About the Public Sphere Project

Without a thriving public sphere the people's ability to manage public affairs equitably and effectively is impossible. Although new digital networked technologies are only part of this picture, they obviously represent a major source of opportunities — as well as challenges — for those interested in the public sphere.

The Public Sphere Project (PSP) is an initiative that is intended to help promote more effective and equitable public spheres all over the world. With this site we hope to ultimately support a community of researchers and activists and provide a broad framework for a variety of interrelated activities and goals.

Our activities will focus on the following objectives:

  • Advancing our understanding of opportunities and challenges of "public spheres" for democracy, education, education, social justice, economic development, and environmentalism;
  • Developing and acting on strategies for creating and strengthening equitable and effective public spheres;
  • Legitimizing and calling attention to these concern;
  • Building and supporting communities and networks of activists, researchers, and citizens;
  • Convening forums (both face-to-face and virtual) for sharing information, concerns, and ideas;
  • Developing and disseminating useful, high-quality information for citizens, activists, students, policy-makers, and researchers;
  • Evaluating and consulting with existing projects, systems, applications, and organizations all over the world;
  • Developing and evaluating relevant new interfaces, applications, systems, and organizations;
  • helping to provide forums for marginalized and submerged voices and issues;
  • Helping to build collaborative and deliberative systems;
  • Promoting fruitful interaction between the powerless and the powerful — and people in between; and
  • Engaging and encouraging individuals, NGOs, governments, and businesses.
  • Of the admittedly ambitious objectives listed above, we are currently putting our attention in the projects listed below.

    Civic Intelligence
    We are exploring and promoting the concept of civic intelligence as part of our research and action agenda. Civic intelligence is the type of collective intelligence that is focused on the effective, sustainable, and just resolution of collective problems. Civic intelligence is what makes society "smart"; it's a form of distributed and principled innovation that is concerned with the well-being of the planet and the life on it. It is our contention that the concept of “civic intelligence” is a good candidate for a central paradigm and we're inviting individuals and communities to help determine the usefulness of that paradigm in terms of research and action.

    To further that work we have developed an online survey that will help us understand civic intelligence and help promote a research agenda but, perhaps more importantly, will help provide inspiration for activists who are working for positive social change in their communities.

    Liberating Voices
    The Liberating Voices pattern language project is a multi-year project to develop pattern languages for social change. We're working together to develop one or more "pattern languages" which can help people think about, design, develop, manage and use information and communication systems that more fully meet human needs now — and in the future.

    Our "pattern language" is a holistic collection of "patterns" that can be used together to address an information or communication problem. Each "pattern" in this pattern language, when complete, will represent an important insight that will help contribute to a communication revolution. The concepts of patterns and pattern languages were developed by architect Christopher Alexander and his colleagues to present collections of findings and insights that were intended to be used together to develop living spaces that were life-affirming and beautiful.

    In late 2008, MIT Press published Liberating Voices: A Pattern Language for Communication Revolution. The book contains the first version of the Liberating Voices pattern language including several "context" chapters and 136 patterns, developed by 85 authors. These patterns are also available on this site, some in slightly different form, along with several hundred others, many still in draft form.

    We are currently developing a set of cards based on the patterns in the book. We've been using these in a variety of in-person workshops that can be adapted to an online environment as well.

    There are other important developmental efforts in work. The first is allowing people to comment on the patterns. These comments will include questions and suggestions about using the patterns, examples of patterns in use, and relevant references. Also, because each situation is different we are developing new online workspaces so that people and groups can develop their own pattern languages composed of patterns that already exist — possibly annotated — and new ones that are not to be found in the currently existing set. A final thought, though basically a gleam in our eyes is a general software effort to support all of the patterns. For example, an online platform based on the Public Domain Characters by John Thomas would enable people to upload their character descriptions onto the site which other people could freely use in their work.

    Since its inception the Internet has been touted as a medium with revolutionary potential for democratic communication. Although other media have not lived up to their democratic potential, it's too early to dismiss the Internet as being just a tool for the powerful. Certainly civil society has been extraordinarily creative thus far in using the Internet for positive social change!

    Although a very large number of communication venues exist in cyberspace, one critical function — deliberation — seems to have been largely ignored. The need for computer support for online deliberation can be shown by the fact that many online discussions seem to have satisfactory resolution. Motivated by a desire to help make online discussions more productive — particularly among civil society groups who are striving to create more "civic intelligence" in our society — Douglas Schuler proposed in his 1996 book New Community Networks that Roberts Rules of Order could be used as a basis for online deliberation. One of the most important criterion was that although every attendee would have opportunities to make his or her ideas heard the minority could not prevent the majority from making decisions.

    Work on an online version began in 1999 at The Evergreen State College developed the first prototype of an online version of Roberts Rules of Order. After years of intermittent development and several iterations, there are now two basic versions: (1) e-Liberate, a online deliberative tool using Roberts Rules of Order; and (2) openDCN, a broad, evolving civic network framework that incorporated much of e-Liberate. OpenDCN includes a modularized version of Roberts Rules in which certain motions can be turned on or off. OpenDCN was developed by the Milan Civic Network within the openDCN e-participation environment.

    We are now beginning to work with groups who are interested in trying the system to support actual meetings. We believe that face-to-face meetings are still very important but appropriate use of e-Liberate can help organizations with limited resources. Our hope is that non-profit groups will use e-Liberate to save time and money on travel and use the resources they save on other activities that promote their core objectives. We are enthusiastic about the system but we are well aware that the system as it stands may have problems that need fixing. It is for that reason that we plan to host a small number of meetings over the next few months and gather feedback from attendees. Please let us know if your organization would like to try our openDCN system.

    We believe that the next few years will be critical and that the Obama administration in the U.S. is raising a variety of interesting points and we're hoping that we will be able to demonstrate our work to them.

    Finally, there are a few other areas in which we are working. One of which involved the 1996 book, New Community Networks by Douglas Schuler, which is now outdated in many areas. But many of the points are still just as valid as they were over a decade ago. We're in the process of making the text of the book available as a Wiki so that people can update it as necessary. Secondly, we are engaged in developing a repository for relevant papers and other useful points of reference. Thirdly, we're still interested in participating in events. Working with CPSR we developed the "Directions and Implications of Advanced Computing" conference that started in 1987. In the summer of 2010, the Public Sphere Project is co-sponsoring a conference on Online Deliberation in Leeds, UK.

    The Public Sphere Project is a 501.c.3 non-profit organization incorporated in the United States. Donations to the Public Sphere Project are tax-deductible.