• Hi. Thanks so much for doing this.

  • I appreciate it. I was just going to say, when we do the interview, I’m actually going to switch off the video, because it makes for better audio, which is all we’re interested in. I will do that. Maybe I’ll do that now, actually.

  • Sure. I’ll also make a copy of audio locally, if that’s OK with you.

  • Yeah, do whatever you want, whatever is best. No problem at all.

  • It was nice to see you briefly anyway. I guess the guys at Nesta have filled you in on what this is about. I think you’ve been in touch with Theo about this podcast series. I’m one of the producers.

  • We’d love your take, as being our case study, for the digital democracy episode. How it will run is there’ll be an introduction from our presenter from Nesta, who will talk about the topic, give a big overview of the topic and Nesta’s work in that field. Then, he will introduce you as our case study.

  • This interview will run as a short, maybe six or seven minutes. I will cut myself out. I won’t be in it. It’ll just be you. I’m sure you’re a pro at this, but if you could give me full answers. If I ask a question, if you could begin your answer with the question, that would be very helpful, because I will be cutting out questions.

  • Yeah, certainly. I’ll be making a full transcript, though, of the entire conversation, as our radical transparency principle requires, but I will send you the transcript both for easier editing, I’m sure, but also to make sure that if there’s any part that you want to edit, you can edit it also for 10 days before we publish it on the Internet.

  • That sounds great. Thank you. That sounds good. Thank you very much. If only all my interviewees would do that for me, that would be very nice. [laughs] I’m going to mute my microphone as well while you answer, because it will, again, make for a better quality of line. If the line sounds great, so I might be...

  • The line is good. I will also have a local recorder anyway, so you have a highest quality possible audio file.

  • Wonderful. Thank you very much, again. That’s far too helpful. The first question for you is could you give us the story of how you went from being an activist to a government minister?

  • I am still an activist while working with -- not for -- the cabinet. I’m at a Lagrange point, a midpoint between the movement and the government.

  • The reason why was that back in 2014, there was 22 days of Occupy Parliament called the "Sunflower Movement." That is when the Parliament in Taiwan refused to deliberate substantially a Cross-Strait Service Agreement with Beijing.

  • With the MPs on strike, people just occupied the Parliament and did the MPs work for them. That’s the legitimacy theory. It’s a coordinated action by around 20 different NGOs, each deliberating one particular aspect of the trade agreement, from the concept of labor, from environment, and so on. There’s half a million people on the street and many more online.

  • I’m part of the movement called g0v or G-0-V that supported the communication, the real-time broadcasting logistics, and so on of the Occupy.

  • Because of the intervention of professional facilitators and fact-based tools, there’s a tool where you can enter your company number, and it shows exactly how the trade agreement affects you, and so on, during the three week of Occupy, it’s almost completely non-violent.

  • We converged day-over-day rather than compared to other Occupy where they diverged day after day. After three weeks, we agreed on five points. Those points were then accepted by the head of the Parliament.

  • I always say it’s a demonstration, but it’s not a protest. It is a demo of how can we involve half a million people on the street and many more online in a way that can still scale this listening and facilitating experience so that people can eventually agree on common values.

  • This must have been an extraordinary time for you, not just professionally, but personally. This sounds like something that dreams are made of, this moment that you were part of. It was revolutionary. It was historical. Can you tell us a little bit about what that was like for you personally?

  • Certainly. I remember being there the first night when people just went there and protested about the swift passing of the legislative procedure. I remember arriving very late at night and with a HSDPA connection. We didn’t have 4G back then. That’s the fastest that I can have and share the bandwidth with the civic media people doing the live streaming there.

  • I encountered this young looking person, a student perhaps. He said he can lend me his laptop -- a bulky laptop -- and said he entrust that to me so that I can keep sharing the connection over the Ethernet port to the stationary media that the civic media is using for live broadcasting.

  • I was wondering why would someone who looked so young part with their laptop so easily and give me his administrator password. It turns out he is going to climb over the walls of the Parliament, and the laptop is going to be a burden literally. They broke into the Parliament. There’s very few police there. Very few people expected that will happen.

  • I was there the first night, and our colleagues in g0v movement actually captured the entire breaking and entering so that the very next morning when the mainstream media portrayed students as having a heavy fight, or being violent, or whatever, we have the footage on YouTube to prove that actually, that was not the case.

  • That was when YouTube live streaming was first introduced. People were very interested in all those debate stations. I went cross-pollinating from station to station, and whenever there’s rumors, there’s disinformation that spreads on the streets, we make that first, that there is an intranet connection.

  • I personally brought very long Ethernet cables to connect the occupied Parliament with the people on the street, so that people passing by can see with their own eyes what is this like in the occupied Parliament.

  • There is a stenographer -- people who type very fast -- inside the parliament, who type everything they hear so that random passersby can see what is really being deliberated. Truth, for once, spreads faster than rumors.

  • In this reflective space, people actually concentrated on the trade agreement itself, rather than escalating into violence or whatever.

  • Personally for me, it is a radically transparent, and inclusive, and participatory moment. At the end of that year, after the mayoral election, all the mayors who supported Occupy get elected, sometimes without preparing inauguration speech. All the mayors that did not support the Occupy failed their mayoral election.

  • Because of that, there’s a new political will and political awareness in Taiwan that open government, it is not just something to be achieved. It is actually the baseline.

  • You’re using words like inclusive and participatory, which are not words that I associate with government, certainly not in this country. How is Taiwan getting this so right, especially when you look at the surge in populism and nationalism in Europe, and in the UK, in America?

  • It just seems to me that you’re talking in a way, it’s like the future. I just can’t even imagine politicians or anyone in our government talking like you do. What’s so different there? Can you describe it for us, and why this is flourishing?

  • Why is Taiwan different from other more traditionally representative democratic countries when it comes to open government? That’s a great question.

  • First, we are in the future. We’re exactly eight hours in the future. Aside from that, Taiwan is a really new democracy. I still remember the martial law. I’m 37 years old now. Back when I was five years old, six years old, Taiwan was still under martial law, and there was very limited freedom of speech, of assembly, of press.

  • We just got the freedom of the civil society in the late ’80s. Our first presidential election was in 1996, which coincides with the World Web, its popularity. I remember partaking the first presidential election campaigns, helping one of the candidates and already using the World Web, what we would now call social media.

  • For Taiwan, Internet and democracy, these are not two things. It’s the same thing and literally happened in the same decade. Because of that, there’s less republican tradition, or representative tradition, or any other tradition of democracy.

  • For us, direct democracy, deliberative democracy, lucrative democracy, all sorts of democracy all just happened around the turn of the century. It’s easier for us to mix and match those techniques together, because there’s less legacy to support, so to speak. We see a very similar dynamic in even newer countries like Estonia.

  • It’s fascinating. What do you see as the biggest threat to democracy then in the Internet age?

  • The biggest threat to democracy in the Internet age is that people don’t realize that the Internet, we have a different set of normativity. The sense is that in regular space, before the cyber space, people relied on text-based normativity, that is to say, legal code around which their social norms is build.

  • The legal code codifies what the society thinks is normal, but it also affects what the society thinks is normal. In cyberspace, it’s governed by a different set of normativity. We call it code-based normativity. Code -- that is to say, algorithm manifestation -- determines what is possible, what is not possible, what is opaque, what is transparent, what is laborious, what is automated.

  • They are like physical laws in the sense that you can’t break them. You can create new systems out of code and algorithms, but within the confine of a code and algorithm, they act like physical law. They are legal by design, so to speak. There is no way to break them once you’re in that system.

  • Because of this, cyberspace casts its shadow on the human imagination of what is possible and what is not, what is easy and what is not. We see a lot of perceived polarization. We see a lot of perceived miscommunications on the Internet, simply because when people see part of the message being automatically transferred.

  • We have junk mail and spam mail. Last entry, we now have disinformation campaigns, computational propaganda, and things like that. People just assume that it is something of a normal social, but actually, it’s not. It’s something that’s generated by machine learning and by algorithms.

  • Until everybody has the awareness that most of these are machine-generated, are tailored to our preferences in a way that is bereft of algorithmic sovereignty, meaning that people cannot actually trust the message before their eyes until they actually understand and control the rules which those code are being written.

  • Then, people are going to live in what we call a filter bubble or whatever other perceived image of polarization, or other different extremist views, while in fact, they have a lot in common, in feelings and in perception with their neighbors.

  • The Internet, with this current generation of social media, generates a different perception. That in turn affects people’s subjective realities in terms of loneliness, filter bubble, and polarization.

  • That leads quite neatly onto my next question, which is about virtual reality, and whether you see that virtual reality actually being something that can help the democratic process, or is it something that would hinder it, in your view?

  • The virtual reality relationship with the democratic process is something that I think is a very interesting research question for me personally. The first few users of virtual reality, for me, are all in shared reality, meaning that I share it with other people.

  • I remember looking at Earth from the International Space Station. That’s my first exposure to virtual reality. I remember startling words like sustainability, where it’s planning for seventh generation, where it’s integrating the triple bottom line suddenly makes so much sense when you see Earth as one tangible object in front of you when you’re floating in space.

  • That’s a very enlightening experience for me personally, but it’s not just me. Everybody who went to the space and went back kind of becomes a better person. There’s a term for that. It’s the overview effect. Having an overview of what the current world is like is going to be a very helpful use of virtual reality.

  • Also, I shared with many primary schoolers a consultation meeting, where I shaped my avatar to be the same height as they are. We together entered into a shared world where we can talk about things common to them.

  • They don’t perceive me as somebody who are double their height, but rather are with their height. That makes integration and inclusion easier. Together, we can also, for example, look at a new construction from the perception of an endangered animal, for example.

  • That, again, is a great use of virtual reality to generate sympathy. All of it is because the social objects we’re looking in virtual reality are not virtual. They are, in fact, shared reality.

  • When I became the digital minister, I wrote a short poem two years ago to explain this view. Very quickly, it goes like this.

  • When we see internet of things, let’s make it an internet of beings.

  • When we see virtual reality, let’s make it a shared reality.

  • When we see machine learning, let’s make it collaborative learning.

  • When we see user experience, let’s make it about human experience.

  • And whenever we hear that "the singularity is near", let us always keep in mind and remember that the Plurality is here.

  • If we keep plurality in mind, then virtual reality is going to become a shared reality, and therefore help the democratic process.

  • That’s amazing. Thank you for reading that. I think you’re right. Too many people who don’t really understand this world are far too quick to jump at this idea that it’s all robots, and unfeeling, and no, like you say, no sympathy, no empathy, no human side.

  • Something as simple as making your avatar the same size as the kids that you’re talking to, such a simple idea. That really sums it all up, doesn’t it, really?

  • Beautiful example. I want to ask you about vTaiwan now, please. If you could tell us what it is and what successes it’s had. Are we writing describing it as we’ve said, it’s a new multi-stakeholder consultation process, if that is correct. Otherwise, could you tell us what it is?

  • It is correct but it starts late 2014, it’s not exactly new now. It’s been going on for four years. I would say it’s an ongoing and online and offline consultation process. The three distinguishing feature is that...

  • Sorry, Audrey. Can I stop you and ask you to start again with, "vTaiwan is...?"

  • Thank you. That’d be great.

  • vTaiwan is an ongoing -- four years now -- online, offline consultation process, which brings together the government ministries, representatives, scholars, experts, business leaders, civil society organizations, and citizens.

  • Its three distinguishing feature is that first, agenda setting is done by a recursive public, meaning that people who meet every Wednesday at the Social Innovation Lab, Taiwan, in Taipei in dinner, determines the process and the entire project together. Whomever shows up is the right people.

  • It is a open space technology recursively applied to a consultation process. That’s the first distinguishing feature.

  • The second one is that it’s been very successful in generating more consultative processes. The Taiwan fintech sandbox, the Taiwan platform economy sandbox, the Taiwan automated driving sandbox, all these enabling laws are generated by the vTaiwan process as a way for each ministry to go on and generate more multi-stakeholder consultative processes. It’s generative in a sense.

  • The third thing that distinguishes, that it is entirely free and open-source. It runs on a software stack that is entirely can be replicated and it could be owned by any people who deploy it. It is not colonial in nature.

  • People can mix and match different aspects of vTaiwan and design their own consultation process based on the very simple idea that we check with each other on the facts first, and move on to feelings. After getting people’s feelings resonating with each other, then the best ideas are the one that care of most people’s feelings, and finally move to ratification.

  • This very simple fact, feeling, idea decision process informs the 30 or so cases that vTaiwan has processed. Most of them -- more than 80 percent of them -- has led to decisive government action or passing of new laws.

  • That is fascinating. Could you give us one example, please, if possible?

  • Certainly. The most often quoted example is when Uber first entered Taiwan, it’s legal. It uses rental cars and people with professional driver’s license, but shortly thereafter, they switched to use just normal cars and with people without professional driver’s license and, therefore, no insurance. That creates a social issue.

  • Instead of polarized discussion over the social web, we engaged with a Seattle startup called Pol.is to design an AI-moderated conversation space that’s literally designed as the Uber case is being deliberated.

  • We tweaked the interface a lot, but the end goal is to get all the Uber passengers, Uber drivers, taxi drivers, union people, and so on, onto this scalable listening platform so people can resonate with each other’s feelings without taking away, or without any room for personal attacks.

  • By the end of the three-week feeling checking period, people actually converged on a set of about six or seven very firm feelings that it’s shared by everybody.

  • Regardless of which side or which ideology the mainstream media portrays them on, actually, people have a strong consensus about the registration, about the insurance, about the protection of passengers and drivers, and things like that.

  • We held a face-to-face, multi-stakeholder consultation live streamed and using only the ones that are generated by this process as the agenda, and to get Uber, and the union, and the taxi companies, and so on to commit themselves to this new norm set by the AI-moderated conversation.

  • That became the way which Uber became legal in Taiwan. Now, you can call taxis using the Uber app. There’s also taxi apps being developed that include the rating system, the surge pricing system, as well as other data sharing deals. All of them, of course, are operated by drivers with professional license and insurance.

  • Fantastic. Thank you for talking me through that. That’s brilliant. I have a question which I should have asked you when you were telling me the story of what happened back in 2014 in the government. It was just about forking. I meant to ask you this.

  • Would you mind telling me what it means forking the government, what that expression means, and put it into the context of what happened? If you can just start your answer with, "Forking the government is..." if that’s OK.

  • Forking the government is the call to action of the g0v movement. The g0v movement is spelled G-0-V. All the public services and websites in Taiwan that is in the public sector ends with gov.tw. I’m sure it’s the same in many other countries.

  • For example, our legislation is ly.gov.tw, our executive and our administration is ey.gov.tw, and so on and so forth.

  • G0v is this very simple idea of a domain name, g0v.tw that says, instead of just protesting or shouting about what the government doesn’t do well, why don’t we create exactly the same website as the government website, but changing the O to a 0 so that people don’t have to google to find us.

  • People can just go to whatever government website, change a O to a 0, and get into the shadow government. That is a very powerful idea that has since been picked up in other places. If you go to budget.g0v.it, you go to the Italy g0v visualization of budgets.

  • Indeed, budget.g0v.tw, which is the inaugural g0v project back in 2012, visualizes the national budget in a way that enable people to talk around specific budget items as a public forum. Because of that, people don’t have to describe the government as an opaque entity. People can look at the budget year-over-year.

  • The beauty of the fork is that we keep what’s already there. We just take it to a different direction. We keep the facts, the data, but we interpret it with visualizations, with interactive forums, and things like that.

  • The beauty is that because g0v projects are released under open source and Creative Commons, most of which actually relinquish all copyright altogether. By the next procurement cycle, if the government thinks it’s a good idea, then the fork is merged back into the government website. The g0v website becomes the gov website.

  • That applies to the budget visualization, which became the participatory budget platform for Taipei City in 2015, and is adopted by six or so municipalities around 2017. Finally, as of this year, it’s merged entirely into the join.gov.tw platform.

  • All the 1,300 ministerial projects can be seen in its KPI, in its mostly spendings, in its procurements, and so on. Whenever anyone types a question publicly, the career public service actually answers also publicly, you don’t have to ask through the freedom of information channels, or your councilors, or whatever. People can just have a chat with the public service around specific budget items.

  • That begins as a fork, it’s now fully merged back.

  • Thank you. That was exactly what I was looking for. My final question, because I know I’m nearly up to my half an hour.

  • You are in the government. You’re a minister without portfolio. Are there people in the government who genuinely...I have this idea of a generation of people who genuinely don’t know what you’re talking about. [laughs]

  • I just know that if it was the UK government, there’d be people there who’d just be listening to you, and they wouldn’t literally understand the language, what you’re saying, in terms of the technical speak and the idea of just the way you see the world.

  • Through your experience in the work that you’ve done, what is like on a personal, day-to-day level? Do you find that you come up against people saying, "I don’t know what you mean. I don’t understand what you’re saying," or do people really get what you’re talking about?

  • I’m well versed, also, in other cultures, as well. I can easily switch to talk from a legal normativity or from a cultural normativity. It’s just like different languages for me. No, I don’t find any difficulty, because I don’t have to talk tech. I can talk about, for example, the UK has the fintech sandbox.

  • It’s innovators identifying the current shortcomings of the law and saying, "I want to operate under a new regulation set. If you give me one year to experiment using the new regulation set that I propose, then I can show the entire society that this is actually for financial inclusion and is for the common good."

  • Actually, the pioneered this idea. We just took this idea and apply it to everything. People can, for example, apply for a one-year test of autonomous driving and things like that. The most important thing here is that it is entirely a social innovation, meaning that we don’t introduce technology for technology’s sake.

  • Rather through office hours, every Wednesday from 10:00 AM to 10:00 PM, anyone, even rough sleepers, social workers who work with them can just come to my office and talk to me, provided that they agree for the transcript to be published to the Internet.

  • I tour around Taiwan every other Tuesday or so and speak to the indigenous people, rural people, people who are in the far away islands. Because in Taiwan, broadband is a human right, if you don’t have 10 megabits per second, it’s my fault.

  • Because of that, I can talk with these people in their natural environment, but still have the 12 ministries in Taipei listening and hearing what we are having to say, and seeing the local people through telepresence.

  • When the local people raise their issues, the people in Taipei across different ministries, they brainstorm and co-create solutions, and everything is radically transparent. This gives the previously anonymous public servants a better deal.

  • Previously, if they do something right, something great, their minister get all the credit. If they get something wrong, the minister always blames them. Now, it’s the other way around.

  • If they come up with an innovation, the people knows about it immediately and they thank the public service. Journalists actually go and check who introduced this great idea. If it doesn’t work, the social entrepreneurs can take it to the sandbox, or if it really fails spectacularly, it’s only Audrey doing this anyway, so I can absorb all the blame.

  • In this kind of environment, I find the public service not just understanding the core ideas of a horizontal, cross-silo working philosophy, but actually very eager to innovate, because they know they will reduce their work, and reduce their risk, and also share the credit.

  • Thank you, Audrey. Wonderful. Thank you so much. I’ve got plenty to be getting on with. Thank you.

  • I was going to say have a great day, but it’s evening, so have a wonderful evening. Thanks so much for talking to us.

  • Yes, have a good localtime, as well, we say around here.

  • Is that what you say? I like it. I’m going to use that. Thanks. [laughs] Take care now.