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What #NewPower is and How it Will Reshape Democracy



In the political heart of America, Washington DC, I spent the past week traveling through the bustling capital with my new best friend: Uber.

Uber is an app-based taxi company that is increasingly becoming a dominant mode of transportation for people in Washington keen on finding a quick ride into the city or to the nearest metro stop.  This is especially true for young people who make up the fastest growing demographic in the DC metro area.

One question that comes to mind is ‘what makes Uber so successful?’  Part of the answer is cost; I paid $6 for a ride across town, which for poor Millennials with heavy student debt, is beyond reasonable.  Another reason lies with the promises Uber makes to its customers; its CEO, Travis Kalanick, wants his company to become an “instant gratification” service that can be hailed instantaneously, arrive within minutes, and deliver passengers on time, making it a “cross between lifestyle and logistics.”

However, the broader reason Uber is disrupting the entire taxi industry is due to its alternative #NewPower business model, which may transcend the world’s international social and economic sectors and spill into the political sphere.

What is #NewPower?

By definition, ‘New Power’ is the deployment of mass participation and peer coordination to create change and shift outcomes.  In plain terms, #NewPower is best explained by the term’s co-founders, TED speaker Jeremy Heimans, and 92nd Street Y’s director Henry Timms:

“New power operates…like a current. It is made by the many. It is open, participatory, and peer-driven. It uploads, and it distributes. The goal with new power is not to hoard it but to channel it”– Jeremey Heimans & Henry Timms, Harvard Business Review

Uber is the perfect example of fast growing #NewPower model and here is why:

  • It has a rating system that empowers the passenger to rate their drivers’ performance and vice versa
  • Relies on high level of coordination between drivers and passengers

This is far different from how ‘old power’ operates.

How ‘Old Power’ is Different from #NewPower

‘Old power’ works like a currency according to Heimans and Timms, “It is held by few. Once gained, it is jealously guarded, and the powerful have a substantial store of it to spend. It is closed, inaccessible, and leader-driven. It downloads, and it captures” – Jeremey Heimans & Henry Timms, Harvard Business Review

Old Power relies on obtained knowledge that is inaccessible to the public.   Apple is an excellent example of an ‘old power’ structure.  The company does not value transparency and openness; rather, it is quite secretive.  In fact, the reigning ideology at Apple involves the “perfect design” of a technology that “descends upon us in perfection.”  Nonetheless, Apple is one of the most successful companies in the world, which simply illustrates that companies can still pursue a successful ‘old power’ model.

How #NewPower will Reshape Democracy

Heimans and Timms believe the balance of power in the world is drastically shifting, as evident by increased civil unrest, crisis in representational government, and major disruption of traditional industries.  I think he is right.  As the information age moves into full swing, unprecedented technological advancement will continue to reshape the world – giving rise to new values and #NewPower.  And where there is social and economic change, political change is bound to follow.

Here are 3 ways how #NewPower will reshape democracy:

HongKongers hold their umbrellas while singing a song under a clear sky on October 28th, 2014 (Pasu Au Yeung/Creative Commons/Flickr)
HongKongers hold their umbrellas while singing a song under a clear sky on October 28th, 2014 (Pasu Au Yeung/Creative Commons/Flickr)

1.) It will enable and embolden political activists to mobilize mass protests

The #UmbrellaMovement (#雨傘運動) in Hong Kong is a fantastic example of digital activism fueled by #NewPower.

Hong Kong actually belonged to Britain for more than 100 years until it was returned to China through a political settlement called ‘one country, two systems’ in 1997.  Under this agreement, the people of Hong Kong would be allowed to elect their own leader in 2017.  However, when Beijing announced plans to select the candidates for Hong Kong’s elections in September 2014, students began to occupy Central Hong Kong, demanding free elections and democracy.  Tens of thousands of protesters soon joined in, exercising freedoms mainland China does not have, including freedom of the press and the right to assemble.

The #UmbrellaMovement which has also been dubbed the #UmbrellaRevolution, was highly intertwined with #NewPower values.  The movement enshrines massive peer coordination, collaboration, and participation.  Photos, videos, and ideas revolving around the #UmbrellaMovement were uploaded daily to Youtube and shared via Twitter and Instagram.  As the protesters’ message spread throughout the international community, clashes between protesters and Hong Kong police began to ensue.

Whether Beijing ultimately concedes to Hong Kong’s demands before the 2017 elections remains to be seen.  However, one thing is clear:  If Beijing does give protesters what they want, it risks allowing the same thought that has consumed Hong Kong to creep into the minds of its mainland:  “我要真普选  (I want a real vote)”

Members of the newly created 'Podemos' march in Madrid on January 31, 2015 as Spain's unemployment crisis ensues (Vicente José Nadal Asensio/Creative Commons/Flickr)
Members of the newly created ‘Podemos’ march in Madrid on January 31, 2015 as Spain’s unemployment crisis ensues (Vicente José Nadal Asensio/Creative Commons/Flickr)

2.) It will transform the way we run and finance political campaigns 

Crowdfunding is the practice of funding a project by raising many small amounts of money from a large number of people typically via the Internet.  It is also considered by many to be the future of campaign finance.

Kickstarter and Tilt are relatively well known non-partisan crowdfunding websites that help fund projects frequently related to philanthropy.  On the other end of the spectrum, political crowd fundraising is progressively becoming more mainstream in the world of campaign finance.  Crowdfunding is naturally #NewPower oriented because it requires a high level of participation and values transparency above all else.

In fact, crowdfunding is becoming so powerful that it now has the ability to raise more money than many ‘old power’ corporate giants during election periods.  Barack Obama’s 2011 reelection campaign is an excellent example.  As Heimans notes:  “President Obama…ran with new power at his back…And he used crowdfunding to power [his] campaign” –Jeremey Heimans, TED

Obama’s 2011 reelection campaign

According to CrowdFundraiser, a company that invests in entrepreneurs though crowdfunding, Obama was able to raise a total of $118.8 million, in which 72% was a result of donations of under $1000.  These figures sharply contrast with Mitt Romney’s campaign, which only raised 18% of donations under $1000.  However, this is not to say that Romney was the only one whose funds came from a wealthy few.

Both candidates received huge amounts of campaign funds from corporate giants.  This goes to show that crowdfunding has not and will not replace Wall Street doners.  However, it is noteworthy that large corporations and millionaires are not the only force to be reckoned with now.

Spain’s newest political party – Podemos

Out of the desperation and crisis that afflicts Spain today comes the shining example of #NewPower and “modern technopolitics,” or “the power of the connected multitudes.”

‘Podemos’ (We Can) is a newly created Spanish political party that has disrupted Spain’s entire political sphere by gaining five congressional seats and 1.2 million votes in the European elections in May.  With 952,825 likes on Facebook and 544,000 followers on Twitter, it has “more online fans than any other Spanish political party.”  The party’s leader, 35-year old political science professor, Pablo Iglesias, says Podemos is about “citizens doing politics.”

Through Crowdfunding, the party has raised more than $200,000 as of August 2014 and continues to gain support as approval rating plummet for both center right Partido Popular (PP) and center left Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSEO).  According to supporters Eric Labuske and Miguel Ardanuy:

“Not only is crowdfunding important in distancing themselves from the sway of corporate funding, it also enables citizens to get involved politically and, as a result, forces the party to be as transparent as possible”

‘Podemos’ is seemingly leading #NewPower political organizations towards successful digital campaigning.  But this startup political party may need a more powerful online platform that open-source programming could offer.

An artistic adaptation of typical coding language used to create websites and software ( COmmons/Flickr)
An artistic adaptation of typical coding language used to create websites and software ( COmmons/Flickr)

3.) It will inspire ‘Git’-like software that could fuel an open government revolution

It is abundantly clear that modern politics is solving today’s problems with yesterday’s tools.  However, the internet has given us a new tool: open-source programming.

Originally developed by software superstar engineer, Linus Torvald, open-source programming is a new and powerful way of sharing and building upon the ideas of others.  Github, the most widely used software for this modern tool, is a code sharing and social networking site for programmers.  It allows these programmers to build on each other’s projects without even knowing of the other’s existence through a process called ‘collaboration without coordination.’  Let me give an example that briefly highlights the potential political ramifications of such a concept:

Let’s say that I decide to build a website that allows American citizens  to see exactly what their senators add and remove from proposed legislature.  Then, my friend John sees what a great project idea I have, takes my material, and adds a “like button feature” similar to that of Facebook or Reddit.  His addition to my work becomes an entirely new project, one that I may not even know about.  And so the process continues like this until layer upon layer is added to the web of ideas until they collectively transform into something big  like Facebook or Twitter.

Through this process, the sole designer becomes many designers; and for that reason, Github screams #NewPower.  Not only does it foster transparency, but also goes one step further by demanding participation and collaboration in the form of openness.  This hub of ideas has the potential to reshape democracy, particularly in relation to the law.  As social media theorist and TED speaker, Clay Shirky, states:

“It’s large, it’s distributed, it’s low-cost, and it’s compatible with the ideals of democracy. The question for us now is, are we going to let the programmers keep it to themselves? Or are we going to try and take it and press it into service for society at large?” – Clay Shirky, TED 

One organization may be trying to do just that.

Applying open-source programming to the political sphere

In Buenos Aires, political activist and TED speaker, Pia Mancini, has set off on a crusade to upgrade Argentina’s democracy.  She helped create DemocracyOS, an open source web-based platform that informs citizens about political issues and permits them to debate and vote on pieces of proposed legislation.  Her hope is to raise good arguments and help citizens arrive at collective decisions that will be presented to their representatives to be considered when voting.

With DemocracyOS, people can vote on issues and compare the results with their elected representatives. If a citizen feels he or she is not adequately informed, they may choose to abstain and delegate their vote to someone else, allowing for a dynamic social leadership to emerge.  However, when initially presented with this new tool in Buenos Aires, Argentinian political parties flat out rejected the idea.  This was to be expected due to the notion that Heimans touched on, which is: ‘old power’ hoards and captures and therefore, will never be willing to give up its power.

This is the moment where Mancini and her colleagues did something truly extraordinary:  they started their own political party titled ‘El Partido de la Red’ (Net Party).

Leading up to the Argentinian congressional elections in October 2013, the Net party’s campaign platform rested on the view that its representative would vote according to what citizens wanted on DemocracyOS.  The party received 22,000 votes or 1.2 percent, which although was not enough to earn a seat in Congress, definitely made waves.

As a result, Argentina’s Congress will utilize DemocracyOS for the first time in history to open up a citizen discussion on two pieces of legislation involving transportation and public space.  Like ‘Podemos,’ El Partido de la Red is an example of how #NewPower is “hacking” into political institutions and slowly reshaping democracy.

This is a provocative and revolutionary idea.  And I believe Heimans was correct when he said:

“We’re at the beginning of a very steep curve”–Jeremey Heimans, TED

Last day of Hong Kong protests on December 11, 2014 (Pasu Au Yeung/Creative Commons/Flickr)
Last day of Hong Kong protests on December 11, 2014 (Pasu Au Yeung/Creative Commons/Flickr)

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Reiff Center For Human Rights and Conflict Resolution or Christopher Newport University.

CLog logo officialThis article was published in the CNU Captain’s Log on Feb. 18, 2015.