On Utopia for Public Action

(French version on Le Monde: « Une expérience pionnière de démocratie numérique » à Taïwan)

I’m honored to attend the 15e édition des Rencontres Internationales de la Gestion Publique to share a few stories from Taiwan, an island with 23 million people.

Today, May 20, is the first day in office for our new president, Dr. Tsai Ing-Wen. From the January election till May, the transition of administration power took four months. It was remarkably civilized and free of partisan fights because the outgoing Premier, Simon Chang, was a Google engineer with no party affiliation, known for raising Taiwan to the #1 spot on the OKFN global open data index.

His successor, the current Premier — Lin Chuan, an economist — is also independent; they agreed on a transparent transfer of power, with materials from all ministries published online.

How did we overcome decades of two-party politics?

It all began in March 2014, when students in the Sunflower movement occupied the parliament for 22 days.

At that time, the Taiwan parliament considered trade agreements with Beijing as a domestic affair, and refused to discuss it like other international agreements — so the occupiers took over congress halls and demonstrated their own deliberation process.

During the movement, hundreds of g0v (gov-zero) hacktivists built real-time ICT systems for coordinating supplies, live-streaming, transcription, and translation — broadcasting the demonstration to half a million people on the street and millions more online.

Why are there so many civic hackers in Taiwan volunteering to work on democracy?

I think it’s because our generation is the first to speak out freely — free speech was banned for 40 years during Martial Law under the Chiang dictatorship.

The year 1988 brought freedom of the press and personal computers.
The year 1996 brought the first presidential election and dot-com websites. 
Internet and democracy evolved together, spread together, and integrated with each other.

So when we write free software — free, as in freedom — we always consider its social impact; I’m very happy to see la commission numérique in Nuit Debout adopting various tools we worked on during the Sunflower movement.

By the end of 2014, city-level elections brought many occupiers into municipal governments, and the national administration also worked with civic hackers to reinvent policymaking. Our first major task was a virtual epidemic that paralyzed many governments across the globe: Uber.

Uber is not just one company. It’s the host of a spreading meme, a virus of the mind known as “sharing economy”. Governments couldn’t do much about it; the Paris city may shut down its local office, but the app just keeps running.

In 2014, Taipei city’s Taxi drivers surrounded the ministry of transport in protest, demanding negotiation.

But memes are like biological virus: How can we sit down and negotiate with an epidemic?

Jaclyn Tsai, the Minister of cyberspace affairs, wanted a discussion that involves all stakeholders. Taiwan doesn’t have a commission nationale du débat public, so the Minister joined forces with g០v hacktivists to create a deliberative process.

Deliberation, thinking deeply about something together, is an effective vaccine against virus of the mind. Assisted by an AI faciliation system, everyone — passengers and drivers, academics and public servants — talked with each other and formed a consensus; we became immune to PR campaigns in the future.

On May 23, the Administration ratified all our consensus items.

Cases like Uber, Airbnb and Crowdfunding laws are just the beginning. For city-based local deliberations, we are moving on to deploy 3D modeling, data visualization and virtual reality to bring citizens into the same space, crossing gaps in space and time. The goal is to make it enjoyable to participate in the deliberative process — like watching and acting in a 3D IMAX movie.

We are reinventing democracy in Taiwan. I look forward to exchange ideas with other pioneers of the future at the RIGP symposium — appropriately themed les futurs démocratiques, économiques et numériques de l’Etat.

(Next in the series: On Resolving Singularities)