DemocracyNext’s Newsletter: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy — and what we can learn from it

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This is the second in a series introducing members of the DemNext organization. If you missed the first one, a personal story from Project Leader on Urban Design James Macdonald-Nelson, check it out here.

To read the full interview:
Robbie Stamp is Chief Executive of Bioss International and a Senior Fellow at the Cambridge Centre for Resilience and Sustainable Development. He is also a film producer who worked closely with the late Douglas Adams on the film The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

How would you describe your background, and what brings you to participating as an Advisory Board member with DemocracyNext?

My background, I suppose, is quite a varied one, but I would go back to my undergraduate degree as a historian, because history has been a lifelong love.

Why did people do what they did? Why did that happen? This has been a wonderful, multifaceted lifetime quest. You end up with, in this vast ocean of unknowing, tiny little islands of knowledge — which, if you're lucky, there's the odd bridge between.

I've worked as a television producer, I've worked as a feature film executive producer. I've also been involved in running the company that my mother founded, a small boutique consultancy business, which has been fascinated with how people make decisions in the face of uncertainty and complexity.

How do you exercise your judgment, when you can't know what to do? If you know what to do and there are no variables, no chooseables, then you're not having to exercise your judgment. So judgment is inherently about uncertainty.

Those strands are also held together by storytelling. I was lucky to work with the late, great Douglas Adams, the author of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

I think one of the things that runs through all of Douglas's work is a fascination with uncertainty, doubt, perspective and a deep understanding that everything is perspectival. With regard to Homo sapiens and our view of ourselves in the great scheme of things: How do we both celebrate ourselves at our most constructive, minimize our most destructive selves, and get over ourselves at the same time? That’s incidentally probably true for all of us in our private and public lives!

It seems to me that sortition and participative democracy is an example of a kind of radical center, a new kind of radical humility, where we can explore that paradox. It's trying to find spaces where we are not driven apart, pulled apart by the centripetal forces of extremes. How do we build these deliberative spaces to engage radically better with complexity, with the paradox of our constructive and creative selves?

Deliberation says that problems can’t always be solved with ‘your first yellow sticky session’. Because if you could do that, the chances are it would have been done. It is only because these are gnarly, difficult problems and you need to provide the time to create the epistemic conditions — the physical space, the emotional space, the facilitative space — to grapple with the complexity.

That’s a long answer, but it's an answer which is to say, I think that this is some of the most important work one could be doing.


We recently hosted an event with another of our board members, Hugh Pope, as well as the author Yves Sintomer, whose books show that democracy by lottery has been part of the democratic tradition for as many years—if not more—than elections. In your early learning about democracy, did democracy by lottery ever come up?

Only in the Ancient Greek context, really. I knew that it was by lottery, but I knew that it was among a narrow section of society and that it excluded key groups.

If I'm really honest, I didn’t think about it much until a moment on a Zoom call with [DemNext Founder and CEO] Claudia Chwalisz. What Claudia talked about touched on decision making and judgment and uncertainty and teams working together. I was struck because there were some quite counterintuitive things for me around the collective grappling with complexity. And she used that phrase, “epistemic conditions” — I know it sounds a bit geeky but I love it!

After Claudia appeared in the Exponential View community, we got to talking, and I learned more, and she sent me Hélène Landemore’s book and the OECD papers. I became fascinated by how fast the ideas were growing and how practical they are. Here is something that could make a real difference, already is.

On another note, because I have done a great deal of work with organizations and institutions, I can also be a bit of a sounding board for DemocracyNext itself and its own organisational growth. What are some of the structural stresses and opportunities that will land on your shoulders, can I help?


I visited Bioss' website and saw that you are working on the question of “cognitive diversity” and how that can be put to constructive ends. That phrase comes up in our work as well, in the sense that elections tend to elevate a narrow form of intelligence, while Citizens’ Assemblies are able draw on the strength of our cognitive diversity. Could you expound on that?

Really interesting question. So where to start? Some of Bioss’ deepest roots are in the work of the great cyberneticians and complex adaptive systems thinkers, such as Gregory Bateson and his daughter Nora Bateson, Norbert Wiener, Ross Ashby.

Ross Ashby talked about something called the law of requisite variety. I will do it great injustice, but at its simplest, what I take away, is the powerful idea that any organism needs within it a sufficient variety of response to deal with the challenges of its environment.

If the organism doesn't have a sufficient variety of response, it will be competed out. It's true of a relatively simple organism, from the individual human, the social group, a organisation, a nation, up to, you could argue, the species at a planetary level.

One of the things about cognitive diversity that we have found over the years at Bioss, is that different people sense their world, or make sense of their world, in different ways — not just necessarily religious or ideological, but some people think more naturally, comfortably, in the widest contextual and relational space and some people are superb at delivering what is needed in the here and now.

There are of course different kinds of complexity in between. And we have found over the years that people are “in flow” at different levels of complexity and uncertainty.

To take a slightly bizarre example, if you need 50 camels dressed in tutus for a video shoot in Trafalgar Square at 6:00 a.m in the morning, somebody will be naturally brilliant, in flow, at making that happen. They might of course be moonlighting as a camel wrangler but that “work” does not inherently involve having to worry about geopolitical shifts or the breakdown of civic space in democracies.

Position: Co -Founder of ENGAGE,a new social venture for the promotion of volunteerism and service and Ideator of Sharing4Good

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