In Search of 21st Century Democracy: Two Weeks in Taipei


It matters what ideas we use to think ideas.

It matters what thoughts think thoughts. It matters what knowledges know knowledges. It matters what relations relate relations. It matters what worlds world worlds. It matters what stories tell stories.

—Donna Haraway

It matters what experiments we use to experiment.

Society and technology have undergone significant changes since the industrial age, and yet our structures of governance live in that era long past. Once appropriate, models of representative democracy appear sadly out of touch with our changed times and, even sadder, have ossified into systems of oligarchic power. The opportunities for experimentation and innovation generated by new technologies are changing popular expectations and creating opportunities for large-scale participation in governance. It is time to experiment with new structures. This is what Taiwan has been doing for decades—at first in academic circles, where social scientists worked on reshaping civic education, and now, after the 2014 Sunflower Movement, in a variety of open governance projects, across all sections of Taiwan society.

Shifting the balance of power is a core value that brings our team together. We are two women who have worked at the intersection of society and technology for many years—DZN as a neuroscientist and CS as a technologist. We find ourselves tired of institutionalized inequality and deeply feel the need for organizational structures that support inclusion, participation, self-reflection, and accountability.

This past summer we decided to take the plunge and started a participatory democracy project in New York City called vNYC, inspired by the cyber democracy project vTaiwan. In September 2017, as part of our research, we attended the week-long Civic Tech Fest in Taipei. We spent an extra week learning first-hand about Taiwan’s experiments in re-inventing democracy.

Nighttime shots from around Taipei. (Composites Collective)

Taipei architecture changed as we entered the city from Taoyuan International Airport, but was almost always, concrete, dotted with balconies, plants, and air conditioners. The city is short; the buildings are mostly three stories tall in old Taipei and not much taller in the newer neighborhoods of the city. There is something mesmerizing about the lit store panels and sign-covered streets of Taipei. Large, bold signs offering massages; karaoke indicated by round swinging festive lights; restaurant-fronts lined with delicious meats; 7-Elevens filled with all the Muji stationery we could ever want.

We cannot talk of Taipei without talking of scooters. There are scooters everywhere, both in sight and sound. Scooters packed with parents, packed with kids. The sound of scooters, the buzz and the din, is a constant of Taipei.

September 10 – 17: Taiwan Open Government Report Release Forum and g0v Hackathon at Civic Tech Fest

Our week began with a typhoon warning and a self-reflective examination of the development of open government in Taiwan at the Taiwan Open Government Report Release Forum. In the words of anthropologist Mei-chun Lee and activist Po-yu Tseng, authors of the Taiwan Open Government Report, “open government is not just a slogan of reform but a political movement. It redefines the relationship between government and civil society and connects government, NPOs, international society, and individual citizens to form a network of stakeholders so as to break bureaucratic hierarchy and facilitate open governance.” The political movement for breaking down hierarchies and facilitating open governance has started, and is growing steadily, propelled in no small part by Taiwan’s civic tech community, g0v (pronounced gov-zero).

g0v was started in 2012 by a group of coders who came together to ‘fork the government’—meaning, to build tools and processes that they would like to see the government offer. The g0v community works to promote transparency, engagement, and online democracy. Sunflower activist, g0v member, and now head of Open Culture Foundation, Min Hsuan Wu (ttcat) told us that in 2014, during the Sunflower movement, g0v set up the infrastructure that allowed occupiers within the legislative chamber to communicate with their fellow citizens outside. He said that this open flow of information kept Taiwan civil society united and facilitated the large-scale public deliberations conducted during the movement. g0v helped the protest turn into a successful demonstration of deliberative democracy.

what we are doing is providing a beta or an alternative choice of what government could be

—Kirby Wu, g0v member

g0v relies on bi-monthly day-long hackathons to bring their distributed community together. “The hackathons keep the community heartbeat,” says CL Kao, an early member of g0v. Over the last five years, g0v has organized 27 hackathons and lucky for us, their 5th anniversary hackathon was a part of Civic Tech Fest.

We were giddy with excitement as we approached the Taipei Air Force (TAF) Innovation space and saw the hackathon banners. This is where it all happens!

Inside the old base, registration tables were covered with colorful g0v pins, stickers, postcards, and all sorts of hackathon swag. Volunteers in yellow vests with red piping told us to make name tags and use the stickers to denote our skill sets. The sticker options were overwhelming. They ranged from coding languages, to design, to media, law, film, research—a testament to the diversity of the community. “There were over 80 percent programmers in our first hackathon,” longtime g0v member Ipa said. “Now there are about 40 percent programmers.”

g0v 5th anniversary hackathon. (Images of volunteers and hackathon space courtesy of 丞相.)

We put on our name tags and walked into a large banquet hall. The stage at the end of the space was flanked by two screens. One for presentations, the other for live transcription and note-taking—a standard feature of many of the group’s events we attended and a demonstration of the community’s fierce commitment to transparency, teamwork, and self-organization.

We learned that everything, down to the stickers, was made by a community member because they wanted to make it and share, not because anyone asked them to do the task. In fact, in g0v, there are no leaders, and there are no followers—everybody is a ‘nobody,’ and if you want something done, you are the ‘nobody’ who will lead the charge. It’s a play on the saying “anybody can do it.” Nobody can, nobody will. You must.

I am nobody, and you?

The ‘jothan’ task force is responsible for the infrastructure that keeps the hackathons going but the event itself is self-organized. Hackathon attendees bring their own extension cords and share, they brew their own coffee, and use their own tupperware for food. Hackathon projects are worked on by nobodies who dig holes, nobodies who fill holes, and nobodies who push other nobodies into action. At cleanup time we saw everyone pitch in.

g0v members view their actions as adhering to the principles of open source: openness and transparency, collaboration, creating environments of trust, self-organization, and distributed responsibility. These values sit so naturally with them, they were surprised when we probed them on their ideology and organizational structure. “Wait” said Ipa, flipping the interview around, “the way g0v is organized is special to you?” Our answer: “It is special.”

In a few short years the nobodies of g0v have built a stable movement of more than 1,000 contributors. They have rolled out some very impressive open source tools and processes, including a government budget visualization tool, a hacking briefcase tool called Hackfoldr, a legislator voting guide, and Moedict, a widely used online dictionary which includes Mandarin Chinese, Taiwanese, Hakka, English, French, and German. The now famous vTaiwan process is the result of a g0v hackathon project proposed by former Minister without Portfolio Jaclyn Tsai. “The key reason behind the growth of the community is that we encourage everyone to use the open source license,” Ipa said. “It’s an open and open source space [where] you can do something and share it with anybody. That sentence became very powerful [to Taiwanese citizens], beyond our imaginations.”

Monday, September 18: Public Digital Innovation Space, Executive Yuan

Our first visit after Civic Tech Fest was to the gated government quarter of Zhongzheng District. We had spent a segment of the Saturday hackathon working on website content with members of the Public Digital Innovation Space (PDIS, pronounced “p-dis”) and had been invited to visit them at the executive branch of Taiwan’s central government. The Executive Yuan building is a five-minute walk from the parliament building occupied by activists during the 2014 Sunflower Movement. Towards the end of the movement, activists entered this building too but were violently removed by riot police; dozens of people were injured and hospitalized in the resulting struggle. The activists did not manage to occupy the Executive Yuan in 2014, but they occupy it now.

In 2016, g0v member and Sunflower activist Audrey Tang was invited into the Executive Yuan as Minister without Portfolio. Shortly after, PDIS was incorporated into the government. Leaderless by design, PDIS is a significant experiment in taking activism into government and breaking bureaucratic hierarchy.

Interviewing PDIS member and vTaiwan Non Consensual Intimate Images case facilitator, Avross Hsiao, in PDIS offices.

The atmosphere in the offices of PDIS is casual and welcoming. The PDIS team is a tight-knit group of coders, designers, activists, legal experts. They work on experiments. Nobody dictates. Nobody follows. We were told by team members that Audrey Tang’s office is always open for anyone to come in and talk, or use the VR gear she keeps there. We set up our audio-video equipment in an adjacent space with leather sofas flanked by purple orchids. Team members walked in and out and we spoke to them one-on-one, in pairs, and at some point, to many team members in a circle. We couldn’t resist asking them how the orchids that surrounded us were kept so alive. To which Audrey replied: “The trick is that they are fresh, if you renew it every couple of days it’s fresh, it’s the same with democracy, if you [only] vote every four years it’s rotten.”

Strengthening Taiwan’s democracy is never far from their thoughts—or for that matter, the thoughts of many in Taiwan. PDIS member, former NGO worker, and Sunflower activist Billy Zhe-Wei Lin lived in China for four years. He first went there, he said, thinking that Taiwan should aim to progress like China. He returned to strengthen Taiwan democracy, certain that Taiwanese “should not have a life like in China.”

The PDIS team is impressively firm and unwavering in promoting democracy through accountability, transparency, inclusion, and participation, compelling others (both within and outside government) to negotiate with their distinctive ethos. For example, the PDIS practice of releasing all their meeting recordings and transcripts on their site has inspired us to release all of the raw footage from our visit to Taiwan to the public domain. PDIS tools, ideas, and research are also available online, and they welcome outside collaborations on many of their projects. In fact, after leaving Taiwan we began attending the meetings of their VR project, Holopolis. Although we come from spaces that value collaboration, the collaborative spirit embodied by PDIS was new to us. They seem totally disinterested in marking territory and unconcerned with how credit will be allocated.

The operations of PDIS rest on a deep belief that to even begin having successes with true participation (collaborative participation), we need to unlearn and relearn how we view ourselves within organizations. Break down hierarchies. Become nobodies. PDIS member Avross Hsiao describes her experience as a ‘culture-shock.’ PDIS, she says, is different from everything she has learned from school, everything she has learned from the family. “Parents are the leader in the family but here we have no leader,” she said. Shu Yang Lin added, “[In PDIS] everyone can lead and try to organize the team; to launch a project you have to pitch to other members in the team, you have to take ownership. If the idea is not attractive enough, no one will join you. The idea is not to lead others but to collaborate with others.” Shu Yang told us that in the design industry she behind, there were Design Leads, Senior Designers, Junior Designers; “Here,” she said, “I am just a person who can design.”

PDIS runs a Participatory Officers (P.O.) Network program, through which they train other public servants to think outside of hierarchy and use deliberation and participatory tools to solve the problems of their ministries. They are “infecting” traditional government with their way of thinking.

In the course of our later interviews, we found that the PDIS leaderless approach has critics. Some of the Taiwan activists we spoke to feel that in the hierarchical reality of today’s government, a leaderless approach within government will not be effective in advancing change. We, however, stay optimistic and patient. Based on our observations we feel that this is the beginning of a unique project, of new thought, and new experiment, the fruits of which only time will tell. Meanwhile, it is our dearest wish that many more ‘nobodies’ gain positions within the government and begin projects to ‘fork’ the government in different ways, with different results.

Thursday afternoon, September 21: Watchout Media Group

Watchout is an art/activism new media group. We met them at the Civic Tech main conference and again at the g0v hackathon. In the words of Watchout team member Chih-Hao Yu (chihao), “The mission of Watchout is to supervise government openness and empower people to participate in politics more.” In fact, Watchout was the first to report the 2014 “30 second” incident—the announcement by KMT committee chairman Chang Ching-chung that started the Sunflower Movement.

The Watchout office is located just across 228 Peace Memorial Park in the Zhongzheng District, so their reporters can dash over to the government buildings in 10 minutes if the need arises. We spent an afternoon there hanging out with the Watchout team and their cat Ugly, entertained and educated by the punchy political media they create.

One of their current projects is building the Watchout Commons, an open source civic tech toolkit and collection of services and content. One part of the Commons is a civic tech-political journalism project called Topical Data Lab, which turns ‘dirty’ data from Taiwan’s Congress into informative and understandable visualizations.

Left: Bill sponsorship visualization from Topical Data Lab. Right: “You draw it” tool for unemployment rate from three Taiwan Presidents.

The Watchout team also works on building civic courage by hosting ‘Ask your Legislator’ events in different parts of Taiwan. Citizens can vote on which legislators are invited to each event and then interact with them face-to-face (f2f). In the past they hosted similar events for mayoral candidates (in 2014) and presidential candidates (in 2016). Watchout’s objective here is to change the leader-follower dynamic and empower people to question their elected officials—thus shifting the balance of power and facilitating open governance.

Thursday evening, September 21: vTaiwan Stakeholder Meeting

Deliberation—listening to each other deeply, thinking together and working out something that we can all live with—is magical.

—Audrey Tang, PDIS member and Minister without Portfolio

Later the same Thursday we returned to the Executive Yuan to attend a vTaiwan stakeholder meeting. vTaiwan is a civic deliberation process that brings citizens and government together to craft country-wide digital legislation. These meetings are conducted by a ‘facilitator’ who oversees the entire vTaiwan process for a specific issue. The facilitator is usually a neutral party who has interest in the issue at hand but no direct connection. Meetings are attended—online and in person—by concerned citizens, scholars, representatives from government, representatives of the private sector, and members of the PDIS team. We won’t delve into detail here, but instead direct you to Liz Barry’s Civicist article about vTaiwan, our introduction to the cyber democracy project.

We sat in on two vTaiwan meetings: The first was for tackling the issue of non-consensual intimate images (NCII) or ‘revenge porn’; the second was for the regulation of drones. The meetings were conducted in Mandarin Chinese but this was not a disadvantage—we found the lack of distractions helped keep our attention firm on procedure.

It was very clear on entering the meeting that great care had been taken in designing the space.

Stakeholders are grouped by their respective domains (government, experts/scholars, citizens, private sector, etc.) and each group has a specific place at the U-shaped table. Every participant is provided with a lovely little snack bag, along with a physical copy of all the presentations.

vTaiwan Non Consensual Intimate Images (revenge porn) deliberation in the Executive Yuan. Stakeholders are grouped by their respective domains. The entire vTaiwan process is intentional and designed. (Composites Collective)

The meeting agenda is clearly posted. The posted agenda contains not just the start and end times of the meeting, but a detailed breakdown of meeting flow.

Facilitators use digital note-taking to document and mind-map in real-time. An audio-video crew captures the two-hour meeting and streams it on Livehouse.in, a live-streaming platform that also has a chat room for remote participants. A PDIS team member actively monitors the feed for questions and comments, using emojis and stickers to keep the conversation productive. Videos are released on the vTaiwan Facebook page where more citizens continue to engage throughout the week. During the non-consensual intimate images (NCII) case, 1,000 people participated on livecast, and 10,000 viewed the meeting on Facebook in the week following.

vTaiwan is used for crafting country-wide legislation pertaining to digital issues, such as personal data protection, unmanned aerial vehicle, e-clinic, and cyberbullying. Regulating the entry of Uber into Taiwan is one of the most prominent vTaiwan cases. To date, roughly 24 digital issues have gone through the vTaiwan process. It can’t be used to deliberate non-digital topics such as the death penalty, same-sex marriage, or environmental protections.

Our conversations with Audrey Tang gave us insight into some of the strategizing that went into the vTaiwan process. She believes that a practical benefit of tackling the digital sphere is that it allows the young vTaiwan methodology to be tested and perfected in an arena relatively clear of polarized ideologies and zero-sum thinking. Additionally, she feels that tackling digital issues gives room for deliberation and consensus to get ahead of ideologies, and “vaccinate” the population against future echo chambers. On mulling over the vTaiwan process while writing this article, we have caught another brilliant piece of strategy—soon all parts of our lives will in some form or another be in the ‘digital’ sphere (think digital media, drones, self-driving cars, inhabiting virtual reality spaces); which means, all legislation in Taiwan will soon come under the vTaiwan jurisdiction. There is a lot to be learned from vTaiwan’s methods.

Of course, the digital approach is not without its drawbacks—it is easier for the technologically savvy to engage. This may not be so in the future, but in the today, heavy focus on the digital can reproduce participation barriers along the lines of age, class, education, and income.

There are other experiments that are filling this gap and building up large-scale grassroots participation. These experiments rely less on digital engagement, and in their design, deliberation events go to the people, as opposed to people needing to seek out the deliberation events.

September 22 – 24: Meetings with Lu Chia Hua

Lu Chia Hua travels all across Taiwan, organizing and hosting workshops to train teams in deliberation methods. Lu Chia Hua has been working as a f2f facilitator since the early 2000s and was a key contributor to the Sunflower Movement deliberation process. She currently works with communities, local governments, and the central government.

We met Lu Chia Hua for lunch at activist-owned Tò-uat Books x Cafe Philo. She is more comfortable speaking in Mandarin Chinese, but through some gesturing and a lot of excellent translations from Lu Cha Hua’s friend, Sho, we gained insight into her thinking and work. The conversation started strong: “Chia Hua is saying that the ultimate thing that she cares about is—what we are doing, is it shaking the power? Is it disturbing the pond? Is it creating some kind of new dynamics?” Lu Chia Hua feels that often we talk about technologies and do not discuss the power relations between politicians, civil servants, and the general public. In her words, “It is a really important thing to distribute resources [and power] and also to work with NGOs that can campaign and work with communities and also be friends with the civil servants and understand their pain and where they are coming from.”

Lu Chia Hua’s business card.

“One of Lu Chia Hua’s main focuses is to train teams in different parts of Taiwan, and disseminate these new ways of thinking and functioning, into local groups and communities,” Sho told us.

At the end of lunch Lu Cha Hua invited us to a workshop where she taught NGO workers and activists how to facilitate civic deliberation on the death penalty issue. The session was conducted in Mandarin Chinese and we had some translation but not complete; it is to Lu Chia Hua’s credit that despite this, we were not bored for a single moment that whole day. One of the big lessons we learned from watching her is: when hosting citizen participation events, entertainment should not be undervalued! Lu Chia Hua provided a steady flow of jokes and conducted games to keep people moving and interacting. At one point she asked: “What type of animal represents the type of facilitator you will be?” The room filled with laughter as people came up with answers.

Lu Chia Hua’s methods are closely adapted to context. She says, “NGOs who do campaigning on different issues (eg. death penalty, environmental issues etc.), they have different experiences, different histories, so they are very different things and it is hard to mix them and imagine them as one thing.”

In the session we attended, potential facilitators were educated on multiple facilitation techniques. They were then asked to combine these techniques to come up with one that would suit their needs. Once they had each come up with a design, the room came back together, first in small groups and then everyone all together, to reach consensus on best design practices for various contexts.

Lu Chia Hua training NGO workers and activists to facilitate civic deliberation on the death penalty issue. (Composites Collective)

Design discussions also included details like how to make sure no participant hogs the microphone and deciding who should be invited to the event—for example, civil servants will be invited to provide expert opinions on content, and also comment on the feasibility of proposed ideas.

When trainees feel confident enough to be facilitators, they will travel to various parts of Taiwan and host deliberation events. It was decided that to facilitate a productive conversation on the death penalty issue, the topic would be structured as: “imagine alternatives to the death penalty”—not “discuss the pros and cons of the death penalty”—which would hopefully open the floor to discussion, not fights.

Monday, September 25: Return to New York City

Our two weeks in Taipei were coming to an end; early on Monday morning we arrived at Taipei Main Station to take the new underground express to Taoyuan International Airport. Transportation from the future, we called this metro line. The station itself looks more like an airport terminal than a subway station. There are moving walkways and even luggage check-in counters for passengers of certain airlines. We boarded the purple train line—in thirty-five minutes we were at the airport, waiting for our flight home and reflecting on what we had seen and heard on our trip.

In our inquiries into Taiwan’s experiments, we were sometimes journalists, sometimes researchers, sometimes design thinkers, sometimes futurists, yet always concerned world citizens looking for new models to make old, poorly-working models obsolete. The experiments we witnessed show that Taiwan is reconfiguring the foundations of their society, destructuring and restructuring to build for the future. We see their projects as adaptable and reproducible prototypes for future democracies everywhere.

Communicating the significance of the experiments we witnessed is truly an honor and a privilege. We thank you our new friends in Taiwan, for your successes, your struggles, your hospitality, your generosity, your audacity, your experiments.

It matters what experiments we use to experiment. We must experiment!

We would like to thank Liz Barry, Chihao, Gary Chou, Patrick Connolly, Ahmed El Hady, Joel Finkelstein, Avross Hsiao, Shu Yang Lin, Billy Zhe-Wei Lin, Audrey Tang, Danielle Tomson, and Cordelia Yu for their assistance in this work.

  • OMG squee! Beautifully done, y’all, and it was _such_ a wonderful experience meeting you there <3