Firstly, thank you very much for your time. I really appreciate speaking to you. My first question is, how is technology helping government to connect with people who have come up with ideas to solve social problems, like social entrepreneurs?
Previously, with radio and television, it’s very easy for the government to speak to people, almost too easy, but it’s very difficult for the government to listen, and for people to listen to one another.
The kind of technology we’re working on, we call it civic technology. It’s mostly just to get millions of people to listen to one another, and also find their commonalities despite different positions, like common values.
I think that, the common value finding, is a utmost importance to the governance nowadays when it comes to social entrepreneurship. Because otherwise, we will just have people lobbying for environmental values, for social values, for economic values, and so on without a coherent way to blend those ideas into a common value that everybody can live with.
Not at all. If you design the space correctly with what we call crowdsourcing methodologies, we can use, for example, AI-moderated conversations. AI-moderated conversations, no matter whether it’s 10,000 people or 20,000 people, you can still see your friends and family and how they feel about a particular thing.
No, we’re not counting numbers at all. If 5,000 people come and vote exactly the same, it’s just one dot here on the principal component map. All this is measuring essentially is what people feels. We always agree to disagree on a few divisive statements that clusters people round because there’s no reply button.
We say we hold ourself to account to determine the agenda of this vision which they culled us through this crowdsourcing. Anyone who come up with feelings that resonates everyone, we hold ourself to account to debate using these points because that’s what the people feel like.
Always we end up with shapes like this where people focus so much energy on refining the consensus rather than just reiterating the points that polarize the people. We actually go on live stream and talk with the stakeholders using these consensuses as the agenda.
I think government is responsible for a stable service. At this point, I think technology mostly serves as automation, to save time, to make a public service work more efficiently, to have the career public servants focus on value delivery that requires human lived experience rather than doing repetitive paperwork.
On the second level, I think with crowdsourcing and shared responsibility schemes like this, people also take some part of the risk away because government was always at risk if we make decisions in closed settings. If the decision end up not being a policy market fit for lack of better [laughs] term, then we face backlash. People protest and so on.
Now with this open government attitude, we just say if you complain, you automatically get an invitation to the kitchen. We’ll just do the policy together, through co-creation. That lowers the risk for the career public service.
The C-Lab is just in the heart of Taipei City. It is literally one of the most privileged places [laughs] in Taiwan because it’s near our central park, the Daan Forest Park, and also the Jianguo Flower Market.
It’s at the heart of Taipei, where we have this place dedicated for the social sector, for people to form the contemporary culture together. We think this kind of value co-creation is more important than just short-term delivery on some KPIs on economic development. These are all very important, of course, but unless we can establish common values, all these things are just going to cancel each other.
There’s many cases. I think the fundamental supporting structure is what we call the participation officers, our POs. In each ministry, there’s this theme of people. Just like media office is talking to journalist and also parliamentary office is talking to MPs, the participation officers are a network of people who talk to people with emergent issues like through e-petitioning.
For example, this person, a designer, said that our tax filing system is explosively difficult to use. Our participation officer in the Ministry of Finance, who reports directly to the Deputy Minister, just sent invitation to everybody who complained about the tax filing experience.
Then we just hold five co-creation workshops together and then deliver a new tax filing experience that has 96 percent approval rating. The point is not actually this because if you spent enough amount of money, you always get good design.
What matters is that there’s thousands of people if not tens of thousands people’s input into the design. Even the other four percent of people who are not very used to this new interface nevertheless feel that the government is something you can iterate. You can have it continues, not transactional, relationship on. Their input will form our next year’s tax filing experience.
It seems to me that when you’ve got this kind of participation, what it’s going to do is effectively, like you said yourself, you spend enough money design, you’re going to get there. In a way, this is saving government money plus it’s going to make them more popular.
I remember when I was six years old I think, that was 1987 -- now you know my age, which is public information anyway -- [laughs] my mom joined this foundation. They called themselves the Homemakers United Foundation for environmental protection.
It started as a environmental awareness campaign. Very quickly, they found that if they form a consumer co-op and pool together the buying power from the agricultural people, then they can convince them to do agriculture in an environmentally-friendly way.
They pool their resource together, not as producers but just as consumers, and then raise awareness just exactly this way. It’s one of the largest coops in Taiwan. They’ve been running for more than 20 years now.
Using a coop structure, I think, although they didn’t call themselves social enterprise, they’re communicating because it’s a co-op set up by a mission-oriented charity essentially. There is a co-op solidarity value but also the environmental, vocal value, social movement value.
I think that is a prototype of Taiwan social enterprise in the sense that they participate in policymaking by just ideating and co-creating with the nascent democratic government at that point. Everybody learns how to do democracy together across sectors.
One of the largest foundation and nonprofit, Children Are Us Foundation, work with the Down’s syndrome people and who are excellent in the bakery, and learn how to bake with teachers who have Down syndrome. They’re excellent people.
It turns out that they’re very willing to work with young designers. All these visuals that you see here, including indeed the Social Innovation Lab, -- you remember soccer field -- were drawn by people with Down syndrome. Turns out they were excellent artists. They see the world through a different lens.
They’re very diversified. There’s many other social design companies who turn, for example, this is people street vendor in a wheelchair, other with disabilities. Then turn them into mobile stations that carries WiFi hotspot, rechargeable battery station, emergency [laughs] umbrella stations.
They carry fair trade coffee and things like that. Through successful crowdfunding campaigns, they turn what people think usually as a charity to these people into just mobile outlets. It’s like big issue, but...
That’s right, diversify, because social enterprise in Taiwan is an ecosystem. They can carry fair trade coffee. They carry all sorts of indigenous products, some of which are in our the Taiwan booth here. They become the outlet for all the social enterprises.
"Anarchist" means that I think, gradually, the civil society, the social sector, and the private sector is going just to take over. People who thought that something requires the state to do are increasingly seeing themselves as providing alternatives that works actually better than government to deliver on the sustainable goals.
I’m part of this movement, an anarchist movement, called g0v. It’s an international movement that originates in Taiwan. The idea, very simply put, is that if there is any government service that you think are bad, instead of just writing to complain, you can make an alternative.
For example, the legislation in Taiwan is ly.gov.tw. All the websites, of course, all ends in gov.tw, because it’s a government service. People think, "OK, the national budget’s very hard to read. The parliament’s not interactive enough," and so on. They just build these g0v.tw websites.
Yes, that provides the same information, but in a much more interactive kind of way. This is like the original 2012, the first project of the g0v movement. It’s just a visualization of national budget. You can click into each and every one of it to see how it goes, and then have a real discussion with other people around that budget item as a social object.
Basically, the fact-finding, the feeling-finding is not something that we can do by ourselves. It takes ethnographic research to really get into somebody else’s shoes. What we’re doing, essentially, is not saying, "People are completely replacing professional administration or professional expertise."
What we’re saying is that the inputs should be varied. It should be inclusive. Even the facilitation itself can be done in a cross-sectoral way. The government, of course, their fellow ministers, they don’t feel threatened, because in Taiwan, the administration people, the ministers, are not MPs.
The administration is remarkably party-free. There’s more independent ministers like me than members of any party in the cabinet. When we do this drafting with the civil society, if it requires a law change, then eventually it still goes to the parliament for the MPs to deliberate. This is basically increasing the quality and not replacing the MPs themselves.
I think you kind of answered my next question. I was going to say, why should governments all connect with social entrepreneurs, and how should they work with them? I think in a way, you’re suggesting that maybe I should even turn that question around.
[laughs] That’s exactly right. In Christchurch last year, I chaired this conversation about GOVT, government on one side, and MOVT, movements, on the other side. Social entrepreneurs are like the people who understand the language of both sides, and making good business cases for the government to take on some of the social movement’s demands.
Also, for the social movement to understand some of the government who has to offer, who cannot explain well in their language. Just through this interpretive work, the social entrepreneurs essentially increase the mutual trust between the government and the movement.
Through poetry and through art, we can change the words’ affect -- how people feel about words -- bit by bit. That is what systems designers do. We need to be humble, and see that this is a complicated ecosystem that we’re working with.
If we just change bit by bit, the bits can connect. The energy that’s within those different traditions, they can channel together to create something that is larger than any of those single movements.
My tribe is the Internet society. The Internet has been running like this for more than 40 years now; it is a very old tradition. The legislators of the Internet, they don’t write laws. They write requests for comments, which is a very humble and simple way to do consensus making.
If we don’t have a good way to prove, in a radically transparent way, through how the protocols were designed, showing the Internet itself and the Web as good for everyone, then it’s nobody’s obligation to buy into those protocols.
This consensus-based collaborative governance, I learned about this when I was 14 or something. That’s the first democratic system that I knew. It’s only years later that I got my first voting right. [laughs] The representative democracy is my second language.
We are all seeing Taiwan as the place with the most free civil society in Asia. When you talk about freedom of speech, of association, of assembly, there’s just no place more free than Taiwan, which is why Reporters Without Borders and all those the international NGOs chose Taiwan as their headquarters.
They know that if they make a social movement that’s run counter to the government’s plan, the government is just going to join them, [laughs] instead of control, limit, or censor them. I think because of this, it is core identity of the Taiwan population.
We just got those freedoms 30 years ago. We still remember how is it like to have no access to these freedoms. It’s part of the identity. Maybe 100 years down the line, Taiwan people would start to see freedoms of speech as instrumental, as many other older republics are.
In Taiwan now, this is a core value, which is why social innovation is seen as on par, as a partner with the governance system. The government’s legitimacy rests upon the silent, quiet, successful revolutions of the social movements.
Yes. I think having gone through two puberties enabled me to empathize better with how people feel. Also, this is the old idea of intersectionality. Everybody has some places and experiences where they are at advantage or privilege.
At some places, they have this vulnerable part, and experience this world. They have been bullied, they have been attacked, and things like that. Just by combining those two, one can empathize with people in other vulnerable positions, suffer social injustice, while putting into the language of the privilege of how to get out from there, and how to unite.
To have a more singular voice, both organizational ability and this experience of vulnerability, I think, are very important. It is also true that Taiwan, because we’re also the only place in Asia that constitutionally recognize same-sex marriage, and so on.
There is a large LGBTIQ+ community that serves as my tribe for things that I work with. [laughs] The indigenous nations, there is matriarchies. There is third gender. There is indigenous nations where gender doesn’t matter.
There’s all those different configurations, which is also why Taiwan is important in the Maori people, or people even as far as Madagascar, come back to Taiwan, say that their culture originated from Taiwan in the Austronesian tradition.
I think part of that is because of the Occupy movement. The Occupy movement in 2014, while certainly not my idea, I was just there, supplying communication facilities -- the tech wiz part that you talked about.
It is the government, at that point in time, having the legitimacy approval rating of below 10 percent, having a compact with the people who have legitimacy, but very little experience in actually working with career public service.
That is why the neutrals, the facilitators, the people providing communication, the g0v community, the independent journalists who participate in the Occupy, were somewhat trusted by both sides -- the government and the movement.
We’re not exactly social entrepreneurs, I guess, but we do have a crowdfunding model and a crowdsourcing model. There are many other experiments that we ran after the Occupy that generally gain us goodwill from both sides.
Do you think the government then thought, "OK, well, we need to engage with these people, because then there’ll be stability, and there will be general agreement about the way country should move forward"?
That’s right. As I said, I do not give nor take commands. That’s the anarchist part. If there’s one thing that anarchists can agree, it is against hierarchical power. All my colleagues work with me by voluntary association.
They rank themselves and score themselves. I don’t even know what they are up to until they share with me. Basically, what I am promoting is this idea of working out loud. My office, which is about, I don’t know, 22 full-timers now, I can technically poach one person from each ministry, but no more than one.
This is the agreement part of the compact. The point here is that anything that these career public servants do, the capacity stays in the career public service. What I’m doing is a kind of servant leadership, which is why I call myself a public servant of the public service.
This is the "conservative" part of conservative anarchism, because anarchism works really well if people see it’s good for them, and they join voluntarily, if you use violent means, and eliminate the people who don’t agree with anarchists, those anarchist revolutions usually don’t last long.
I know you said you didn’t have a contract. I wonder if it’s difficult to work with you. I get the impression that you could at any point just think, "I want to do something else now, and I’m going to leave," or that somebody wants to have a meeting with you about something, but there’ll be 25 other people there. Are you difficult to work with in that way?
Not at all. I’ve been actually lecturing the public service in the public service academy since late 2014 -- initially, they have all the people in rank 12, which is almost the highest rank in the career public service. There’s exactly 300 people in that rank in public service -- to basically listen to me, to how to communicate in the Sunflower technologies.
It made some impressions. Some were very incredulous, [laughs] but some were supportive. I don’t know how 葉寧 here felt at that time. [laughs] In any case, like I explained this to the 300 people, afterwards the message just rippled.
Then I started training literally 1,000 or so public servants, with the people who supported the Occupy movement as their mentors on how to communicate. All this is before this cabinet, before this administration.
The career public service, I think they trust me to know what their risk, their fears, their doubts around public participation. I would never take them by surprise. All the transparent record, actually, they get 10 working days to edit. Everything said in it are very professional. [laughs]
Do you have an ambition? Do you think at some point, you’ll be done, and you’ll think, "OK, we’re there with government now. All the systems are in place. All these people are in place. It can work without me," and you’ll step back?
I think democracy itself is a life. We are just the vessels in which democracy inhabits. This is all about what we call a blended volition, while retaining our individuality, of course. The idea is that the ecosystem, the earth, the social issues, they speak through us.
I think that is the seven generation view, the truly long-term view of civilization. I think there is nothing in me personally, because I’m just a channel, a vessel, of the spirit’s self-understanding in this stage of democracy.
Say there’s a troll on the public forum, and offering 100 words of ad hominem attacks, vicious language, and toxic mentality, but 5 of which are really useful. Like, their authentic life experience. They have to get a catharsis out before they can share those five words that affects them personally.
Gradually, the authentic part of the troll gets drawn out, as they learn that the Internet seems vacuous, only because they want attention as a replacement of the hugs, handshakes, or kisses that they did not get in the physical world. That is why they crave the attention.
However, the attention provoked by outrage is transactional. It’s with a different person every time. So they wake up feeling still very empty, and then just vent some more. If someone is willing to retain a long-term relationship by responding only with the constructive part, then we become actually good acquaintances, and even friends, all the time.