This story was originally published by The Guardian.
For a woman whose day-to-day work revolves around reimagining democracy for the digital era, Pia Mancini is pretty relaxed. On a windy day in San Francisco, where the Argentine political scientist is based, she Skypes me between meetings, her hair whipping across her face in the breeze.
The 33-year-old has worked for thinktanks, in public policy and on a range of political campaigns. But in recent years she has devoted her time to launching non-profit organisations and venture-backed collaborative projects that could change the way citizens engage with politics all over the world.
“There’s so much that is out of sync between the state, the government and the younger generation,” she says. “A huge divide exists between how we organise and communicate in our everyday lives, and how these old institutions expect us to interact with them.”
One of Mancini’s central projects, DemocracyOS, provides a platform for citizens to engage with politics away from those outdated structures. When a new piece of legislation is brought to congress in Argentina DemocracyOS is used to immediately translate and explain it in plain language. Citizens are also able to discuss and directly “vote” on these new bills using the site or desktop app.
Just two years after it was created, the platform is already being used by the federal government in Mexico to gather feedback on policy proposals, and by an NGO called iWatch to give voice to the Tunisian public in political decision-making.
Mancini and her fellow activists have gone one step further in Buenos Aires, however. In 2012 they founded a political party, the Net Party, whose goal is to elect representatives to congress who will vote in accordance with citizens’ wishes. Citizens can express their views via DemocracyOS and the Net Party politicians will act according to these. After running their first-ever candidate in the 2013 Buenos Aires local elections, they hope to elect their first representative to congress in the 2017 elections.
“Political institutions provide a lot of incentives – negative and positive – for us to interact with one another,” she tells me. “I knew that if I had a chance to work on that canvas, I would like to do it. For me, leaving that in the hands of someone else didn’t feel like a good idea.”
Argentina provided a rich political environment for Mancini to launch DemocracyOS. “I don’t think DemocracyOS would have come about in a setting like the UK or US, where things might be bad politically, but they’re more or less stable,” she says. “In Argentina, there are so many crises that people are happier to take risks on a new idea.”
As a young person with strong political opinions and knowledge, Mancini often finds herself defending her generation against accusations of apathy and disinterest towards democracy and politics. “If there’s something that we’re not as a generation, it’s apathetic,” she says. “We are not engaging with the current political systems, but that’s not the same thing. The avenues that political institutions propose for us to engage with are extremely poor.”
Dissatisfaction with how things function has been the motivation behind all of Mancini’s work so far. “We have a system where voting once every couple of years is the input that you give to politics. Or you have an alternative: come down to a public hearing – except it’s usually at 11am on a weekday, somewhere downtown,” she says. “Solving these problems is a matter of understanding that we don’t want or trust a system that [behaves] in the current way.”
Alongside her roles with DemocracyOS and the Net Party, Mancini is working on other projects to improve representation, transparency and accountability in politics, as well as to create opportunities for citizens to collaborate on projects in new ways.
The project that brought Mancini to California, Open Collective, allows groups who collect and spend money together to operate in full transparency, from collecting membership fees or donations to reimbursing expenses with one click. Anyone who contributes funds to the collective can view all of the group’s transactions at any time. Her newest project, Democracy.Earth, launched last month and centres on smart contract technology, computer protocols that automatically execute the terms of a contract and will allow decentralised governance of any organisation – from cities to corporations; student unions to football teams.
“What we’re doing is building a new set of institutions, or at least the scaffolding for new institutions to be built,” she says. “I think this is the challenge of our time – not only for my generation, but for all global citizens that know things can be done better.”