Fall-Winter 2002-2003

The Rise of the Knowledge Democracy
by Andrew Cohill
Andrew Cohill
Technology should and must support human relationships.

Many rural and inner city communities face a situation in which reliance on traditional methods of community planning and decision-making have resulted in shrinking communities with a constant outflow of the young from the community--most never return. Despite overwhelming evidence that traditional economic development and educational methods are not working, these communities struggle mightily, continuing to rely on strategies that were appropriate forty years ago but no longer apply in a wired world and in an economy driven not by the geographic solidity of manufacturing but by the permeability and boundarylessness of information.

If we must accept the notion that everything around us is changing, where is the stability in our lives? What are the anchors in our lives? What is the bedrock that we can cling to in this storm of change?

In a world where change is a constant, the only things we can rely on are our relationships with others—our family, our friends, our neighbors, and the larger community of people with whom we live and work.

We dare not cede the future of our communities to the technologists—those who profit by selling technology. Technology has just one role that can be stated plainly and simply: Technology should and must support human relationships.

If we are going to use technology, then technology must make it easier for us to communicate with those with whom we have a relationship. This is the proper role of technology, in the classroom, in the family, in the workplace, and in the community.

But what has changed? The concept of the Knowledge Democracy involves three key points:

  • First, the acknowledgment that telecommunications and the rise of the Internet have permanently altered the way people acquire and use information. In the past, distribution of information about community issues and affairs was expensive and tedious. Information was often passed informally through the maintenance of human relationships in the community. Today, information is widely available from many sources, and human relationships are no longer needed to obtain information.
  • Second, a civil society trying to make decisions will be most effective when the process of finding the common good is regarded as a mutually interdependent effort in which the goal is to help all parties to the process succeed. This approach requires constant maintenance of relationships through mutual respect of the opinions of others, gained by speaking, listening, and understanding.
  • Third, the American model of democracy works best when approached as an ongoing set of conversations about issues, leading to a consensus within the community about the best course of action. These conversations are purposeful, parallel processes designed not just to talk about the issues but also to reach consensus on how the community should proceed. These processes are aimed at rebuilding trust by letting citizens participate fully in all aspects of deciding what to do about a key issue.

A community operating on the principles of the Knowledge Democracy will:

  • Make equitable use of information technology to encourage broad participation in conversations by as many individuals and organizations as possible. Information technology will also be used to gather, interpret, and disseminate widely all opinions and information about an issue, to those interested individuals and organizations.
  • Make a commitment to place the highest priority on human relationships, which are the basis of a healthy community. Participants in community discussions will agree to speak with care, to listen with respect, and to make every effort to understand the needs and wants of others (even if they disagree).
  • Make a commitment to seek consensus on issues and to respect the basic principles of representative democracy, rather than automatically resorting to litigation when outcomes reflect a consensus for the common good rather than self-serving wants.

There are numerous challenges that will affect communities over the next twenty to forty years.

Ownership and distribution of information

Who owns information? Who can distribute it? Does the malleability of pure data change ownership rights?

If technology changes more quickly than the courts and lawmakers can reasonably respond, who protects communities and consumers? Government regulation often provokes unintended and costly consequences. One alternative is for individuals and communities to intentionally develop and support open source software and hardware that places no artificial limits on how information is used.

The right to communicate as a basic principle of democracy

Companies that provide network access are often contractually restricting our rights to use the network to express ourselves.

Suppose a community is served primarily by a single Internet Service Provider (ISP) called BigNetworks, Inc. Using a community-sponsored online discussion forum, citizens and local leaders begin discussing plans to introduce competition in the community by encouraging a regional ISP to expand service into the area. Today, BigNetworks, with a few lines of software, could cut off access to that community online forum for all their customers in the community.

Privacy issues

The need for the privacy of personal information must be balanced against the need of the community for open communication.

A basic tenet of democracy is that we know the speaker. Before the rise of the Internet, most discussions were held in a physical place (the town hall meeting), where it was easy to recognize who was speaking. This recognition process is a powerful social incentive to be civil. Online, those social incentives are very weak, hence the common "flaming" where people write things online that they would never say in a face-to-face conversation.

Ownership of telecommunications infrastructure

Communities can ensure a sustainable future only by prudent investment in telecommunications infrastructure.

Often, a discussion about community-owned telecommunications tends to focus on wired vs. wireless, or copper vs. fiber, or more generally, about technology rather than service. Wired and wireless services already coexist seamlessly in the telephone world, and will do so as well in the Internet world. Rapid changes in technology mean that there is never a "right solution" or a "permanent" technology choice.

Changing relationship between government and citizens

The network and its ability to distribute information quickly and inexpensively creates a more equitable balance of power in the community.

Time is a precious commodity today, and many community members find it difficult to participate in community affairs simply because of the time involved. Internet services--email, mailing lists, Web sites, and discussion forums--offer new channels for distributing information and new ways of engaging people in the life of the community. But human-led processes are needed to ensure that discussions are fair and equitable, respectful of all, and to ensure that discussions actually lead to outcomes supported by a consensus of participants.

Leadership crisis

Where will the leaders of future come from? How will they learn to lead with respect and civility?

Leaders must be developed locally, from within the community, using locally-managed programs that provide appropriate opportunities for potential leaders to learn how to become effective process leaders. Nonprofit organizations are providing new sources of leaders to replace the now lost businesspeople. Youth programs crafted intentionally to provide leadership opportunities and training help ensure communities have a sustainable future.

Decision-making crisis

How communities make decisions affects not just the present but potentially reaches far into the future.

There are few issues in a community on which all will agree. In a civil society, the next best choice is to seek consensus. Consensus is developed by an active process of respectful speech, thoughtful listening, and a commitment to understanding the point of view of others (note that understanding someone is different from agreeing with them). Consensus is reached when all sides agree to respect a decision and to move on. This is best done intentionally, with a well-defined process, rather than leaving it to chance.


As individuals and as members of organizations and communities, our wealth and our abundance are rooted in our ability to tell our stories. Small business entrepreneurs have a story to tell. Neighborhoods trying to regain a sense of community have a story to tell. Senior citizens and second graders have a story to tell. Local government has a story to tell. The vision of the Knowledge Democracy should be to unleash the potential to have everyone in the community—regardless of who or what they are—possess the skills to tell their story without needing permission from someone else.

Dr. Andrew Michael Cohill is an information architect with an educational background in architecture, ergonomics, and computer science and is the Executive Director of the Knowledge Democracy Center which has a special focus on communities, technology, and local governance issues. He served as Director of the Blacksburg Electronic Village from its start in 1993 to May of 2002 and is past president of the Association for Community Networking. The author is deeply grateful to Rick Smyre, President of Communities of the Future, a national organization focused on helping communities create transformational change, with a special focus on consensus decision making, for his assistance and advice with this paper.

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