How will democracy be shaped by technological developments and participatory governance?

The Futures of Democracy at the Intersection of Governance and Citizenry was a semester-long inquiry into what could become of Canada's system of governance in the year 2040. With Peter Padbury (distinguished Chief Futurist at Policy Horizons Canada) as our ambassador, we began this project with two expansive questions:

  1. What are the futures of governance in the face of rapid technological developments, from artificial intelligence to emerging social technologies?

  2. What shifts can we anticipate in any or all of the three domains of policy development - between citizen groups, within the public service and at the interface between them?


This project has been broken into four main sections. Click on the links below to view summaries of each one:

1. SCANNING for weak signals in the external environment

2. SCENARIOS of potential futures for the year 2044

3. STRATEGIC OPTIONS for our present-day stakeholder

4. a TIME MACHINE to turn one scenario into a tangible future


Our team first scanned the wider environmental context of our research topic using a STEEPV framework (Social, Technological, Environmental, Economic, Political, Values) to check the pulse of democratic life in Canada. The signals below illustrate an abridged sample of those uncovered during this process.

Click to Enlarge:


Based on the signal analysis, our team began to cluster trend data into a long list of drivers and map them into an uncertainty/impact matrix in order to arrive at our key critical uncertainties. In doing so, we realized those in the highest impact and uncertainty quadrant provided a rich cone of possibility for exploring several alternative futures for Canadian democracy. These represented two broad paradigms affecting Canada’s democratic life, and became the foundation for the 2x2 matrix used to generate our scenarios:

1. the structure of governance (hierarchy / network)

2. the dominant view of society (individual / collective)

Notably, based on our research, we also situated ongoing technological developments (AI & ICT) within the realm of high impact and low uncertainty, and thus all but one of our scenarios are strongly influenced by this driver of change. 

The Audience(s): 

Our scenarios speak to two audiences. First, the federal public service. This is the non-partisan administration responsible for managing the process of governance in Canada. Second, the citizenry who are eligible to vote within Canada.

The continuing increase in voter apathy is a concern for democratic governance. Finding new ways for citizens to participate in policy development may contribute to re-engaging citizens with the political process.


Following the creation and critique of our possible futures scenarios, we were tasked with using them to inform a set of strategic options for a present-day stakeholder. In our ongoing scanning for signals and trends, we had already noted in discussions the ubiquity of articles and media coverage of the proposed “Fair Elections Act”, a document being put before the Canadian Parliament that would directly impact the work of Elections Canada, the government agency responsible for carrying out all our federal elections. It struck us as a timely, relevant and exciting organization to consider within the context of our framing, as they work directly in the space where citizenry and governance overlap, and are inextricably linked to how our democracy functions in Canada.

The strategies shown above have been spatially located within the 2x2 matrix established for the previously crafted scenarios. In this diagram, H1, H2 and H3 relate to Curry & Hodgson's Three Horizons model. The First Horizon (H1) in this model is characterized by the dominant mode of the prevailing system - it is the world of “business as usual”. The Third Horizon (H3) represents ideas of transformative change that are emergent but marginalized in the present, while the Second Horizon (H2) inhabits the collision space between the First and Third Horizons. It is characterized by transition and instability, where the values of the dominant narrative (and its embedded structures) clash with emerging models for the future.

The strategic options outlined above have been broken into three separate categories based on the degree of change-making required. In crafting these scenarios with Survival, Growth and Transformation in mind, we have attempted to balance the current reputation of Elections Canada (and its constraints within the Federal Civil Service) with the obvious need to cope with dramatic change in the span of 26 years. A status quo option, ‘Don’t Frighten the Horses’, has been offered, but comes with many caveats - including a requirement to maximize efficiencies and to closely monitor the environment for signals that more drastic change is necessary.

Other options, like ‘POP Democracy’ and ‘Democratic Experience Lab’, push Elections Canada outside their current comfort zone and into a space of innovative exploration where traditional mindsets and assumptions are questioned. We understand that unorthodox methodologies are a harder sell within a slow-moving hierarchical system like the Government of Canada, but recent signals have shown sparks of "intrapreneurialism" infiltrating similarly bureaucratic governments around the world (including Policy Horizons Canada, an excellent example of an agile and innovative organization within the Canadian civil service).

Recommendations of more radical change (‘Transparent Democracy’ and ‘A.I. is the Message’) also come with an understanding of Elections Canada’s unquestionable need to maintain credibility as a trustworthy organization. Regardless of which future transpires, we expect this to remain a distinctive competency for the organization. Finally, combining elements from 3 strategic options - ‘Focus on Youth’, ‘Democratic Experience Lab’, and ‘Don’t Frighten the Horses’ - ‘Cover Your Assets’ offers a balanced combination of strategies to leverage all three of Election Canada’s strategic themes of Accessibility, Engagement and Trust.

Click on the strategies below to read them in full:


The purpose of identifying drivers, generating scenarios for possible futures, and developing strategic options is not to predict the future with certainty. Rather, contemplating possible futures can ignite present-day strategic considerations, be they at the personal, community, organizational level – or beyond. The challenge lies in how to bring people into these possible futures, so that they might gain perspective and deep insights into what they imply for the present. Scenarios – which read as short narrative stories – certainly have that power.

Experiential Futures – ‘time machines’ as extensions of the scenarios – blow open the narratives beyond the page and into the three-dimensional realm. Activating different senses, these experiences have the potential to allow participants to suspend their disbelief and ‘time-travel’ to the futures.

Our time machine project took one of our scenarios – “Vote Early, and Vote Often” – and turned into an immersive experience. The goal, as described above, was to give people a ‘taste’ of this particular future. As we were only able to choose one scenario for this aspect of the project, it was important that we consider our choice carefully. Our chosen scenario sits in what we would call a ‘Horizon 2’ space – somewhere between now and a radically different future. The Horizon 2 space embodies qualities of both past, present and future and is often symbolic of tumultuous change and the tensions implied by a range of possibilities.

Top: A glimpse of the one-page rental sheet and the real estate agent introducing the space;  Middle: Panoramic view of Apartment 2040. Bottom: Time machine participants exploring the apartment's space.

Top (L-R): Talking plant; participant exploring the details of Apartment 2040; Bottom (L-R): Personal data protection spray; Participant reading tenant's personal journal.

Top: Samples of uncovered data chips hidden in consumer goods; Bottom: The tenant's work table, featuring a running shoe with an embedded data chip awaiting removal; a closeup of the data chip inside the shoe, and accompanying note.

Top: Digita personal assistant packaging; Middle: Digita's projection stream; Bottom: Weekly 'Analog Outreach Programme' referendum information packs from the Government of Canada. (Photos courtesy of Trevor Haldenby)


Ultimately, we chose to create a future that may appear banal at first glance. We created an apartment – a place that, initially, may feel familiar or even appealing. We cast backward and realized that little has shifted in how homes are set up in North America. Bed, desk, lamps… Some of these weren’t likely to change beyond recognition in the next 26 years. However, some more subtle aspects of change may be observed in the space,signifying cultural, political, and technological shifts. Representing these became our task. We wanted participants to walk away asking questions of themselves, but with their curiosity satiated enough to feel they’d had a glimpse of something plausible and that merited further contemplation. 

While the in-class scenario critique allowed us to understand our narratives of the futures through others’ eyes, it was really the experiential futures process that permitted us to more deeply contemplate one of our scenarios, and to gain insights from participants’ responses to it. The richness of this exercise, from start to finish, brought us full-circle back through the foresight process, bringing to light aspects of our projections that rang true, or felt ‘tinny’. It was the paradoxes in the scenarios that became most interesting to us: the tensions that lay in each of these possible futures, and what they signify for the present. Big data, crony capitalism, participatory sensing, the value of referendums: these, and more, became part of our everyday consciousness, and are perhaps emerging on the radars of those who time travelled to Apartment 2040.

Full Report: The Futures of Democracy

Completed: 2014

Team: Chris Connolly, Laura Dempsey, Ron Memmel, Amy Satterthwaite, Jill Sharrock

Foresight Studio Instructors: Dr. Stuart Candy  |  Greg Van Alstyne

Awards: 1st Place, Graduate Student Team by the Association of Professional Futurists (Student Recognition Program 2015)