Thursday, 21 July 2011

The citizen-customer: designing post-democratic interaction systems

nationcrafting: the citizen-customer: designing post-democratic interaction systems

Back in the 70s, Milton Friedman once made an interesting comparison between government and the automobile industry, hypothesising that, if we chose our cars the way we choose our governments, the following scenario would result:

Every 5 years, car companies would send flyers out and be allocated ad space on TV channels to advocate the reason why we should all drive, say, a blue Ford Mondeo saloon car, a red Ferrari 2-seater, a grey Renault people carrier or a green Toyota Prius hybrid vehicle. Representatives of the different car brands would canvas from door to door and organise rallies where, rather than showing actual cars, they would promise all sorts of features to enthusiastic, banner-waving supporters.

Then, we would all vote according to our own strongly held ideological position, following which we would all - young and old, families and single men, green activists and climate-change deniers - have to drive the same car for the next 5 years.

Importantly, it would be an all-or-nothing manifesto that we would vote on, which would coerce the malcontents into 5 years of dissatisfaction and disenfranchisement.

So, now that we've highlighted the absurdity, let's look at how we can make serious improvement in this political process.

Why hold elections every 5 years? Why deny the opportunities for significant citizen feedback for such a long period of time? This, in an age when other organisations rely on near-instant feedback from their customers e.g. software companies, or any other companies that rely on Web 2.0. as a way to sustain constant dialogue with their customers?

The whole concept itself of "taking turns" every 5 years or so is something that inhibits the system's design evolution. This is obvious when you look at other sectors where evolution happens at a much faster rate. You don't see Apple and Microsoft taking turns every 5 years over who gets to run the operating system on your computer. You don't see Google and Bing taking turns every 5 years over who gets to provide you with internet search results.

Looking at it this way, two big questions appear:

1. Could it be that democracy is actually little more than a stepping stone, a simple evolutionary step towards a more citizen-empowering interaction system, rather than the be-all-and-end-all perfect system our institutions claim it to be?

2. Is it possible that our institutions might have turned democracy into a dogma and thereby locked it out of its own evolution course?

Nationcrafting starts with the realisation that there is room not just for some improvement, but for structural change of a similar size and depth as Web 2.0 has effected on the dynamics of many sectors of industry, where it changes not only what is produced and consumed, but how it is produced, how it is consumed, how it is paid for and by whom.

The important point to realise, however, is that change in those sectors was not effected from the inside. It's not as if technological change enabled the already existing players to evolve by their own accord.

Rather, technology enabled new players to enter a sector, offering new products and services in a new, easier, cheaper or better way. The existence of these new players is what triggered the old players to either change or wither away. For example, none of the established providers in the music industry came up with a product like iTunes, Apple did (and the change itself was, of course, triggered by Napster).

Similarly, it isn't the case that the old state institutions will change from the inside. There is no need for "nationcraftism", for an activist political design movement, for a revolution that attempts to change currently existing states from the inside.

Rather, new nation-like institutions will be formed by innovative organisations and entrepreneurs, which will provide nation services in a new, easier, cheaper or better way. Whether they will even ressemble "state" institutions is itself a big question.

It is likely that, in the beginning at least, these new nation-services providers will exist alongside existing states, not even labelling themselves as states, which means they will not enter the existing paradigm of conflict that arises whenever groups of people "declare independence" or otherwise assert their autonomy.

For example, we currently have online companies like Groupon that create a market pressure on providers to lower their prices in exchange for a significant amount of online users who are interested in their particular product. We also currently have price comparison websites like Opodo and Skyscanner that search a variety of airlines' databases for the best price on a ticket. We have all sorts of online entities interfacing between customers and companies, who make it their business to get you and me a better deal.

So, it's not inconceivable that there should soon be an online entity interfacing between citizens and existing states, searching for the best country a customer should be resident in, or domiciled in, what the costs are, what the time-implications are (e.g. how many months you have to live there to benefit from this or that policy), what would be involved in acquiring citizenship or residence and what the costs and benefits would be.

The service could manage customers' identity data and remind them of the things to do in order to get their paperwork sorted in time, or do much of the paperwork itself. It might, for example, be that customers need to have been in the country for a while before they can apply for residence, or that they can't be in the country for longer than a particular amount of time to benefit from a tax break, etc. It might even be the case that the company takes care of all paperwork between the customer and embassies, city councils, tax offices, like a one-stop-shop for everything citizen-related.

This is, after all, just data...

Getting a significant amount of customers would reduce the cost of services which are, today, only accessible to the wealthy few.

Then, when a sufficiently large number of people see that joining these new institutions provides more value for money than the taxes they pay to their state institutions, change will occur by itself: a mixture of competition and cooperation between these new breeds of service providers and the state will trigger the latter to either evolve or wither away.

Once this kind of evolution starts happening, the opportunity will exist for new nation-service providers to form and attract citizen-customers with a better deal.

This will happen in two ways:

1. On new territory being created, for example, by seasteading.

2. On territory leased from existing states to a new provider, in a similar way to the lease that used to exist between the UK and China with respect to Hong Kong before 1997.

Some notes on the former: the interesting thing, here, is that no claim would be made on the sea underneath the seasteads, so the organisational infrastructure is what seasteading customers would buy into (or get out from if they're unhappy with it). The other interesting thing is that seasteading communities could exist perfectly harmoniously alongside existing states, simply by having each individual seastead sail under a different flag of convenience. The 'hive' that is the group of seasteads - along with its organisational infrastructure - would be one thing, but each individual seastead would still be a part of an existing state, choosing whichever is most convenient.

Some notes on the latter: this would probably perform best in a city-nation model to reduce the level of management that would exist between citizen customer and service provider. We will look into this in later essays. Once a city-nation has been developed, as a "working prototype", we could start the replication of this working model in various other locations, both from franchise providers (today, fast food restaurants and coffee shops apply this model of business expansion very well) as well as from competitors studying the prototype and creating their own city-nation systems.

These ways are not exclusive: they could easily both develop at the same time. The aim is to increase choice, to create a better likelihood of matching the desires of each individual customer. There will be mainstream nation-services providers, and more niche ones. Alongside them will be meta-service providers or agencies interfacing between citizens and city-nations as well as existing states.

The conclusion of this essay is that, to generate an improvement in the nation-services sector, it is not useful or even necessary to take a political stand against an existing state system, to be an activist. The most effective way to change a bad company is not "join it and try to change it from the inside". The most effective way is to launch - or promote an existing - competing company providing a better service at a lower price.

The task, therefore, is to:

1. increase citizens' awareness of their state as little more than a service provider in a market of service providers.

2. increase citizens' ability to actually choose between the various existing nation-service providers, the way airline comparison websites have enabled travellers to instantly compare the deals offered by various airlines.

3. actually become a nation-services provider, using an alternative channel to the market in the same way that a software company like Apple became a music distributor with iTunes.

All of these will get a "free market of nations" or "competing governments" system underway, which will then trigger an evolution in citizen-customer interactions and services from the primitive state they are today into something more in line with the interactions and services we are used to in other sectors.


  1. Great Stuff. But with seasteading, how do you handle immigration issues, procreation, visiting, with such a small space to person ratio?

  2. Hello Bobak,

    With seasteading, the idea is that you have some kind of floating platform on which your house or office or shop is built (it's a little more complex, you need stabilisers, etc. but I'm simplifying the point here).

    For a variety of reasons, you may then want to group with other seasteads in international waters.

    For example:

    ... because of trade: one of the seasteads may be in the business of bringing food and drink from the mainland in great quantities, or they may be running a casino which mainlanders like to visit, etc.

    ... or because one of them has built a great wave-breaking mechanism, so your seastead will be that extra bit more stable (useful if you're, say, a plastic surgeon offering surgery at the prices they might be in Latin America on a seastead close to the US or Europe, where mainland prices are very high because of tax and regulation...)

    ... or because one of them has built a school that teaches kids in exactly the way you want your kids to be taught.

    ... or because they have a really fast internet there and you need it because you're a webdesigner.

    Let's call such a group a hive. Think of it like Venice but with moving buildings.

    Now, there are some basic services that you would essentially be buying into, just as you buy into the services offered by a condo. There might be security guards, there might be wifi everywhere in the perimetre, there might be all sorts of things. You buy into this at a particular price, or you don't. If you don't, you just go to another hive of seasteads that offers the things you find important at a price you're happy to pay. If it doesn't exist and you have a plan that people would be prepared to pay for, you just start your own...

    The great thing about floating platforms is that you can vote with your feet without having to sell your house. You just take it all with you as you sail/float away to another hive. The fluidity ends up being a bonus, rather than a hinderance, because it opens up more possibilities. For example, if you're a craftsman and there isn't much business for you in the seasteading community you're in, you just take your seastead to a place where business will be better, or just to another spot in the same hive.

    There are other great things to be said for seasteading. One of them is that the lower cost of entry into the suppliers market (compared to charter or franchised city-nations) is that there will be a wider variety of service providers, which means that we don't have to have all the answers straightaway: some communities will handle things one way, others another way. Whichever way you're happy with will be the place you end up seasteading.

    However, I won't deny that I still find some premises within it tricky: the very fact that one is still correlating geographical location with a system of interaction is a little frustrating. If we compare it to, say, the mobile phone sector where I can switch providers without having to move countries, this is clearly something we need to look at. Hence, the reason why I like the idea of online interfacing agencies, similar to price-comparison websites: it opens up a few more possibilities than just the basic "I like that system, so I'll move there".

    The Nationcrafting Blog is really here to discover the benefits and challenges of designing a system where there is such freedom, where every participant in a hive is a voluntary participant as a buyer or seller of goods and services. Nationcrafting is crafting a system of interaction between service providers and customers who are all engaging in free, non-coerced trade. All participants engage in it because they find value in it, better value than they would get from alternative options.

    Just out of interest, what makes you think there would be a "small space to person ratio"?