As this apocalyptic year limps towards its end with a final scream of new virus strains and Brexit chaos, we can’t but feel very suspicious of 2021. We are all dreaming of retuning to a more colourful and vibrant life, where hugging is not the irresponsible thing to do, but we are learning that the old normality took us where we are today and is no longer viable. For all the recent challenges to our personal lives, our societies, and our democracies, at a time when hope is probably naïve and pessimism certainly useless, can we roll up our sleeves and work together to re-imagine new futures, as we learn from the past to change the present? From the fight against systemic racism to the struggle to protect the environment and the renewed awareness of the importance of a strong welfare state, we can no longer wait for political elites to take the lead – things have to change now and the people are ushering in this change.
The PDD group has done its bit to keep citizen participation centre stage! In part out of necessity and in part carried away by the enthusiasm of a brand new team, we have really come of age online this year. Because we felt it was crucial to keep connected and alert, to reflect on the current multiple crises and their implications, we worked tirelessly to organise a series of events, starting with six webinars over the summer to share our members’ work and unlock new thinking. We put together an exciting programme featuring a rich blend of theoretical and empirical contributions on a range of themes, from institutional reform to the role of social movements in deepening democracy. The series concluded with the official launch of the Handbook of Democratic Innovation and Governance. The response was overwhelmingly positive with an average 50 people attending every webinar and a whopping 90 participants for the book launch. The silver lining of moving everything online was being able to reach out to people all over the world and beyond academia, and this vibrant mix sparked brilliant discussions.
At a time of crisis in Higher Education, with many early career researchers struggling to get work and funding for their research, we decided to invest most of our yearly budget in a picture contest on Re-imagining Democracy open to early career researchers only. The three winners, Anvi Pingali, Liam McLoughlin and Alexander Geisler, were selected by a jury that included Chantal Mouffe and Michael Saward and each received £150 in book vouchers. All the submissions are now part of our online art gallery, a beautiful and colourful addition to our website. These insightful pictures warn us “about the increasing power of digital forms of control, which represent a danger for democracy” (Chantal Mouffe on Liam’s picture); show us “the product of political hope and possibility” (Michael Saward on Anvi’s picture); and reimagine democracy “as a celebration of an egalitarian community” (PDD convenors on Alexander’s picture).
With social distancing making geographical distances meaningless, as everything is now online, 2020 was also an opportunity to strengthen collaboration with our colleagues across the channel, the ECPR’s Democratic Innovations group and the new APSA Democratic Innovations Related group. This collaboration resulted in three energising events on Democracy Rebooted: Classic concepts for contemporary Times, which brought together celebrated thinkers such as Donatella della Porta, Graham Smith and Jane Mansbridge and exciting early career scholars Azucena Moran, Shaina Almeida, Lala Muradova and Christopher Paul Harris. These conversations introduced new theoretical perspectives and injected fresh thinking into our debates, forcing us to challenge our assumptions on liberal democracy, which remains rooted in white privilege with inescapable consequences for democratic innovations’ inclusiveness and fairness. And we reflected on the opportunities opened by new social movements like Black Lives Matter to reframe issues and solutions.
So, this year was packed with new thinking and projects. As we face the new year with a chilling doubt that 2020 might have just been a trailer for 2021, we practice resistance with a number of new exciting events to keep upbeat and connected. Just a little peek into the coming year: a book launch event for Michael Saward’s forthcoming “Democratic Design” in February (stay tuned for more details on this soon), plus a new webinar series “Just Out” to discuss newly published articles by our members. Our eight panels for the 2021 PSA virtual conference on Resilience, Expertise and Hope (29th March- 31st March 2021) have all been accepted and once again we have a great and varied programme including work on embedding participatory governance, digital democracy, community engagement, critical democracy and protests, and participation in a pandemic. And let’s not forget that 2020 has also seen some outstanding and timely work published on participatory and deliberative democracy. To paraphrase JFK, great crises produce great deeds of courage – and great new thinking. Bring it on, 2021!