Towards Complex Governance Systems

Aug 13 · 7 min read


The DGOV community is growing in a unique context and moment of history. Awareness of our precarity as a species and the existence of real existential risks sits alongside massive, fast accelerating technological innovation.

In the words of E. O. Wilson:

“The real problem of humanity is the following: we have paleolithic emotions; medieval institutions; and god-like technology. And it is terrifically dangerous, and it is now approaching a point of crisis overall.”

While technological innovation speeds ahead, oftentimes faster than regulatory and reflective capacity, our governance mechanisms and institutional forms of organising lag woefully behind. We’re good at using agile and lean methodologies to iterate quickly on tech improvement and evolution, but our collective intelligence abilities and ability to make decisions in fast, collective, participatory and agile ways is primitive. Some good practices exist, but these are implementable at the local scale (max. for companies and organisations, and even these rarely) and difficult to scale.

New and innovative governance systems that are direct, participatory, scalable and complex have the potential to meet humanity to make better decisions and allow us to direct ourselves towards a better future.

Complex governance systems

We are humans designing for humans: “holons” of increasing complexity. A holon is a hybrid between a whole and a part, depending on the scale and system in view. This starts with one human, a multi-species complex coordinating community itself, and then humans within a group, with emerging collective intelligence. Then groups of groups which gives us the emerging phenomenon of society.

We design governance systems for complexity which are able to embody and harness the collective intelligence of its participants. We believe by embodying greater complexity in governance we can make better decisions, create governance systems with greater flexibility, better sense-making capabilities and the ability to self-evolve and adapt to changing conditions. A complex and distributed governance system will lead to better decisions than a system that is limited by the capabilities and intellect of a single human.

As E.O. Wilson highlights, our problem is not a lack of technological means. To embody and test out new governance mechanisms, we will need much more than good mechanism and incentive design for voting systems. Building out new complex governance capacities will require work on the level of the practices and patterns we learn to use in different contexts. It takes practicing new forms of decision-making, building new muscle in the way we interact, and creating platforms that are designed for this new form of interaction.

Our hypothesis is that to design complex governance systems, we need to bring together participants of the system in ways that allow for emergence, therefore start with the existence of agents with a high level of sovereignty and diversity. On top of that, to execute effective experiments in innovative governance, we need investment in human trust and a social field which enables distributed governance, shared power and experiments to flourish.

Mimicking a living system, the complex governance system would embody self-healing properties and evolutionary capabilities, meaning that the participants of the system are able to continually engage in experimentation and improvement of the system itself.

DGOV is a community of practice for distributed governance

The DGOV Foundation and associated community exists in order to further the field of innovation in governance. Governance that is distributed, participatory, complex and might be enabled by technology in order to scale.

Focus topics of our current inquiry

  • Complex systems and how they relate to governance
  • Methods of embodying complexity and harnessing collective intelligence
  • Diversity and coherence in groups
  • Viable systems design and systems literacy
  • Self-governance and self-actualisation for increased sovereignty
  • Historical governance experiments
  • Indigenous governance
  • Eastern philosophy / governance e.g. Buddhist Sangha governance
  • Other relevant historical examples
  • Underlying technology for scalability (conceptual not tech focus)
  • DGOV Community Infrastructure “DGOV Seed DAO”

Interdisciplinary community

Since our focus is on designing complex systems, we want to bring many representations of different fields together. For this reason we will be curating for diversity. Please tell us which perspective and background you bring into the DGOV community. This can be professional, personal, or any relevant experiences, worldview or work you bring to this topic. We acknowledge our blindspots and limitations in bringing together a maximum diverse group, and it is something we are working on and towards.

Some of the qualities we encourage in participants are listed below.

  • Global citizens, people with a holistic, global and historical perspective.
  • Complex system thinkers who want to learn new tools to build greater self-sovereignty and empower others to do this too.
  • Appreciate the benefits of technology, but put “culture first, technology second”.
  • Those who are self-improving, self-aware and curious. This means acknowledging limitations in possible blindspots and have the ability to engage in meaningful, respectful debate, strive to live up to their ideals and hold each other accountable.
  • Acknowledging history, cultural context and ancient wisdom regarding governance mechanisms, community building, social technologies and others — the paths that led us here.

How decentralised is DGOV as an organisation?

DGOV currently consists of a growing global community and a dedicated core team of organisers and thought leaders who are stewards of the community. There is a centralised core stewarding the decentralised community. The centralised core is responsible for documentation, keeping operational systems working, curating the community newsletter, moderating the community Telegram group, forum, and creating infrastructure and events for the community to meet and deepen their relationships.

The DGOV Core Team

The DGOV core is also responsible for fundraising to support these functions and start to build out the DGOV Fund that will be collectively stewarded by the community in the form of a DAO (Decentralised Autonomous Organisation). This is the current edge of our thinking and this will keep evolving with input from the community at open strategy sessions where the community is invited to input.

DGOV Local Chapters

The decentralised community can set up its own DGOV local chapters, and run independent DGOV events. Technically, anyone can set up and run a DGOV local event without consulting the core team, but so far this has always been done with support from the core team (publicity, support with graphics, advice on facilitation). Community members have run their own DGOV meetups in seven independent locations around the world since January 2019.

Community members at the kick-off DGOV “Council” in January in a fishbowl participatory format discussion.

Ongoing list of resources

This is an ongoing list of resources we are drawing from and we invite you to add your content to our wiki page.

You are invited…

The DGOV community is an open community with a permeable membrane. It’s very much an “opt-in” community — the more you give, the more you will get. We have some community guidelines which help us steward a community space which is healthy, constructive, respectful and curious. On joining, you will be introduced to these and added to our respective communication channels.

>>>>>>To join us, please sign up using this form<<<<<<<

January 2019 DGOV Council

You will automatically be added to our community chat on Telegram, have access to participate in our forum, and subscribe to our monthly community updates and newsletter which shares the best articles, papers and videos on distributed governance.

You can also access our open source community Wiki page, maintained by Max, which we keep up to date on documentation. We use a “default to open” policy; even our weekly tactical meeting notes are published publicly!

If this article resonated for you and you want to find out more, please reach out at, or @phoebetickell on Telegram.

This Context Paper was written in the context of my work in the DGOV Foundation where we are developing a community and interdisciplinary network that prototypes, researches and develops cross-sector collaborations that strengthen the field of participatory, complex, distributed governance (“DGOV”).

It provides a first insight into how we perceive complex governance system creation, why we need to create more, what are the topics we want to highlight around this and who we want to bring together to achieve diversity and multidisciplinary discourse for our growing DGOV community.

I am grateful to my collaborators Max Semenchuk, Tim Bansemer, Anja Blaj, Ela Kagel for their continued dedication and work on the DGOV project, and their help in developing this paper.

Photo credit: Banner photo of desert rose by Yousef Espanioly, from Google Unsplash.

Phoebe Tickell

Written by

Genetic engineer turned decentralized network evangelist. Member at #Enspiral. Fellow at #NewspeakHouse. Cofounder #FutureFarmLab and #TechForHumanity.

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