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Blog: Iceland and Democracy 2.0

Iceland and Democracy 2.0

 

In 2007, before the infamous financial crackdown hit the the country’s economy almost overnight, Iceland was ranked 1st on the United Nations’ Human Development Index. Unemployment was at 1%, energy was mostly green, and the banks – deregulated at the dawn of the new millennium – were making people richer than ever. A year later, the same banks that had been growing exponentially in the previous years were crushed under foreign debt, which led to unprecedented economic recession, currency devaluation, and dramatic drops in the Icelandic stock exchange.

Citizens took the streets, eventually forcing the right-wing government to resign, and replaced it with a new left-leaning one, in April 2009. It wasn’t enough, though. Through more protests and referendums, the Icelandic keep refusing to pay the debts contracted by their bankers – many of which were arrested – from the Netherlands and the UK.

If such tensions with foreign economies might go on for some time, it seems investors are faithful and the small country will get back on its feet. The fishermen converted to banking businessmen will get back on their boats, and life will go on. There are some other radical changes worth discussing, though.

The economic crisis has hit other countries since, but the reason why Iceland is still in the media (some of them, at least) is its 300,000 inhabitants seem quite convinced they don’t want to repeat the same mistakes. Many have been stressing the need for a new constitution since the crackdown hit, but now the writing of a new one is finally in the works. And, to everyone’s surprise, people are actually taking part in the process and creating what has been called “Democracy 2.0.”

After months of work and a continuous exchange of ideas with the Icelandic via Internet (Facebook, YouTube, Flickr), a Constitutional Council of 25 delegate citizens has finalized the first bill for the new constitution and handed it to the government. The document was the result of a tight collaboration with the population and is thus the first example of a “crowd-sourced” constitution. The importance of transparency, open data, and popular vote is of course one of the document’s main structural highlights. According to the bill 10% of the electorate can demand a national referendum on laws passed by Althingi and 2% of the electorate can produce a legislative proposal to Althingi. Also, the bill assumes that, from now on, changes to the constitution will be submitted to a vote by all who are eligible to vote in Iceland, for either approval or rejection. You can read everything about the process above on the official Stjornlagarad website.

Other countries have a few lessons to learn from Iceland’s so-called “Democracy 2.0”. First of all, that the right socio-political conditions can put social networks to their best use: an unprecedented experiment in direct democracy, powered by open data. It helps that the Icelandic are so few and used to live comfortably, so the sudden bump was a good motivation to react. Plus, the manageable size of the population allowed actions to be fast and coordinated.

My guess is Iceland will be fine – after a long and difficult recovery – and they will set a positive example, but the format might encounter some difficulties if exported elsewhere. First of all, it’s unlikely most governments would allow radical changes to their constitution before they hit financial rock bottom, like Iceland did. Second, citizens need to be educated to participation and open data might not be enough to involve the majority of the population in other cultural contexts.

We won’t have to wait too long to judge the concept’s success though. Stanford University has recently launched a website for Egyptians to comment on their new constitution as well, but a website is just the first step. In Morocco a private initiative has also created a crowd-sourcing platform, whose success affected the actual constitution committee and their draft.

In these cases the process has not been directly implemented by the authorities, so a few questions remain. Who is going to aggregate the comments, and how? Will specific platforms give way to a sort of tech-savvy editorial elite, as it has arguably happened with Wikipedia? The road to transparency might be shorter than that towards participation.