Shout out to all our friends at Blue Mountain Forest Partners!
Summary: In December 2023 More in Common and the SNF Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins University published a new report that aims to re-invigorate discussion about a paradigm that long served to strengthen democracy, but which has fallen out of fashion the past several decades. “Collective Settings” describes how, by investing in the design and distribution of civic infrastructure, communities cultivate the capabilities of their residents to work across lines of difference to solve public problems.
What are Collective Settings?
The new report, “Searching for a New Paradigm: Collective Settings,” makes the case for reinvigorating civic infrastructure as a complement to existing institutional reform and bridge-building efforts. Critically, we find that to build a more robust and vibrant democracy, Americans need more experiences where they engage directly with others to address public problems. This happens through collective settings, organizations and spaces designed to bring people to the table and enable them to hash out problems together.
These settings are what Alexis de Tocqueville described as “schools of democracy” and have been a prominent feature of the American landscape throughout history.
Think about neighbors coming together to build a new park, co-manage shared resources, or deliver aid during crises. While these sorts of activities often appear to happen almost spontaneously, we argue that where they are successful, they are the product of well-designed and developed civic infrastructure: collective settings.
The report emerged from several years’ worth of convenings, research, and analysis of existing paradigms for how to strengthen democracy. As part of the project, scholar Isak Tranvik produced an essay that lays out the important features that healthy collective settings demonstrate.
Similarly, for this project, scholar Emily B. Campbell conducted a series of case studies to describe how collective settings play out relative to democracy paradigms rooted at the behavioral or institutional level. They feature:
- Electoral reform (institutional) in Alaska
- The behavioral interventions of Braver Angels of Central Texas
- The collective settings of Blue Mountain Forest Partners in Oregon
Emily’s work demonstrates the ways these three paradigms—behavioral, collective settings, and institutional—complement one another while pursuing distinct strategies and approaches.
The intent of the report is not to highlight flaws in existing efforts to improve democracy, but to show that much greater attention needs to be placed on collective settings.
Collective settings, we argue, are where Americans build the skills, habits, and dispositions necessary to successfully navigate an unknowable future together, in ways that preserve and strengthen democratic norms and institutions.
As we write in the report, “By investing in collective settings, we hope to develop the muscles for democracy that people and communities will need to seek, identify, and implement shared solutions that do not accept the world as it is but instead create the world they need.”
We include in the report the following recommendations.
For Researchers: We need much more (widely disseminated) research to help us better understand multiple themes.
- Distribution gaps: Where do well-designed collective settings exist, or not? How are they distributed across off-line and online settings?
- Design features: What are the design features that influence whether collective settings cultivate healthy democratic capabilities?
- Return on investment: What measures can we use to examine the impacts of collective settings? What measurement and evaluation frameworks enable philanthropists and practitioners to maintain rigor even when designing for uncertainty?
For Philanthropy: Collective settings need both funding and philanthropic organizing.
- Address distribution concerns: New funding opportunities can invest in creating well-designed collective settings in areas where such settings are rare or absent.
- Shift incentives to emphasize designing for contingency: Funding opportunities can emphasize metrics that focus on the cultivation of dynamic democratic capabilities at both the individual and organizational levels.
- Empower learning: Resourcing the connective tissue between research and practice, and cultivating fellowships and other human networks to share lessons learned, can strengthen the field.
- Nurture the philanthropic community: Funding communities organized vertically (bringing local, state, and national funders together) and horizontally (across ideological, geographic, demographic, and issue-based difference) can coordinate resources and mitigate against unnecessary politicization.
For Civil Society, Business, and Government: Civil society leaders can cultivate collective settings in their work and communities. Likewise, the state and markets each play a crucial role in creating settings (like the workplace) where people interact with each other. All three sectors impact the design and distribution of settings.
- Invest in design: Thinking intentionally about the design features of self-governing communities (governance practices, accountability, learning systems) can make collective settings more likely.
- Consider distribution: Local and regional groups across civil society, business, and government can consider working together to identify and fill gaps in access to well-designed collective settings.