Thursday, January 17, 2008

Toward ademocratic society: inclusive dialog as a cultural movement

Manchester Metropolitan University, April 2-4, 2007

Richard K. Moore
Wexford, Ireland

This paper reports on, and theorizes about, a social movement with a rather unique and seemingly contradictory set of characteristics. It is ultimately a revolutionary movement, in that its anticipated outcome would be a total transformation of political and economic arrangements worldwide — yet, in its beginning stages, it is a movement with no stated platform, ideology, or strategy. As with any movement, there is an important role for activist initiators, yet those activists need have no vision of the movement beyond its initial stages. It is a movement that can be expected to develop considerable large-scale coherence, yet with no leadership cadre and no need to maintain overall agreement on objectives or strategy, at least not until its later stages. Although the movement ultimately threatens all existing centers of political and economic power, it has already begun and has generally been either ignored or received favorably by those authorities who have been aware of its activities. While it can be expected to meet eventually with strong establishment opposition, the movement promises to be resistant to known reactionary methods.

The anticipation of how this movement is likely to unfold is based on a particular vision of human nature and social dynamics, and on an appreciation of the power of certain forms of facilitated dialog. This vision and this appreciation are quite contrary to existing consensus reality, and that is why the movement’s characteristics appear to be contradictory, initial participants are unlikely to appreciate how the movement is likely to develop, and establishments are unlikely to take the movement seriously before it achieves considerable, and hopefully unstoppable, momentum.

The initial impetus for the movement arises from a wide-felt discomfort with how things are going in society, and from a wide-felt desire by people to have more control over their destinies. The ultimate outcome of the movement, as anticipated by the above-mentioned vision and appreciation, is the establishment of societies worldwide based on direct, participatory democracy. In some sense then, the outcome of the movement can already be suspected from its initial impetus. This thousand mile journey, however, is so seemingly out of proportion to its first step, that few can be expected to anticipate, or give credence to, the possibility of achieving the anticipated outcome.

An appendix to the paper presents an experimental framework for community democracy, bringing together the ideas of leading proponents of this transformational vision.

Underlying perspective: our problématique
We in the West are living within a self-perpetuating system whose basic paradigm is economic growth, defined in capitalist terms. The inherent wealth-concentration tendencies of this system have led to the emergence of elite establishments / clique-networks that dominate the affairs of governments, the political process, the media, the corporate world, finance, the intelligence services, etc.

We have certain trappings of democracy, but in fact the political process is totally incapable of dislodging these establishments, nor are these establishments in any way motivated to modify their paradigm of growth, not even in the face of global warming, environmental decline, mass starvation, or whatever other ‘glitches’ are sure to arise in their ever-more profitable system, as measured by the collective asset base of establishment entities. We need to keep in mind that for the predecessors of these establishments, even continental-scale genocide has been an accepted means of keeping the system expanding (e.g., America, Australia).

Our political systems are managed by a variety of techniques, such as all-the-same political parties, backer-beholden candidates, media-spun campaigns, lesser-of-evils logic, and even election fraud (e.g., Bush & Florida, Diebold voting machines). One of the most potent of these techniques is a divide-and-rule strategy: the encouragement of factional divisiveness. The more people can be divided into camps, the less chance there is that any kind of rebellious and unified grassroots voting block will emerge.

From this perspective, the prospects for many social movements are quite unpromising. They often play, unfortunately, right into the game of divisiveness. The more movements there are, and the more radical they seem, the better the establishments like it. And if a movement gets too strong, there are ways to create counter movements, e.g., by demonizing the original movement in appropriate channels. When women’s liberation groups grew ‘too strong’ in the U.S., they were confronted by a well-orchestrated and well-funded counter-movement based on stirring up the fundamentalist camp. This is a game in which establishments have had long experience and have developed effective practices. With our movements we too-often replay old matches, using game plans whose flaws were found out in generations past, but only the other side remembers.

Our problématique then has three parts. First, we have an imperative to dislodge these establishments from power, if we are to have any hope of avoiding passage through an apocalyptic collapse scenario. Second, we are confronted by the fact that most of our understood means of influencing public affairs are incapable of responding to this imperative. Finally, if ‘we’, whatever that means, found a way to effectively inject sanity into public affairs, how would we envision dealing with the challenges of shifting our system’s paradigm and creating sustainable societies?

This paper outlines a comprehensive response to this problématique. The response addresses the issue of divisiveness, envisions a transformative movement that can evade known counter-measures, suggests a way of releasing the creative energy required to re-create our societies, and gives meaning to the notion of ‘we the people’ as a coherent and sensible political actor.

The movement envisioned here turns out to be really a cultural movement rather than an agenda-oriented movement. We can see the spring shoots of this emerging movement in the third world, e.g., Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution, and we can see it beginning to take root among a nexus of researchers, practitioners, activists, and citizens concentrated along the Pacific coast, from the Bay Area up to British Columbia. Some call it a ‘deep democracy’ movement, and it is characterized by an emphasis on local empowerment and decision-making, the reaching of consensus through inclusive dialog, and the identification of primary common interests that transcend divisiveness.

I suggest that this kind of movement can be seen as a natural response to our problématique, a reflection that our deep psyches are beginning to understand what our situation requires, even while our ego brains are mostly confounded by our predicament. We of the postwar generation grew up having faith in our basic systems, as they seemed to serve us so well, and now even a child can see that those same systems are increasingly failing us, abandoning us, ignoring us. To whom can we turn for help? At a deep level we understand that help will not be forthcoming from the system or its institutions; it is up to us to do something. Instinctively, people are gravitating toward initiatives that can reify the notion of ‘us’, that can empower ordinary citizens to identify their collective interests and pursue them effectively together.

Dialog and harmonization: results in the microcosm
The state of the art is impressive, as regards the technology of group process and facilitated dialog. To most agenda-based movements this technology has not been of primary interest, apart from its role in internal operations (affinity groups, use of consensus, etc.). But for a movement oriented around collective empowerment, the technology of dialog is of central importance, as regards both means and ends. It is through dialog that ‘we’ can discover ‘us’, and it is through inclusive democratic dialog that we can hope to solve our problems together, in facing the challenges of our problématique. ‘Changing the way we talk to one another’ represents a transformation at the level of culture.

In the Appendix to this paper I describe in reasonable detail how some of this technology works, so here I will describe only the kind of outcomes that can be produced with an impressive degree of reliability, given that certain identifiable conditions are satisfied.

In particular, I would like to focus on the small-group context, involving up to about 16 participants. The identifiable conditions in this case are that the people in the group are faced by a common problem that they all feel urgency about, and would like to see solved. It is not a requirement that the people be in any sense like-minded, or that they share any agreement about how the problem might be approached. Indeed it turns out that diversity of viewpoints provides creative fuel to the dialog process.

Given these conditions, sufficient dedicated time together, and appropriate facilitation, certain kinds of results can be reliably expected to follow, flowing out of the nature of human dynamics. A certain amount of time will be spent in ‘venting’ and ‘expressing’, and the facilitator’s job is to help this to occur in such a way that it is ‘heard’ by the group, and that people understand that they have been heard. Eventually, and perhaps episodically, a transition occurs in the nature of the dialog, and in the consciousness the participants experience toward one another. As people are able to really ‘hear’ one another, they begin to accept one another’s concerns as being legitimate, and they begin to see their problem in a new way. Not only do they want to see the problem solved, but they also want to see it solved in a way that addresses everyone’s concerns. They spontaneously begin to collaborate, transcending their incoming differences, in a process I refer to as harmonization.

Most of us have probably experienced this kind of harmonized dialog, perhaps as part of a project team in our workplace. The work environment imposes focus on a shared goal — completing the project successfully — and it is relatively easy for team members to participate in an open, creative, problem-solving session around that shared goal.  When discussing contentious social issues, however, harmonization is much more difficult to achieve. As a result, people typically gather together with ‘like-minded’ folks if they intend to discuss such issues. Rather than resolving the issues, such discussions tend to reinforce social divisiveness.

When facilitation enables harmonization in a diverse group, around a difficult social issue, considerable latent creative energy is released. What were originally seen as ‘conflicting interests’ become instead ‘diverse viewpoints’, enriching the creative process rather than inhibiting it. Synergies are discovered among ideas that were seen to be opposed to one another, leading often to breakthrough solutions to seemingly impossible problems.

The experience of harmonization, following perceived divisiveness, leads to the release of emotional energy as well as creative energy. Not only do the participants collaborate effectively, but they also tend to experience an emotional bonding, a palpable sense of we, a feeling of collective empowerment. Not only that, but participants often generalize this sense of empowerment: “If our group is able to get beyond our differences and work together effectively, why couldn’t any group do the same?” Collective empowerment in the microcosm leads to a realization that collective empowerment in the larger society might be possible.

Dialog and harmonization: initiatives aimed at the macrocosm
It is important to keep in mind that harmonization typically becomes achievable only when our identifiable conditions are met. Dialog is unlikely to resolve conflicts between power-holders and those adversely affected by the exercise of that power. Consider, for example, a scenario where a wealthy and influential developer meets with a citizen’s group that is totally opposed to a development project being planned by the developer. In this meeting there is no shared problem, but rather two different problems. For the citizen’s group, the problem is ‘how to stop the project’; for the developer, the problem is ‘how to placate the protestors’. Dialog under such conditions is very unlikely to progress beyond adversarial debate, or manipulative negotiation.

Harmonization is therefore not a mechanism that can directly address the difference of interests that exist between our establishments and the people they govern, i.e., us ordinary people. What harmonization might be able to facilitate is the emergence of a shared consciousness among us ‘ordinary people’, a sense of ‘we’ that transcends existing social factionalism. In political terms this would be the equivalent of a supra-majority social movement, with the power of a decisive voting block, but organized around inclusiveness rather than a fixed agenda. This kind of inclusive ‘movement’ would be relatively immune to the kind of divide-and-rule tactics that establishments routinely deploy against agenda-based social movements.

Diverse initiatives have been undertaken by various activist groups and organizations aimed at promoting dialog among ‘ordinary people’, in an effort to undermine social divisiveness, and in some cases to encourage grassroots activism. Here is a representative list of such organizations with their URLs:

Study Circles Resource Center:

National Council for Dialog and Deliberation:

Conversation Cafes:

Open Space Technology:

Let’s Talk America:

Some initiatives, in addition to promoting dialog, emphasize the emergence of collective intelligence — based on the ability of dialog to facilitate deep listening and creative collaboration:

Collective Wisdom Initiative:

Co-Intelligence Institute:

A few initiatives are more in line with the kind of cultural movement that is the subject of this paper:

Center for Wise Democracy:

Wise Democracy Victoria:

These latter initiatives aim for more than simply reducing divisiveness or facilitating collective intelligence; they hope to achieve a significant transformation in the nature of the democratic process. They are seeking the kind of supra-majority consensus that this paper envisions, but they do not, apparently, hold a vision of a fundamentally more decentralized society. These initiatives are based on combining the principle of harmonization with the principle of the social microcosm. These principles are described in some detail in the Appendix. For now, I will summarize by saying that when a small random group of citizens (a social microcosm) engages in harmonized dialog, the proposals that they come up with are likely to find resonance in the larger society. If this process is repeated, and the general population is informed of the outcomes, there is hope that a general public consensus will begin to emerge, as regards identifying ‘the most important issues’ and how they might be approached.

Harmonization and localization: envisioning a global democratic society
My studies of history and current affairs have led me to the conclusion that democracy cannot be accomplished by means of elected representatives who are empowered to make decisions on behalf of their constituencies. Empirically, it is clear that ‘representative democracies’ have always managed public opinion, on behalf of establishment agendas, rather than responding to public will. And from a systems perspective, one can see that this is not surprising: competitive elections feed into factionalism, which in turn facilitates manipulation by elites. Furthermore, when public participation is limited primarily to periodic voting (for issues or candidates), there is no mechanism that enables ‘public will’ to come into existence. Even if an elected official wants to respond to ‘public will’, and many surely do, he or she has only a sea of diverse, and typically shallow, opinions to work from.

Real democracy is about the people themselves making the policy decisions for their society. In order for this to be possible, there need to be dialog processes in place that enable a ‘will of the people’ to come into existence. Harmonization-based dialog offers hope that this can be accomplished. But scale is important here. The larger the social unit, the more difficult it would be to achieve and maintain a coherent social consensus. Real democracy is most readily achievable at the local level, in a community — a small town or a section of a city.

Let us assume then, to pursue this hypothesis, that every community in the world is able to maintain a sense of ‘we the people’, an inclusive and coherent consensus regarding primary public policies. By ‘public policies’ I mean not only local community issues, but issues at all levels, up to and including global issues.

Given this assumption, and the Appendix attempts to show how the assumption might be fulfilled, it would make sense for primary sovereignty to be vested at the community level. If a community operates with a sound democratic process, inclusive of all community viewpoints, and if that process is able to bring out the ‘collective intelligence’ of the community, then why should that community not run its own affairs, without coercion from outside?

One can imagine exceptional circumstances, where a community becomes abhorrent in some way, and where some mechanism of outside intervention must come into play. I cannot go into detail here about such problems, but I will suggest that solutions can be found based on a response from neighboring communities, thus avoiding the need for a coercive central authority. I would also suggest that most forms of ‘community abhorrence’, e.g. exploitation or slavery, would be incompatible with an inclusive democratic process.

There are other reasons as well that speak in favor of local sovereignty. The literature on sustainability and sound economic practices, for example, points toward a local focus. The feedback loops are shortest if decisions are made locally, enabling close monitoring of policy performance, and rapid mid-course corrections. And people in a community have a natural mutual interest in improving the local quality of life, and in managing the community in a sustainable way.

My hypothesis, my ‘model of democracy’, is based on harmonization and local sovereignty. By means of harmonized dialog, each community runs its own affairs, and each community has a considered viewpoint about how larger-scale issues should be dealt with. We are then left with the problem of how to actually deal with larger scale issues. For this problem the model offers a fractal-based solution: we solve the problem at the regional level, and then apply the same structural formula to solve the problem at higher levels.

At the regional level, delegations from communities meet from time to time, using harmonization dialog, to work out proposals to deal with inter-community issues, projects, and operations. These proposals then need to be ratified by the individual communities before they can take effect. Iteration may be required. In this way everyone’s voice is heard at both the community and regional levels, and there is no need for any centralized policy-making institution at the regional level. Continuing fractally, regions send delegations to the next higher level, etc., with no centralized policy-making institutions at any level.

This has been a necessarily brief overview of a very complex subject. Much more would need to be said in order for the model to be fully exposed and available for serious consideration and critique. For anyone who might be interested in a fuller presentation, I refer them to my book, Escaping the Matrix: how We the People can Change the World, My purpose here has been to convey the main ideas of the democracy model, in order to better understand the motivation behind the movement model that is the main topic of this paper.

Community empowerment as a cultural movement
Community activism, awakening civic consciousness, and organizing for community improvement are of course widespread phenomena. Thousands of activist groups and organizations pursue such activities on a regular basis. The basic idea behind our cultural movement is to inject harmonization dialog into this already alive locus of activism. The Appendix is in fact a document aimed at this activist audience, arguing that enlightened dialog is a powerful tool they should consider using.

Already there are some communities in which this kind of activism is being pursued. In particular, in Victoria B.C. and Port Townsend Washington, the very kinds of dialog proposed in the Appendix form the basis of ‘wise democracy’ projects. The Appendix document is aimed at sowing the seeds of similar projects elsewhere. So far, however, no project has proceeded far enough to achieve ‘community awakening’ in a Western context. Nowhere has a community (apart from intentional communities) transcended its differences and achieved a sense of ‘we’, an inclusive consensus perspective. It may not even be possible to achieve such a goal, and thus the Appendix is called an experimental framework.

Consider, however, what it would be like if such a goal were to be achieved in some community. I suggest that we could expect a very strong sense of empowerment and purpose in such a community. The community would be able to act as a single voting block, which would mean that the official local government would soon become fully aligned with the community’s emerging consensus. Within the limits of its local authority, the community would be in a position to act, to implement its emerging vision.

Such developments would not go unnoticed by neighboring communities, or by community activists generally. The achievement would be recognized as a breakthrough model of community empowerment, and we could expect the experiment to be widely emulated elsewhere. With an existing model to point to, activists would have little trouble generating public support for, and participation in, similar endeavors. Thus a ‘community empowerment’ movement, based on harmonization dialog, could be expected to emerge spontaneously — once the first ‘awakened community’ comes into existence.

 Within the context of local politics, one might refer to this as a political movement. But it wouldn’t be a political movement as they are generally understood. Its focus would be local, and each community would be concerned with its own issues. There would be no movement-wide leadership, and no movement-wide agenda, apart from community empowerment itself. Consensus would be achieved regarding local issues, but not about national or global issues. Indeed, any early attempt to inject such issues into the movement would probably result in a failure to reach consensus. For this reason, the movement-as-a-whole would be a cultural movement rather than a political movement. Its main effect would be to create and spread a culture of dialog and mutual-benefit collaboration, within a rapidly growing number of awakened communities.

Toward a democratic society: the expansion of movement consciousness
As the movement grows, and begins to take in whole regions, the consciousness of the movement could be expected to expand beyond local community issues. We can look here at the precedent of the Populist Movement, which achieved considerable success in the U.S. toward the end of the 19th Century. This movement also began primarily around local, self-help issues, but as it captured territory it naturally expanded its political goals. It succeeded in electing governors of states and representatives to Congress. It finally failed because, though considerably inclusive, it was primarily agenda-oriented, and fell eventually into the quicksand of partisan politics.

As with the Populist movement, the community empowerment movement would ‘capture territory’, and would be able to elect fully aligned officials at all levels of government within that territory. This would be particularly significant in nations like the U.S. or Canada, where intermediate levels of government have considerable autonomy. As the movement is therefore able to ‘act’ with ever-expanding official authority, its ‘action aspirations’ would naturally expand. It would become concerned with regional issues, and eventually national and global issues. It would soon learn that the main obstacles to its further success are the establishments themselves, and the adversarial political system. At this point the movement could be expected to begin to see itself as a full-fledged ‘democracy movement’, a movement whose goal is the transformation of society and the elimination of elite hegemony. Unlike the Populist Movement, it would not be tempted to risk its survival by putting all its eggs in the basket of some particular policy agenda or election campaign.

Somewhere in this process, though probably not early on, the movement would obviously come under some kind of attack by establishments. What forms this might take are difficult to predict. However, the movement would be largely immune to many of the standard forms of reactionary response. Decapitation of leadership is impossible when there is no leadership structure; divide-and-rule is impractical with an inclusive movement that brings in all segments of society (apart from top elites); infiltration and agent-provacateurism are ineffective against a movement with no secrets and a fully open process; outright suppression tends to be counter-productive in the face of an inclusive mass movement. One form of reaction that can be expected is media demonization campaigns. If this comes early on, it would only draw undeserved attention to the movement and would therefore likely be counter-productive. If it comes later, its chances of success would be minimal, given the inclusive nature of the movement. Success can of course not be guaranteed, but the prospects for this kind of movement appear to be favorable.

As I have suggested, the characterization of this movement would change over time. It could be expected to naturally transform from a community empowerment / local-democracy movement into a society-democracy movement. From another perspective, it can be characterized, throughout its lifetime, as a ‘harmonization movement’. Thus it would be in the class of ‘cultural movements’, transforming the nature of our cultures from adversarial to collaborative.

An interesting aspect of this movement is that theory and ideology play no significant role. No one needs to buy into the ideas in this paper for the movement to unfold as I’ve outlined. It is only necessary, if this analysis has validity, for local activists to begin organizing appropriate dialog events in their communities. The rest follows by itself. The final outcome could be expected to resemble the kind of democratic society envisioned above, as that would be the very structure that the movement itself would gravitate toward as it develops. History shows that in revolutions, the means become the ends: the structure of the revolutionary movement tends to become the basis of the structure of the new society, regardless of the nature of the movement’s rhetoric.


An Experimental Framework for Community Democracy
5 March 2007

Richard K. Moore -

Author: Escaping the Matrix: how We the People can change the world

Latest version of this document online:

We've lived so long under the spell of hierarchy — from god-kings to feudal lords to party bosses — that only recently have we awakened to see not only that 'regular' citizens have the capacity for self-governance, but that without their engagement our huge global crises cannot be addressed. The changes needed for human society simply to survive, let alone thrive, are so profound that the only way we will move toward them is if we ourselves, regular citizens, feel meaningful ownership of solutions through direct engagement. Our problems are too big, interrelated, and pervasive to yield to directives from on high.
—  Frances Moore Lappé, “Time for Progressives to Grow Up”


There are many definitions of democracy, most of them based on elections and representation, and most of which do not result in governments doing what the people really want or need. This paper envisions a direct form of democracy, in which the people of a community decide together, on an inclusive basis, the major policies and programs of their community. It is quite reasonable to ask if this is possible, and if it is desirable: Is it possible for the people of a community to reach consensus decisions? If so, would their decisions be wise ones? And would people have the time to participate, given how busy everyone seems to be.

It would be foolhardy to claim outright that these questions can all be answered in the affirmative, and yet there is considerable reason to believe that this kind of direct democracy might be achievable — even when there are strong differences in the community. In the field of group process and facilitated dialog, there are proven methods that show remarkable results, as regards achieving agreement in very diverse groups and producing outcomes that are wise and sensible. There are even ways to solve the problem of available time!  Can these processes be used in a community setting so as to enable the emergence of a sensible ongoing community consensus regarding local agendas?

The purpose of this paper is to suggest an experimental framework for investigating this question directly, by applying these known methods in existing communities (towns or neighborhoods). The framework suggested here has been developed through discussions with some of the leading researchers and practitioners in this field. We have tried to select those dialog processes that show the most promise for community awakening.

This framework could be described as ‘fostering dialog in the community’, but that refers only to the tip of the iceberg. The kind of dialog we are talking about here goes quite a bit beyond ‘sharing ideas’, and ‘achieving mutual understanding’.  It is about going deeper, bringing out the most urgent concerns of the participants, and tapping their creative energies in addressing those concerns together. It is about awakening the collective wisdom inherent in a group, and facilitating the emergence of a sense of collective empowerment, a sense of We the People as an intelligent agency / actor in the community.

Most important, this kind of dialog is about inclusiveness. It is not about ‘bringing together the enlightened’ nor about ‘educating the unenlightened’. It turns out that everyone, regardless of their beliefs or philosophies, has a ‘piece of the puzzle’, a ‘part of the answer’. Our society encourages us to fear the ‘other’, and to think in terms of ‘us’ vs. ‘them’. But consider this: you don’t need to agree on religion to build a barn together. Similarly, agreement on worldviews is not needed to work together to create real community and to make it a better place to live. As in ecology, diversity adds strength and richness.

We’ve done our best in putting this framework together, but any real experiment will be breaking new ground, and we encourage any group pursuing such an initiative to remain open to whatever energy and direction emerges in their community as the experiment unfolds. Real democracy is not about a formula, but rather about the dynamic emergence of people’s participation in determining their own destinies together. This experimental framework is not meant to suggest the eventual form of that participation, but is intended rather to provide kindling to help ignite the emergence.

We hope this framework may offer new hope, and effective tools, to community activists and concerned citizens everywhere. We are all in this together, and it’s high time we begin working together from that consciousness.

The Primary Tools

“Choice-creating” dialog and Dynamic Facilitation (DF)
Jim Rough, of Port Townsend Washington, developed a very powerful method of facilitation while working as a consultant for corporate clients. He calls this method Dynamic Facilitation, and it is now being taught and practiced widely, in corporate settings, communities, activist groups, etc. The kind of dialog that occurs in a DF session is unique in its combination of benefits, and Jim has given it a special name, choice-creating dialog, to distinguish it from ‘deliberation’, ‘problem solving’, ‘consensus’, ‘debate’, etc.

Unlike many facilitation methods, which attempt to guide the conversation in certain ways, DF follows the spontaneous energy of the group. Rather than taking turns in any strict sense, the facilitator gives attention to whoever seems most in need of expressing themself at the moment. (Everyone does get their share of time eventually.) This process can seem very chaotic at times, and directionless, but at the end of the day following the energy turns out to be a very efficient way for the group to function. Efficiency, as measured by quality of outcomes per time invested, is one of the strong points of DF.

By paying attention to those who have an urgency to speak, people are encouraged to speak about what is most important to them, and to speak from their hearts. In this way the participants begin to see one another as fellow humans, rather than as just ‘speakers’, or as ‘allies’ or ‘foes’. Even where strong differences / polarization exists, people are able to get past that. Eventually, the perspective of the group shifts to a mode I refer to as harmonized dialog.  That is, the participants begin to see things this way: “We are all fellow human beings, and each of us has valid concerns that deserve to be considered. Our shared task is to seek solutions to our problems that take everyone’s concerns into account.”

It may take a while to get to this stage of harmonization, and there may be backsliding at times, but when the group is operating in this way it is capable of doing some very creative work. When people are not using their energy to defend their position or argue for their side, that energy is released to creatively address whatever problems are on the table. When everyone is focusing on the same problem, with the same understanding of the concerns involved, then their combined creative energy and ideas add up to something greater than the sum of the parts. New synergies are discovered; ideas that seemed opposed can be arranged into new combinations and reveal new possibilities. This is what Jim means by choice creation. The outcome is that breakthrough solutions are often discovered in DF sessions for problems that seemed ‘impossible’ to solve — either because they were technically difficult, or because they embodied long-standing community divisions. DF helps to overcome both kinds of difficulties.

When a group creates a solution together in this way, their support for the outcome is much stronger than with standard ‘consensus’. They don’t just agree on a solution, they are typically enthusiastic about what they have achieved together. Unanimity is not identified as a conscious goal, but emerges naturally from the dynamics of the collaborative process.

For more information about DF:

The principle of the social microcosm
The legitimacy of the traditional jury process is based on this principle. Twelve randomly selected citizens are intended to be a representative social microcosm of the whole community (peers). The assumption is that twelve is a large enough number to ensure that most of the significant sentiments and concerns present in the community will be present in the jury as well. The requirement of a unanimous verdict is intended to ensure that none of these sentiments and concerns are ignored in reaching the verdict. The hope is that the jury will reach the same verdict that the whole community would have reached, if everyone had time to consider the case in depth — and time to reach agreement. The jury, by the way, is the oldest institution in the Anglo-Saxon-Celtic democratic tradition, pre-dating the earliest parliaments. And twelve, as a ‘good microcosm size’, can be traced back to classical times.

Consider then what would happen if twelve random citizens from a community were to engage in a Dynamically Facilitated dialog session. As with the jury, we can reasonably assume that most of the sentiments and concerns of the community would be present in the group. As DF enables the group to begin to operate in a harmonized way, all of those concerns will be taken into account as the group seeks creative solutions to some self-selected community problem, a problem that has urgency for the group, and presumably for the community as a whole. If the group succeeds in finding an agreed solution to that urgent problem, we can reasonably assume that the solution would make sense to the community generally, and perhaps even be received with enthusiasm.

This principle of the social microcosm addresses the time problem involved in public dialog and self-governance. If microcosm groups are able to inject sound ideas into everyday dialog, that could greatly accelerate the emergence of a shared community perspective. It is much easier to make progress and reach agreement in discussions, of whatever kind or size, if there are some good ideas on the table. We anticipate that a positive feedback loop could be expected to develop, where good ideas from the microcosm spark community enthusiasm  & dialog in the macrocosm. This interaction between microcosm and macrocosm could then lead to a convergence of public understanding and agenda — an emergence of We the People consciousness in the community.

Whole-system dialog: Wisdom Councils
These considerations, about DF and microcosms, are what led Jim Rough to his remarkable invention, the Wisdom Council. Twelve (or a few more or less) citizens are selected at random and invited to participate in an extended DF session (a Council), typically 1-4 days in duration. Jim calls this whole system dialog, as the microcosm is dialoging on behalf of the whole system, the whole community.

If the Council event is publicized widely in the community, and its outcomes publicized — as called for in the Wisdom Council guidelines — that provides a channel for the good ideas to enter into everyday dialog. In addition, as part of the format, an open public gathering is convened following the Council session, where the participants tell their stories of their experiences in the session, and where the outcomes of the session are reported. The people are then invited to split up into breakout groups and discuss their responses to what they have seen.

Many Wisdom Councils have been convened, in different parts of the world, and the results have been very promising. Some participants have spontaneously chosen the phrase “We the People” to express the sense of collective empowerment they experienced. There is an emotional dimension to the experience, even a sense of personal transformation, and the enthusiasm revealed in the Council members’ reports tends to be contagious: the public gathering often gets enthusiastic about the potential of dialog, and tends to ‘get it’ about We the People consciousness. The public event serves as a channel into everyday dialog not only for the ideas generated, but also for the enthusiasm and sense of empowerment experienced.

So far, however, most of these Wisdom Councils have been one-off events. There has not yet been a series of Wisdom Councils in the same community, and no chance for a micro-macro feedback loop to develop. The core proposal of this experimental framework is to move forward with the Wisdom Council concept, and convene such a series, with due care given to informing the community and promoting the post-session public gatherings. Newspapers, public radio stations, kiosks, flyers — and websites — all can be used as channels into everyday dialog, depending on the size and nature of the community.

For more information on Wisdom Councils:

Distributed dialog: the circle process
I’ve mentioned whole-system dialog and everyday dialog, referring to what happens in a Wisdom Council, and what might happen around the breakfast table, or in a lunchroom or pub. But consider this: if enthusiasm begins to emerge in a community, around empowerment and dialog, people are not going to be content for the dialog to be carried on entirely by proxy (microcosm groups), or in informal chats. People are likely to want to get together with others, perhaps in their homes or in cafes, and participate personally in meaningful dialog around the emerging issues.

The circle process is a simple meeting format, not requiring a facilitator, that can deepen conversation, encourage listening, and minimize unproductive debate. A token, or talking stick, is passed around the room, giving each person a turn to talk each time the token goes around.  Whoever has the token speaks, and everyone else gives the speaker their full attention.

This process, though simple, may be difficult at first, as most of us are accustomed to chiming in whenever a response occurs to us regarding someone’s comment. It takes people a while to learn to still their minds and really listen. As people become comfortable with the process, a space of deep listening can be created. In this space, people begin sharing more deeply, from their hearts. When this happens the token can be set aside for a while, and people can speak when inspired to do so. If focus deteriorates, the token can be taken up again.

Another core proposal of this experimental framework is to encourage the creation of circle-process events in the community. Groups of people might meet together regularly, perhaps in their homes, or circle events might be scheduled in public places, open to whoever shows up. Neighborhood circles would make sense, as a way to build a sense of community at the neighborhood level. And here again the principle of inclusiveness applies: if a circle includes diversity, rather than just the like minded, it is more likely to contribute to the development of an inclusive sense of community, where everyone’s concerns are respected.

A more detailed discussion of circle groups and the circle process can be found on the co-intelligence website:

Supplementary tools

Open Space Technology (OS)

Open Space occupies a middle ground between whole-system dialog and distributed dialog. It is a way of enabling a large group of people to self-organize a conference, or a community gathering. Anyone can volunteer to host a breakout session on any topic they choose, and people then join whichever sessions they prefer. As with Wisdom Councils, the participants choose their own topics, but with OS any number of people can participate, and many topics can be pursued in parallel. OS could be used to create a democratically enlightened version of a town hall meeting, thus providing a very direct forum for participatory democracy.

In the standard OS format, the question of process is left up to each session host. We believe the effectiveness of OS might be enhanced by encouraging the use of the circle process in sessions, and by having facilitators on hand to help with more intensive sessions if invited to do so. Information about OS can be found on the web:

In order for an OS event to be effective in a community, there needs to be a large number of people in the community who are enthusiastic about participating. This is more likely to be achieved after some community convergence has been created by the Wisdom Council process and by whatever other dialog has been going on. When there is sufficient interest, OS can be a very effective way to accelerate the process of community convergence. As with Wisdom Councils, OS events are most successful when sufficient time is allocated, 3-5 days being optimal.

The investment of time required for Wisdom Councils and OS events might seem like a lot to ask, but that must be balanced against the kind of outcomes that can be expected. If long-standing community divisiveness can be overcome, and if chronic or acute problems can be addressed successfully, then the few days invested by the participants are negligible by comparison.

Other dialog processes
As stated earlier, this framework does not offer a fixed formula, but rather a starting point — kindling processes. As participation emerges in the community, we can expect process forms to evolve, and to be used in new ways. Besides those we have mentioned, there are many other processes that a community might want to adopt or adapt for various purposes. There are many kinds of facilitation and many formats in which they can be employed. A fairly comprehensive summary, with links to detailed information, can be found on the co-intelligence website:

Our Transformational Imperative
Let me begin with an excerpt from our opening quotation: “The changes needed for human society simply to survive, let alone thrive, are so profound that the only way we will move toward them is if we ourselves, regular citizens, feel meaningful ownership of solutions through direct engagement. Our problems are too big, interrelated, and pervasive to yield to directives from on high.”

It is not that the system has problems, rather the system itself is the problem. Consider for example two of the symptoms: global warming and environmental degradation. In order to do anything effective about these symptoms, the whole basis of our economy would need to be transformed. Perpetual ‘economic growth’, as a paradigm, can only be achieved by continuing with high rates of energy consumption and the further devastation of our life-support systems. And yet there is no way that our political leaders could abandon the growth paradigm. It is built into the way corporations work, financial institutions operate, employment is provided, etc. etc. Our ‘leaders’ wouldn’t know where to begin making real changes, even if they were able to think in such terms.

In the world of computer software, there comes a time when an operating system outlives its usefulness, and a new one must be written from the ground up. That is the situation we now find ourselves in as a global society. If the world is to be saved, we need to create a whole new basis for society — a new way of making decisions, a new way of addressing our problems, a new kind of economics, a new relationship to our environment.  This new basis cannot be achieved by reforming the current system; we need to rebuild from the bottom up, from the grassroots.

The achievement of democracy is not only about bringing power to the people, as opposed to wealthy elites. It is also about unleashing our collective creativity and resourcefulness so that we can begin the process of creating healthy societies. We the People are the only ones with the will and the capacity to undertake this necessary task. We have a responsibility to ourselves and future generations to address this task. Our first step is to find one another, to hear one another, to become a we, as a family is a we. Appropriate tools exist for coming together, and we need to begin learning how to use them.