a democracy as a designer’s job, because designing democracy has been the purview of politicians, the media, and civil society. But a lot has changed since the rise of social media and Web 2.0. New communication technologies have created innovative ways of forming opinions and conducting discussions and negotiations. The resulting applications, programs, and user interfaces result from design processes in which professional designers play an essential role. Today, designers are key in shaping our democracy.

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The concept that social media affects democracy is not a new one. Since the Internet’s invention, many have hoped that digitization would enable innovative forms of democratic participation. Serious security concerns have quashed these dreams until now. After all, it is important that elections are conducted anonymously, without our votes or opinions being forged or distorted. Now there’s technology that allows secure online communication—blockchains.

Blockchains are highly secure because they pack information into small blocks. They are stored in several places rather than on just one server. These single blocks are connected through a chain that snakes its way through digital space. Hackers thus have no hope of accessing data saved in blockchains—even if the information stored on one server is manipulated, the uncorrupted version still exists in all other locations in the chain.

This innovative technology makes it possible to safely transfer and save information online, thus enabling anonymous voting in an election. At the same time, the blockchain’s decentralized structure encourages new ways of thinking about democracy’s forms and possibilities. After all, many democratic processes are controlled by central organizations, such as the state or political parties. Blockchain technology throws open the question of whether citizens can interact without these central bodies’ involvement. What processes would enable citizens to negotiate political, economic, and cultural issues directly with one another? 

Since the Internet’s invention, many have hoped that digitization would enable innovative forms of democratic participation

Here again, designers are necessary. The mere existence of a new technology doesn’t ensure that it is applied intelligently. That’s the designer’s role. At the moment, numerous applications are being developed based on blockchain technology, such as banking apps in the finance sector and software intended to protect intellectual property.

The five projects introduced in Design Display show how blockchain technology makes it possible—or at least feasible—to improve and expand existing forms of democracy. They were initiated by various groups and innovate in new directions. Some move existing democratic processes online; others are driven by economic considerations; still others are fueled by a utopian vision of enabling a stronger grassroots democracy. Other projects attempt to make state administration more transparent and uncomplicated. All reveal supplementary—and alternative—concepts of contemporary democratic processes. But which ones succeed depends not on technology or the applications that designers develop, but rather on society: that is to say, on us all. 

Friedrich von Borries, born in 1974, is an architect. He teaches Design Theory at the Hochschule für bildende Künste in Hamburg and runs the Projektbüro Friedrich von Borries in Berlin. The relationship between design and social development lies at the heart of his work, which exists in the border zone between urban planning, architecture, design, and art. “As scholars, we try to understand the world. As designers, we try to change it.”