Democracy has always had a problem with time.

No matter how it is organised – with different electoral systems or varying power splits between the executive, legislature and judiciary – it suffers from a fundamental temporal design flaw: the interests of future generations are typically ignored. The citizens of tomorrow are granted no rights or representation. There are rarely any public institutions explicitly designed to protect and promote their interests. They are excluded from the demos.

There are few political rewards for taking the interests of future citizens into account, especially when they are not here to vote.

This matters because never before in human history have our choices in the present had such potentially negative consequences for future people. The turning point may have been the first nuclear test on July 16, 1945 – the moment when humanity became capable of destroying its own future. But since then we have upped the stakes by creating a global ecological crisis that will have impacts for decades and even centuries to come, while multiple technological risks now lie just over the horizon, from nanotechnology to AI-controlled lethal autonomous weapons. At the same time, racial injustice and inequality get passed on from generation to generation, embedded in public institutions and cultural life.

None of this should come as a surprise. We all know that our politicians can barely see beyond the next election, or even the latest opinion poll or tweet. There are few political rewards for taking the interests of future citizens into account, especially when they are not here to vote.

Covid-19 has, somewhat paradoxically, made this myopia all the more visible. On the one hand the pandemic has understandably focused the minds of governments, businesses, communities and families on dealing with the immediate threat of the crisis. But it is equally clear that those countries that had long-term pandemic plans in place (such as Taiwan) have dealt with the virus far more effectively than those that didn’t have such foresight (like the USA). There is a growing recognition that long-term thinking and planning are essential for effective public policy.

Is it really possible to give future generations a voice?

So we need to step back and consider how it might be possible to extend the time horizons of democratic government. Is it really possible to give future generations a voice?

The good news is that there is a growing global political movement of people committed to intergenerational justice and injecting long-term thinking into the DNA of democratic decision-making. I think of these pioneers as Time Rebels. Well-known examples include the Future Generations Commissioner for Wales, whose work has inspired a Wellbeing of Future Generations Bill that would establish a Future Generations Commissioner for the whole UK. In the USA, the public interest law firm Our Children’s Trust has filed a series of landmark cases at the federal and state levels to secure the legal right to a healthy atmosphere and stable climate for both current and future generations. Such cases, fought on behalf of tomorrow’s citizens, mark a turning point in the long struggle for democratic rights.

Amongst the leading time rebels is Japan’s Future Design movement, which is directly inspired by the principle of seventh-generation decision-making practised in many Native American communities. This offers a unique and powerful model for revitalising democracy as we emerge from the Covid-19 crisis.

So how does it work? Local residents are invited to public meetings to discuss and draw up plans for the towns and cities where they live. They begin by discussing issues from the perspective of a current resident. They are then given ceremonial yellow robes to wear and told to imagine themselves as residents from 2060.

Photo of participants in yellow robes taking part in Future Design process
Future Design in action in Yahaba, Japan. Photo Credit:  Masaaki Takahashi and Ritsuji Yoshioka

This imaginative step of picturing themselves living – at their current age – several decades into the future, has an extraordinary effect. Multiple studies have revealed that they systematically favour much more transformative plans, whether discussing issues such as health care, the future impacts of AI or ecological threats. In effect, they begin imagining how their decisions today will impact on the lives of future generations – especially their children or grandchildren – and this shifts their priorities and choices. In technical terms, their ‘discount rate’ diminishes: they start putting more weight on the welfare of future citizens, whose interests would normally have relatively little impact on their decision-making calculus.

Part of the appeal of Future Design is that it is a grass-roots participatory form of decision-making that taps into the emerging citizens’ assembly movement

Future Design was founded by the Japanese economist Tatsuyoshi Saijo, director of the Research Institute for Future Design at Kochi University of Technology. It has been highly successful since its first experiments in the small town of Yahaba, which began in 2015. In 2019, Yahaba’s mayor opened a Future Strategy Office, which coordinates the use of Future Design across multiple areas of local decision-making. It has been used, for instance, to discuss long-term investment in the town’s decaying water infrastructure and resulted in an agreement to raise water tax rates by 6%.

Future Design has now spread to major cities such as Kyoto and Suita, and is being used in policy planning by the Japanese Ministry of Finance. In the city of Uji, local citizens have formed their own Future Design group and held online sessions with city officials to discuss the impacts of Covid-19.1

There is a growing body of research demonstrating that such deliberative citizen-based bodies have a greater capacity to take the long view than traditional politicians who are typically caught in short-term cycles and attitudes.

Part of the appeal of Future Design is that it is a grass-roots participatory form of decision-making that taps into the emerging citizens’ assembly movement, which has become a prominent part of the democratic landscape in Ireland, Belgium and other countries. In Britain, for instance, the approach was used for Climate Assembly UK and has been adopted for Scotland’s Climate Assembly, which is due to report to the Scottish Parliament in 2021. A more radical vision is at the heart of a new Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill.

There is a growing body of research demonstrating that such deliberative citizen-based bodies have a greater capacity to take the long view than traditional politicians who are typically caught in short-term cycles and attitudes. They simultaneously serve to restore public faith in democratic processes at a time when the rise of far-right populism threatens democratic rights worldwide.

The Covid-19 crisis may offer an unprecedented opportunity to mainstream citizens’ assemblies. As the economist Milton Friedman pointed out, ‘Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change’. Just as pioneering long-term institutions emerged from the crisis of World War Two, like the World Health Organisation, the European Union and the National Health Service, so too could such institutions emerge from the pandemic crisis. The citizens’ assembly model is one of the greatest hopes for enabling democracy to survive and thrive into the long term. And if participants are also given ceremonial robes to wear that help them time travel into the future, then we will truly know that a democratic time rebellion is under way.

This piece is part of the "Democratic Response to COVID-19" series curated by Involve and the Centre for the Study of Democracy at Westminster University.

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Roman Krznaric is a public philosopher and former political scientist. This article is based on his new book The Good Ancestor: How to Think Long Term in a Short-Term World. @romankrznaric. Photo Credit for portrait photo: Kate Raworth

  • 1. In its original incarnation, Future Design participants were split into two groups: one group from the present and the other representing 2060. While this approach yielded positive results in terms of encouraging long-term vision, it generated a certain degree of tension in debates between the two sides. So more recently Future Design has been based on a model where everyone imagines themselves both in the present and then subsequently in the future (and sometimes also in the past). Still, the results are similar: a marked tendency to extend time horizons beyond present-day concerns.