CCC and DemocracyNext Announce Tech-Enhanced Pop-Up Lab to Advance Citizens’ Assemblies

Collaborative two-year experimental lab will focus on ways AI-powered technology can help promote more effective civic engagement

12.15.2023 | MIT Center for Constructive Communication
From left: Claudia Chwalisz, founder and CEO of DemocracyNext), Dimitra Dimitrakopoulou, CCC’s head of translational research, and Prof. Deb Roy, CCC’s Director, led a workshop at MIT on tech-enhanced Citizens' Assemblies in September of 2023. Photo by Artemisia Luk.

In an era of technological transformation in which social media and generative AI are disrupting our processes of communication and democracy, the MIT Center for Constructive Communication (CCC) and the non-profit DemocracyNext have launched a two-year pop-up lab, based at the MIT Media Lab, to harness powerful AI technologies to create constructive, tech-enhanced, and human-led systems shaped by the proven model of Citizens’ Assemblies worldwide. 

“Citizens’ Assemblies are more important now than ever in our increasingly polarized society,” says Dimitra Dimitrakopoulou, CCC’s head of translational research. “It’s important to go back to the ancient wisdoms of facilitation, dialogue, deliberation and combine them with powerful technologies that allow us to scale the ways we connect and listen to each other in order to find a common ground for meaningful discourse. In our deeply divided world, Citizens’ Assemblies are growing in importance as one of the more successful, action-oriented vehicles to promote this meaningful dialogue at the community, national, and even international level. The tools that we design and prototype at CCC enable us to add a technology layer on deliberation practices to amplify community engagement, easing the burden of the deliberative process while making it more transparent and accountable.”

Claudia Chwalisz, the founder and CEO of the international research and action institute DemocracyNext, and co-leader of the pop-up lab, has dedicated her career to promoting this resurrected model of democracy. “At DemocracyNext, we have found that the simple act of getting a group of randomly selected citizens together for an extended period of time to learn in depth about an issue and work toward a shared set of recommendations for addressing it, can lead to innovative ideas and political breakthroughs. It is a transformative process for all involved, awakening people’s sense of agency. Until now, the use of technology to enhance Citizens’ Assemblies has been underexplored, so I’m especially excited about this collaboration to prototype and deploy technology in ways that strengthen the deliberative quality and sense-making process, enable the creation of voice-enriched public archives, and increase trustworthiness and ease of scalability,” says Chwalisz.  

CCC Director Deb Roy, MIT professor of media arts and sciences, emphasizes the great importance of expanding Citizens’ Assemblies and similar public forums. “The breakdown of civic and democratic processes in today’s environment is very real,’ he says, “and so we must fast track our efforts to design systems that enable people to come together with the assistance of advanced technologies to find solutions that can work for all of us. Our hope is that the work we’ll be conducting in collaboration with DemocracyNext will be an important step in accomplishing this.”

This two-year pop-up lab will explore ways to use new technologies, including state-of-the-art AI, to improve all three phases of the assembly process: preparation for the assembly, what happens during the assembly, and post-assembly follow up. To achieve this, researchers and student participants will design and prototype new tools, as well as evaluate existing technologies developed by CCC and its close non-profit collaborator, Cortico. The goal is to incorporate these approaches into real-life Citizen Assemblies, promoting transparency and helping to build trust and legitimacy. 

Specifically, lab work will focus on: 

Setup (before the assembly) 

  • Enable and amplify community engagement by capturing the voices and experiences of diverse communities to inform the deliberation process
  • AI-powered sensemaking and synthesis of analytic listening to embed community voice into the deliberation process
  • Improve the process of preparing learning materials, making it easier for organizers, and more engaging for the assembly members 

Deliberation (during the assembly) 

  • Enhance the group building process of icebreakers and identify shared values
  • Enable the learning experience to be more effective and engaging 
  • Support deliberation in both small group conversations and plenaries 
  • Create AI-powered sensemaking and visualization to enable visible connections between small group conversations and plenaries and help assemblies quickly and more effectively analyze and synthesize the contributing voices  
  • Support the process of finding consensus on shared recommendation
  • Support the transition from deliberation and proposition of general ideas to the drafting of specific recommendations 

Deliverables (after the assembly)

  • Develop publicly accessible and visual archives of the deliberation process, grounded in citizens’ voices, to document the deliberation process
  • Enable transparency, visibility, and a deeper understanding of the deliberation process that will help garner trust and legitimacy. (Earlier examples from CCC and Cortico include work with Community Voices: COVID and Beyond in New York City, and Real Talk for Change in Boston.)

The first year’s efforts will be focused on an initial proof of concept with the formation of a Tech-Enhanced Student Assembly at MIT. This model will offer a hands-on, experiential learning opportunity for MIT students. The researchers and students will then test and evaluate the potential of this model to scale through a high-impact field pilot. 

The goal for the second year is to take the information gained during the first year and apply lessons learned to prototyping, testing, and evaluating tools and methods to extend features and capabilities of the technology, integrating these into the Assemblies’ key infrastructure. 

“We see this lab as part of a major step forward for critically needed consensus building across divides,” says Chwalisz. “And as such, as key to our effort to preserve democracy at such a critical time.”

About MIT CCC

The MIT CCC, based at the MIT Media Lab, is designing and prototyping state-of-the-art tools, methods, and systems that connect rather than divide us to create a healthier society. These systems build the foundations for a civic infrastructure that, in the context of Citizens’ Assemblies, amplifies community engagement and input, enhances all phases of the deliberation process, and allows transparency and visibility. MIT CCC’s unique collaboration with the non-profit organization Cortico enables collaboration on IP, prototyping, and field pilots allowing the use of the Fora, a dialogue and listening platform designed to enable bringing communities together for listening, understanding, and sharing. Grounded in voice, the technology builds on constructive communication practices that trace back to ancient wisdoms of facilitation and dialogue that are uniquely paired with AI-supported tools that allow listening and sensemaking at scale. 

About DemocracyNext

DemocracyNext believes in a more just, joyful, and collaborative future, where everyone has meaningful power to shape their societies. We are an international research and action institute with a mission to shift political and legislative power to people in new democratic institutions such as Citizens’ Assemblies. The DemocracyNext team is at the forefront of international research and design of Citizens’ Assemblies, having led the OECD’s flagship studies analyzing 600 examples across the globe, establishing international standards of good practice, and designing the world’s first permanent Assemblies anchored in law. DemocracyNext is working to develop the tools, resources, and capacity-building programs that build the field to enable a systemic shift, with many more permanent Citizens’ Assemblies existing across the globe.