Imagine a House of Citizens filled with a representatively selected jury of people who aren’t professional politicians, informed by the best expertise, sat atop government alongside the two Houses of Parliament (the Commons and Lords). This House would not be beholden to any manifesto or particular ideology, but steered by thousands of ongoing conversations around the country - inclusively, deliberatively, collectively making long term policy decisions based on the things we can all agree on. Sounds pretty far out right? Well that’s the plan for Humanity Project…
It’s a bright Wednesday afternoon in September when a motley group of artists, activists and seventy or so curious humans join a Zoom call.
Lined up to present were none other than musician-composer and British cultural titan Brian Eno, plus Lee Jasper (a former Senior Political Adviser to Mayor of London Ken Livingstone and member of Blaksox), Jamie Kelsey-Fry (secondary school teacher and ‘real’ democracy maverick), a group of Yale University politics researchers showing a ‘Constitution for the planet Mars’, and Extinction Rebellion Co-Founders Clare Farrell and Roger Hallam.
In the crowd attendees from Nottingham to Cornwall listen along excitedly, the chat box alive with messages, surprise speakers pop up from parallel international efforts. The topic? Back to that later.
This story is, first and foremost, about a local conversation. One amongst hundreds of such self-organised happenings across the country which centre on diverse topics that really matter to people. Thousands of these have already taken place around the world, and they aren't all that new, with their roots going back to at least 621 BC Athens.
As part of the thirtieth Nottingham Green Festival on Sunday 10 September 2023, the public were invited to a ‘participatory democracy’ experience in the form of a Popular Assembly (or ‘Pop’ for short). Hosted by the volunteer-led Nottingham Climate Assembly, and five of us (mixed age, ethnicity, and gender) from Pop Notts, helped by facilitating the Pop.
The Pop was set in this Green Festival’s ‘Knowledge Garden’, where a variety of talks, stands, food and activities set up by local community groups were freely offered to whoever of the 5,000 or so guests passed by. Forty locals took part covering many ages and backgrounds, with friend of LeftLion Rikki Marr creating live illustrations of the discussion on a 6x4 foot canvas. On this hot and muggy day, refreshments and cooling watermelon was supplied to help create a convivial atmosphere and keep everyone cool.
As facilitator, it was up to me to encourage people to commit to the principles of the conversation, help everyone feel confident in opening up, establish boundaries, and set the mood; “This is not a talking shop - this talk will be followed by action and publicity… It’s about listening, actively and caringly, and all being heard equally… Speak for no more than two minutes at a time”. The question was on breaking down barriers and getting our communities involved in 2024’s planned Nottingham Climate Assembly
The two guest speakers were given a brusk five minutes each to speak to the crowd; City Council Leader David Mellen explained his view of why the assembly - and a wide variety of participants from across city communities - was needed, while Nottingham Climate Assembly's Julian Marsh explained how the assembly would work.
Then for a gloriously animated 45 minutes breakout groups of about eight people formed, and in the remaining fifteen minutes we came back together as a whole room to decide the three best ideas. I’ll tell you what those final three recommendations were later - because we need to go back to Brian Eno and co, and what we were up to on that Zoom call.
By humanity, for humanity
This ship on which my great hopes for the future have been sailing lately, and what our Pop Notts group forms the local end of, is Humanity Project...
It’s hard to fully explain Humanity Project in a short article whilst keeping things human, but think of it as a dynamo for democratic renewal; a multi-pronged ecosystem approach to upgrading our system, bringing together some of the most successful movement builders of recent decades.
As the name suggests, the project puts humans, and the care that we all hold for each other, at the centre of a whole new way of doing politics - at least, new to most of us in the Global North in recent history. And the most basic element of this model is exactly the sort of Popular Assembly we’re in the middle of hosting (in this piece, if you’re still following) in Nottingham.
What have Brian Eno and all these various mass-movement builders got to do with it then? Well alongside being a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame-r and ambient music pioneer, Brian founded the charity EarthPercent, and is a committed supporter of new forms of democracy that help deal with the crises we face.
As guest speaker on that Zoom call, Brian expressed the need to rethink the tired “arc of history” notion - the idea that we've arrived at the best possible form of government in our current corporate-friendly parliamentary and presidential Western democracies. He says any system must “always be experimental, always malleable and open to change;" the option of tweaking what we already have, or reinventing our structures completely, are subjects that “should be taught to our children… five to eleven year olds should be doing deliberative democracy.”
Another speaker on the call was Humanity Project core team member Lee Jasper, who has a forty-year track record in advocating, representing and organising British Black communities on the front line of the fight against systemic racism and injustice, via his work advising former Mayor of London Ken Livingstone and as part of UK social movement Blaksox.
Speaking afterwards, Lee and I get onto how race ties into the project: “By working with diverse communities we are inviting them to positively shape Humanity Project's vision and actions” he says; “anti-racism is firmly embedded in this project”.
Inspiring, inclusive, informative art (taking in Black soundsystem culture amongst others, as well as quintessentially British influences) is at the forefront of the plan, helping these new Pops, and a new House of Citizens at the top of government, to reach communities who often feel left out of vital conversations. Lee says “this unique approach underlines our commitment to building genuine global inclusivity, and promoting a new approach to racial equity, environmental justice, and a fairer world for all”.
Those without agency, given agency, are the bomb. You can look at individual problems like the climate crisis or cost of living, but it misses the point - the problem is with governance
This isn't democracy as we know it, but of “doing it ourselves, not having it done to us”, to paraphrase Jamie Kelsey-Fry, who has become an infectiously passionate facilitation guru since helping pioneer the first participatory ‘citizens juries’ in the 21st century, during the (global) Occupy protests at St Paul’s Cathedral in 2011. This London camp was one of over 951 in cities across 82 countries.
Nottingham’s Old Market Square hosted its own Occupy camp, lasting six months. All were testing grounds for new democratic ideas, unified in calling out the inequities of our nominally democratic capitalist system.
It may not feel like they achieved a whole lot in the short term, but new approaches to making decisions and acting collectively were fermented in these bold spaces, where facilitation became a robust, dynamic “craft”, as Jamie describes it. All much needed tools in the new participatory democracy frontier.
Don’t we already have democracy? Well in the nineties, a pre-teen and impressionable me was assured it was ‘the end of history’, that ‘democracy’ - namely with a little help from the ‘invisible hand of the market’ - was perfect, and there were even naff songs telling us that things can only get better. Ideas like democracy and freedom were intrinsically linked in the minds of many to capitalism and markets, as though they were inseparable - but with a financial crash and woeful shortcomings exposed by Covid and Brexit now in the rearview, the cracks in our market-democracy model have become clear.
In our current first-past-the-post system we scarcely (unless we are in a marginal seat and happy with the choice of two or three parties) get a meaningful say over who gets to represent our area in the first place. Once voted in, politicians are in any case practically free to revert to their own (or their party’s) agendas - they can say whatever it takes to woo voters. Policies are often short-termist, and guided by big money donors.
Democracy has not always been so; many societies, including indigenous cultures that survive unbroken today had, and still have, far purer forms of democracy, and freedoms which don’t literally cost the Earth. They recognise the value of our natural systems without the need for impenetrably complex markets.
Our system shouldn’t be seen as a finished product, but an ongoing experiment in bettering lives. The challenges we face call for new ways of coming together, agreeing on things, and getting things done. So that’s what we’re working on.
By working with diverse communities we are inviting them to positively shape Humanity Project's vision and actions. Anti-racism is firmly embedded in this project
A new common sense
Technology has matured since those halcyon nineties days… With the internet we are all able to inform ourselves of any topic we choose, providing we know where to look. Social media has given us all a platform, and no doubt helped many communities thrive, but it’s also created islands on which to shout, often along with people we noisily agree with. Unfiltered, this leaves a multitude of unusual intellectual hills to die on, and little in the way of progress.
Thankfully, the waves of real democracy are lapping at these shores. Assemblies are a machine for producing coherence, common ground and (most importantly) empathy between opposites. Sortition, that process which makes sure that the jury is made up of a reflective sample of citizens is vital too, especially at the national level. “Randomness ends corruption” says Clare Farrell, a fashion designer and one of the creative brains behind Extinction Rebellion and it's sparky, punk aesthetic.
Assemblies often also produce brilliant and novel approaches, too. That’s why cities like Nottingham (and countries like Ireland) are going to the people to tackle big issues and bring grassroots solutions. Other local authorities like our near neighbours in South Yorkshire are too, as the region's mayor Oliver Coppard told the BBC this month "We are going to have to change how we live, work and travel. We simply can't tackle those big questions without listening to and learning from everyone".
For Jamie, the journey has often been emotional. “I wept every day in April 2019” he says at Extinction Rebellion’s first big London protests, which saw thousands of protestors bring parts of the capital to a standstill. "I saw close-up that each and every human in the room cared, and the world had the capacity for the love and the care we need. That’s what this is about”.
"Those without agency, given agency, are the bomb”, says Jamie. “You can look at individual problems like the climate crisis or cost of living, but it misses the point - the problem is with governance”.
‘Trust the process’ is something people in this space say often; putting your faith in the conversation itself is the first step towards putting faith in each other. The democratic dynamite is in the focus on active listening, with joy and love - paying real attention to what others are saying and being heard ourselves in kind. It's about the transformational feeling we get when we really commit ourselves to each other.
What makes Humanity Project really exciting and unique (the ‘HP Sauce’, get it?) is that it’s the first real bit of architecture built to make an inclusive form of grassroots democracy easier, and more fun to be part of. Then it aims to link together all of these assemblies to get them heard, in that new House of Citizens, as a counterbalance and guide to the ancient, crumbling Commons and the Lords.
Finally… a practical route toward coming together around our collective needs and desires, visioning the world we all want to live in, and acting based on our commonality. Count me in.
Jamie always signs off with “Keep it lit!”, and after four months working together I think I’m finally getting it. Don’t just do democracy in a passive way, really do it - make it a party and invite everyone along.
On with the process
Did you know that HP Sauce was invented in Nottingham? Well you do now. Another fact is that it was based on an Indian brown sauce recipe, but I digress…
Back the Green Festival, after 45 minutes of discussion, the five different groups came back together to answer our central question:
“How can we break down barriers to getting Nottingham’s community engaged in the Climate Assembly?”
As notetakers from each group read out their feedback a sea agreeing hands were waved, kinks were worked out, and with a touch of magic the mob of intermingling commoners, councillors, creatives, students, retirees and lost festival-goers settled on three recommendations:
Go and listen - meet people where they are
The Climate Assembly process should involve going out to communities, in person, to ask their thoughts on the assembly, involving a wide range of ages and demographics across all areas of Nottingham. Going to educational establishments, community and religious groups, and charities were all suggested as ways of reaching new and harder to reach people.
Accessible and engaging messaging
Communicate to people in clear ways, pitch strong questions and potentially even court some controversy in how they get locals’ attention. Technocratic language should be avoided and language should be straightforward and human. Promote tangible examples of local climate action, and simple statistics. Funds to help make the event accessible to those facing the most significant economic pressures should be offered.
A real commitment from the council to act on outcomes
The strongest agreement from the room came on the point of NCC actually implementing outcomes of the assembly. This can’t just be another talking shop - it must invoke real change. It was felt that people won’t take the Climate Assembly seriously unless this is the case, and that people are far more likely to engage if they believe it so.
This published piece is part of the promised follow up action to get those participants’ voices heard. And we hope they, for the sanctity of the process, the sake of local democracy, and for our collective struggle to turn back the climate crisis.
There’s an explosive sense of the big ‘what happens next’ about Humanity Project. As we journey along we find there are other massive projects taking place all around the world attempting similar democratic upgrades. If you ground yourself for a moment, you might just feel this new democratic tide bubbling up under your feet. Is it finally going somewhere? Can we really push the dial enough to rescue us from seemingly inevitable environmental, social and economic collapse?
Jump in the boat and find out my friend, it’s for us to decide... If not now, then when? If not us, then who?
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