What will global governance look like in the future? How are we going to organize ourselves? Westphalian sovereignty was a terrific concept when it drew to an end a hundred years of religious war and bloodshed in Europe. But it is no longer a fully sustainable idea.
The litany of the ways the nation-state is under assault is familiar: Globalized economics, finance, supply chains and communications limit states’ control over their borders. Disease, climate related threats and ideas of all sorts cross borders with impunity. The private sector and the super rich set agendas and have control over some of our public goods, especially information.
To make matters more complicated, while our global challenges demand greater trust and cooperation across borders and between different kinds of actors, power is devolving to the level of a single individual, creating many more actors whose trust and cooperation is required. If I can do genetic experimentation in my basement, communicate with the world within seconds via social media, and manufacture locally what I used to have to purchase, it is not too much of an exaggeration to say I become a small state unto myself, capable of wielding threats and creating possibilities on a scale that has until recently been difficult to imagine.
Six emerging governance models
But what of the nation-state in the meantime? Much public discourse in the last year makes it seem as if there is a real argument to be had about whether states will disappear into a blur of globalized mush or whether the liberal international order of nation-states working together in orderly cooperation can be made to reign again.
This is a false argument. That order, which actually only lasted from about 1950-1990, was the product of specific historical and technological circumstances. Those circumstances were almost immediately undermined by the seedling forces of technology and politics that are now in full maturity–the Internet, advances in transport, the US civil rights movement and versions of the same around the world, and the opening of world markets to what were in the 1970s called MNCs, or multinational corporations, among other forces.
But while we talk, the world system has been dynamically evolving and experimenting in various ways with new forms of order. I’ve created a list of six here. Some are international, one is organizational, but all are innovations in governance.
They aren’t utopias, but rather bring into being new kinds of promise and new forms of challenge to the human quest for autonomy, freedom and peace.
You’ll see that they share four characteristics: A reliance on new technologies, networked forms of organization, multiple layers of governance and distributed authority.
In view of these similarities, it would seem that we are probably already on the road to new ways of governing ourselves on a global scale. The only question is whether we kick and scream our way into them, or seek to accept change and explore how we can create better forms of human order.
1. Devolved states
The idea that some state responsibilities are best carried out at the local level is hardly new. The United States has always held states’ rights in high regard and devolution of power to states and localities is part of the national system. This may be especially true of multicultural states (A recent article in The New Scientist discusses this, but a subscription is required to see the whole article). Researchers at the New England Complex Systems Institute have used complex systems science to show that either total integration or separation within a particular geographic area helps keep people peaceful. Switzerland, which has four ethnolinguistic groups, is considered a model peaceful country. NECSI says that, It is not necessary to create separate countries; groups with boundaries that delineate local autonomy will live peacefully together.
Countries with a history of ethnic violence from Bolivia to Togo are experimenting with devolution as a formal route to stabilizing governance.
2. City governance
One of the most vocal responses to US President Trump’s announcement in early June that the United States would not participate in the Paris Accord on Climate Change was by the United States Conference of Mayors, the official non-partisan organization of American cities of more than 30,000 people. What is notable is that a domestic body, such as the Conference comments not only on domestic issues, but on global and international affairs, such as climate change and on the terrorist attack in London (In response to that event, the Mayors issued a statement in support of London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s leadership).
The role of city leaders in global affairs can be expected to grow. As of 2015, 54% of the world’s population lived in urban areas, according to the 2016 UN Habitat World Cities report and that percentage is likely to increase to 66% by 2050. Resource pressures on cities will rise, as will their importance setting agendas to increase their revenue and provide more services. As a result, city leaders will play an increasingly prominent role governing a larger part of the world’s population and forging relationships with other administrative units, whether cities or states, whether to collaborate or compete.
3. The open sector
Public-private partnerships are frequently upheld as a reasonable way for an under-resourced public sector to continue providing public goods. In PPPs, the private sector assumes financial risk in exchange for a profit from long term projects such as infrastructure. Yet these cannot be a permanent solution. At the concrete level, government officials can be naive about the degree to which private sector actors are agents with agendas and goals of their own (and reasonably so), and private business in its current formulation cannot be held accountable to the public. The larger point to be made is that the “public” and “private” sectors may themselves be in transition to something new.
One form of that new could be the “open sector,” an emerging set of ideas about governance grounded in the values of open source software development. John Clippinger, CEO and Executive Director of ID3 and a research scientist at the MIT Media Lab, offers foundational thoughts about what this could look like in a recent interview with Robert Wolcott, Executive Director of the Kellogg Innovation Network. There have always been communities in which there is no central authority and order emerges out shared basic principles over time (in fact, this could easily describe how states first evolved). Clippinger uses the example of Burning Man, a self-described community that has grown organically since 1986 into an annual participatory event of 70,000 people at which people build art installations, generate civic activities and find spiritual community. New technologies, such as the distributed digital ledger system blockchain and mobile phones, have made it possible for people to develop decentralized forms of governance in a way that may be more scalable and permanent than an annual event.
There were no sovereign states in the medieval world. Instead, there were different authorities, from the Pope to feudal kings and lords who all claimed sovereign power over different geographical areas and the lives of the people that lived in them. The idea that a fragmented, multi-layered order could rise again in the contemporary world was first proposed in the 1960s. In the late 1970s, international relations theorist Hedley Bull noted that some elements of such overlapping authorities already existed in the form of supranational organizations, such as the UN and NGOs.
In the last decade, people thinking about the next world order have turned repeatedly to the potential of a new-medievalism framework, which could offer an accurate perspective to think through both the challenges and the opportunities of a world characterized by multiple forms of decentralized power, and in which individuals have various forms of loyalty and identity.
5. Holacracy and other self-management systems
Originated by Brian Robertson in the early 2000s, Holacracy is a set of organizational principles and working practices based in part on emerging wisdom about efficient software development, such as the lean and agile movements. Unlike the other items in this list, this segment is about the organization of individuals, not systems of individuals. But it shows how the smaller units of a larger system could organize—how the people in a town or village or corporation could generate policies and products.
Holacracy has four core principles designed to help solve governance problems that arise in both bureaucracies and completely flat organizations. It is offered as “a third-way [that] brings structure and discipline to a peer-to-peer workplace. Rather than job descriptions, people have roles, sometimes more than one. Holacracies distribute authority across small teams and transparent rules, rather than the delegated authority and implicit rules of big bureaucracies.
Prominent real-life examples of holacracy include the online shoe company Zappos and the content publishing platform Medium. Reports of their experiences suggest that holocracy can be extremely challenging to implement, but also that the basic philosophy is sound. Medium has announced a new governance model that builds on holacracy. And new versions of distributed governance and self management continue to arise, for example at General Electric.
6. Networked governance
In a network, webs of interconnected individuals and organizations connect to each other as nodes through which information and knowledge flow, ultimately creating a collectively more intelligent system. Although some nodes are more powerful or connected than others, the system as a whole is intrinsically decentralized.
Developers of the internet and digital technology were among the first to think deeply about networks as an organizational principle at the end of the last century, especially as that technology empowered individuals, enabling them to become parts of interconnected social networks for the first time. In the military and international affairs, theorists such as John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt recognized that both social protest movements and illicit groups such as drug cartels and terrorist groups can leverage network formations to their advantage. This led them to coin the idea that “it takes a network to fight a network,” which put the onus on formal government and military organizations to understand how to develop networks.
The possibility that networks may do the work of governments has since had many expressions, and been written about extensively. In her 2005 book, A New World Order, prominent political theorist Anne-Marie Slaughter asks us to imagine that “sovereignty itself could be disaggregated, that it attached to specific government institutions such as courts, regulatory agencies, and legislators or legislative committees.” Among other benefits, this could mean that states that we typically think of as failing or “developing” would be able to reach out from and be reached at levels below those of the central state government. Resources education or goods or legal expertise could bypass collapsed or corrupt bureaucracies to flow in at local levels. In a new book, Slaughter offers that the traditional state based international order must make room for a “people-based order” premised on openness: of government, of society and of the international system.