September 25, 2013

Toward a 21st Century Social Contract at TEDxCarthage

On September 22, Reboot Co-founder and Principal Zack Brisson took the mainstage at TEDxCarthage. Addressing the event theme of “Trust As New Currency?”, Zack spoke to how the crisis of legitimacy facing governments worldwide is evidence that our social contracts are due for renegotiation. The video and full text of the talk are below.

Do you trust your government? If you do, you’re in the minority. Just last month Gallup reported that Tunisians’ confidence in government has plummeted to 32%. Approval of leadership is an even more disparaging 23%.

Don’t worry, you’re not alone. Last week I woke up to this headline, “Fewer Americans Than Ever Trust Government to Handle Problems”. It was the latest in a slew of similar headlines to appear worldwide in recent years. Headlines like these only affirm what events have told us, in Tunisia, in Egypt, in Libya; in the streets of Rio, Moscow, Athens and New York; in Aleppo, Homs and Damascus…

…the list goes on.

A Contest for Survival

Our trust in government is in deficit because our governments are proving deficient at managing the trials of our time.

At the dawn of the 21st century, humanity is the most connected, imaginative and capable we’ve ever been. Yet our modern age is rife with vast instability and conflict, unrest and unpredictability. Struggle and strife and dissatisfaction are palpable the world over.

These are symptoms of the bigger tensions tearing at the fabric of our global society—resource scarcity, economic inequality, geopolitical transformation, technological upheaval. All while we seemingly lack the appropriate mechanisms to manage them.

Historically, we’ve relied on our families, communities and governments to grant us some protection from these threats. Yet their modern scale is well beyond what we can expect of our families and neighbors. And our governments seem unable, or unwilling to manage.

I know that argument may provoke criticism, but I stand on recent events. For instance, in America, we recently saw our government allow Wall Street to destabilize the entire world economy through a combination of weak regulation, and the institutional embrace of greed. Globally, nations simply can’t agree to curb the existential threats of nuclear war and catastrophic climate change.

Today in 2013, our contest for survival appears no more guaranteed than a thousand years prior, and perhaps even less certain.

History of Social Progress

But, I promise, I didn’t come here to depress you. While recognizing the scale of our challenges, I remain an optimist for the human experiment.

I’m a student of history and philosophy, and these traditions have given me a common hope for civilization. For when we look inside ourselves, we see that we are social and creative. And an examination of our history shows that time and again we’ve found ways to work together to overcome existential challenges.

And I believe that it is precisely the high stakes of our current contest for survival that can give us all space for optimism.

The history of social progress, after all, is the story of how we managed our most critical contests:

When populations, proximity or public resources have changed, our societies have advanced to cope and survive. This is the story of the human spirit triumphing over our instincts and environment. In our contests to improve failing governments, this has sometimes meant a turn towards revolution.

Revolution is an important means for progress, and I believe in the spirit of 1776, 1848, 1989—and of course, 2011. But equally important, I believe that the euphoria of revolution does not end with the overthrow of an autocrat. Radical change much be accompanied by an equal contest to build something better.

This is the contest we’re engaged in now, not just here in Tunisia, but the world over. And this contest has the potential to yield one of our greatest social innovations yet: a 21st century social contract.

The Importance of the Social Contract

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a social contract as “an implicit agreement among the members of a society to cooperate for social benefits”. In other words, I, a member of the public, accept the authority of a governing institution from which I expect services—security, infrastructure, education, health care—in return.

As the bedrock of all governing legitimacy, a social contract must be inclusive by definition. Absent sufficient buy-in from the public in the powers that be, there is no social contract—there is no legitimacy.

Sound familiar? Without legitimacy, our governments fail us. At best, they simply fail to meet our needs. At worst, they abuse us and impede the progress of civilization.

The crisis of legitimacy afflicting governments worldwide suggests that our social contract is due for renegotiation. And with good reason!

Our most influential governing institutions no longer seem up to the job. In the face of the complex tensions facing our global society, they operate from the altogether different era they are from. An era with markedly different circumstances:

It doesn’t take much reflection to find the shortcomings of these ‘operating principles’. We live in a reality:

In short: Our world has changed, but our governing institutions have not. And so our previous social contract is no longer adequate. The result is the instability and conflict, unrest and unpredictability around us. Some, understandably, see this reality as the breakdown of civilization.

I see this as the clarion call to revitalize and reboot how we govern human affairs; I see this as the opportunity to create a 21st century social contract.

What Is To Be Done?

What then might that look like?

Well first and foremost, a new social contract must be exponentially more inclusive. Yes, the last several centuries have seen incremental increases in inclusiveness. We’ve slowly ended slavery, empowered women and recognized diverse beliefs within our societies. But this hasn’t been nearly enough. Billions around the world are still excluded from economic opportunity, forced into fear for their safety and ignored in the halls of government.

We can’t begin to speak of a 21st century social contract without first addressing the structural flaws of the previous one.

Achieving this level of inclusivity will be difficult. It will take more than just SMS crowdsourcing tools and open government portals releasing datasets of limited public utility. These advances in our capabilities are only socially useful when they create meaningful opportunities for engagement between the public and those that govern them.

I suspect most of us in this room will agree. But how exactly do we do that?

I’ve been fortunate in my work with Reboot to test many of these themes on the ground working with governments, civil society and international organizations; in contexts as diverse as the United States, Pakistan, Nigeria and here in Tunisia. I by no means pretend to have a pocketful of solutions to these foundational issues of governance—no one does. But I have picked up a few ideas along the way that I hope can seed further exploration of how to structurally evolve our models of governing

First, we should not fear the contests defining our time, but rather embrace them.

Remember, the history of social progress is the story of how we managed our most critical contests. These are an inevitable component of human existence and the coming period is likely to see greater contestation than ever before.

Yet so many of our policies and so much of our discourse is based on the premise that contests are bad and should be avoided or minimized. But contests are not intrinsically negative in their process and outcomes. In a world of scarcity, contests are the central starting point for constructive collective action.

Rather than making policies meant to quell or dismiss contests, we should turn our thinking to their socially constructive role. Contests represent areas where diverse interest groups have the incentive and capability to find collective solutions. Those exchanges can be fostered with nurturing for contests that are more inclusive or likely to produce mutually beneficial outcomes.

We see in our history contests that produced some of the most transformative and durable social advances. It was the contest between tyrannical monarchs and increasingly wealth nobility that led to representative governments of checks and balances. Elite merchants fostered this contests and built new institutions to compete with traditional forms of government. In an alternative case, as capital and labor contested the terms of the industrial revolution, trade unions emerged to aggregate worker’s demands, increasing access to rights and inclusion.

Second, authorities must be much more empathetic to those they serve.

Our interests are mingled and complex. Those are core, unchangeable constraints on how we interact. But the way we govern often exacerbates these constraints by removing human experience from the exercise of policymaking and public administration.

Government officials sitting in capital cities hundreds or thousands of kilometers from those they serve have an understandably difficult time relating to the complex lived experiences of their citizens. Gaps of empathy and accountability are the result.

We must develop forms of government that are more tangibly connected to the specific people and places they relate to. This will lead to greater accountability and improved public service delivery.

And finally, embracing failure can improve process and outcomes.

The bulk of human ingenuity and invention has been the result of trying something new in response to previous failures in problem solving. It’s clear then: Failure is an inevitable and necessary part of ‘progress’.

Yet our governments and other institutions of authority seem allergic to the notion of failure.

In matters of life and death, this conservative outlook is understandable. But it leads to an inevitable myopia and hubris. We so often hear the refrain “failure is not an option”. But of course failure is always an option, and so often the result. We are very far from utopia. By discouraging the norm of failure, we lose the ability to learn why something didn’t work, and adapt our approach to hopefully get things better the next time.

But it’s equally shortsighted to place the burden for this embrace of failure on governments alone. We as civil society and activists must also change how we think.

Our instincts are to scrutinize, criticize and challenge those in authority. This is understandable, given we’re usually excluded from the exercise of power. Yet it is also self-defeating. If we assault our governments every time they fail, they will remain conservative and fearful from including us in decision-making.

As the theme of today suggests, we must build more forgiving partnerships where we accept government failures as necessary steps towards progress.

This will be easier to accept if diverse perspectives are meaningfully included in the process of governing. And if we have credible means of holding our governments accountable when they fail to learn from mistakes that all can see.

If we embrace the idea that all progress is ‘failure based’, then we will have more empathy for each other when we realize we’re not where we want to be.


I do not stand here naïve or blind-eyed about the incredible difficulty of achieving substantial social progress. Countless brave souls have given their lives and livelihoods to advancing the arc of justice. More will do so. But I remain optimistic.

In part, because there are plenty of examples of positive progress already around us. Take for instance, the Open Government movement. Yes, it is in its infancy and has yet to find fully formed models of how government can work better. But the ethos, no matter the label of the day, has achieved widespread embrace, here in Tunisia and the world over. This shows the common appetite for the ideologies of participation, transparency, and inclusion.

And we see positive change in our most influential institutions. Take the case of the World Bank, a body that has long faced criticism for its opacity and unaccountable governance. Yet cultural shifts are happening inside the organization faster than any critic’s expectations. For instance, a recent internal evaluation reported that 70% of initiatives involving technology failed. The Bank openly released the report, publicly acknowledging its problems in delivering impact. And the World Bank is continuing to invest meaningful resources in technology, with open acceptance that failure will be a necessary and value added part of the process.

But beyond these constructive glimmers of what could be, I am optimistic for deeper reasons.

While we may have lost trust in our governments, I trust our collective ability to reshape our governing institutions in the image we need. I believe it’s possible, because the risks to our collective well-being are grave enough, that even the most entrenched interests have incentive to facilitate more inclusive governance.

I believe it’s possible, because I trust in the empathy of the human spirit, and because I know that more humans than ever before are engaged in the contests for civilization. This is increasing the opportunities for our better natures to shine. And I believe it’s possible, because of my experience working with communities just like this one. This work has taught me that when people have the means and opportunity to create and share, we would rather be constructive than destructive.

So despite the many challenges and uncertainties we face, I believe now is the best opportunity we’ve ever had to build the institutions we need to thrive in the 21st century. I also worry, we don’t have time to wait.

Thank you for letting me come and share a little bit of how I understand the world and how we might think about working together to make it better.

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