For many people, governance is an obscure concept. For those engaged in it, it often relates to organisational performance and oversight of compliance, culture, strategy, and risk. Prevailing models tend to concentrate control and reinforce power structures. Less often is governance designed to be generative, distributed, and enabling of self-organisation.
Given governance is, in essence, how authority and accountability is held and actioned in any given context, we think this core social infrastructure is ripe for innovation. Fortunately, the arrival of web3, coinciding with other pressures and shifts in the world, are inviting us to reframe, revitalise, and, in many respects, remember, what governance is and can be.
With this in mind, SuperBenefit DAO is convening a series of conversations to explore how the nature of governance is evolving and its role in accelerating transitions to better futures. We’re specifically interested in how web3 technologies are enabling new thinking and their potential to combine with existing practices, perspectives, and traditional wisdom.
The first conversation we hosted was on ‘meta-governance’. We gathered with a small group of founders and DAO-ers to discuss what it is and where it could take us.
The text below is an attempt to capture the key points and themes from the discussion. We have attributed specific points of emphasis, but our summary doesn't do justice to either the depth of conversation or the insights provided by the contributors. As a result, we encourage you to listen to a recording of the session.
There are different ways to unpack the ‘meta’ in meta-governance. A narrow definition, specific to web3, refers to the nature of governance created by index mechanisms that acquire tokens from various DAOs and protocols. With these tokens come governance interests and rights. This framing can be generalised to refer to how DAOs participate in, and influence, each other.
A broader conception of meta-governance relates to ‘how we figure out whole systems governance’ (Gabagool.Ξth) and deal with issues that impact everyone but can’t be controlled by any specific individual or entity. While this is salient in web3 in relation to core integrity issues (such as mitigating the impact of Sybil attacks), it also transcends the digital context. Indeed, systems governance (and inter-systems governance) will be critical in how we respond to challenges, such as climate change, and how we evolve the communities and societies we live within.
This more expansive framing of meta-governance also creates space to transcend current constructs of governance and speculate about where emerging trends are taking us and what could be possible.
Like the hard structures of boards and ballots in conventional contexts, much web3 governance gets reduced to token-weighted mechanisms. The emphasis rests on the act of governance - voting on proposals; rather than the process of governance - deliberation and wayfinding. And despite the intent to distribute and decentralise, token-based voting often slips into old patterns of concentrating power and influence.
If governance is to become more attuned and responsive to the systems dynamics it exists within, how do we find ways to ‘soften’ the flows of influence and authority? How might we match technicalities with the emergent energies produced within movements and networks? How can we harness social capital to sense and shape systems change? How might governance forums be more responsive to stakeholder sentiment and bottom-up interests?
Could we design governance systems to enable smaller and localised groups to express their interests and consent into ‘roll-ups’ (Bryan Petes). Could forums become more flexible to include representatives and specialised perspectives based on specific issues and context? We need to experiment more with bottom-up and localised decision making, and enable more people to engage on issues that are relevant to them - enabling them to come together as and when it makes sense to cooperate (Rowan Yeoman).
On this point, we also have to do a better job of communicating that ‘governance has teeth’ (Gabagool.Ξth) and that it's worth participating in. To do this, we need to better understand the roots of apathy (which may be an echo of the disenfranchisement experienced in conventional contexts) and be able to demonstrate that voice can have influence. Critically, ‘participation in governance requires education’ (justinehy.eth) for governance. We’re reminded that when Mondragon has acquired conventional businesses and converted them into cooperatives, that they take five years to enable employees to transition their mindsets and behaviours into those of active co-owners.
Many of the meta challenges faced by humanity today are the product of ‘doing a bad job of dealing with complexity’ (Bryan Petes). Artificial separation and simplification of sectors, entities, and interests has spilled over into any number of negative externalities and is leading to runaway consequences. Looking ahead, we need ‘systems of systems’ finding ways to interact and do better for people and the planet. Within this, we need to reframe governance as the stewardship of holistic interests rather than just specific ones.
Traditional governance in existing institutions will struggle to provide this reform, but the infrastructures provided by Web3 technologies, enabled by the cultural levers of ‘self-sovereignty (ED: this concept has different connotations - we lean towards ideas of self-determination vs. narrow property rights) and bottom-up influence’, offer the potential of ‘liquid democracies’ and genuine power shifts.
This is further aided by the incentives inherent in Web3. Rather than zero-sum scaling dynamics found in conventional (and Web2) commerce, Web3 ecosystems scale through mutual growth and success. In thinking about how we intentionally shape the direction and evolution of these ecosystems, it’s helpful to ask ‘how we might go about influencing the direction of an industry?’ (e.g. ‘Defi’) (Gabagool.Ξth). Might we use strategies like cross-DAO token holding to build coalitions of projects aligned around particular values and ethics?
These simple token swaps are dynamic and are creating some interesting results. They’re a means to weave interconnections and interdependencies, and for small parties to move together and raft their power - ‘Token swaps are a swapping and sharing of power’ (Gabagool.Ξth). We see amazing examples of trust and energy emerging from small, disparate groups organising in web3. It would seem that web3 is providing spaces for new value sets and norms to take hold, and becoming an attractor for people who seek radical but practical reform to find each other and act.
Importantly for a change agenda, the inherent properties of DAOs are attuned to ‘Autonomy, complexity, emergence, agency, and transparency’ (justinehy.eth) This affinity with complexity makes web3 and DAOs powerful infrastructures for the governance of systems and physical spaces. This can relate to evolving notions of ‘commoning’ - where actors take shared responsibility for stewarding assets and places for future generations. This can be seen in emerging experiments such as City DAO where there is a blurring of the metaverse and physical spaces to foster networked cities. To enable self-organising models to be responsive to their contexts, we need to ‘design for complexity in mind - minimum parameters in place but not too rigid - try to keep it simple’ (justinehy.eth).
The ‘meme of decentralisation’ often presents as something outside of us - as an inherent quality of the Web3 environment, but ‘it needs to be insisted upon and actively established’ (Gabagool.Ξth). Individuals acting across forums, networks, and protocols can curate experiences and spheres of engagement that promote this ethos and the emergence of values-based meta-governance.
We all have a responsibility to do this. Indeed, while increasing sensitivity to sentiment is important, transitions to better futures will demand greater pro-activity in shaping the values and norms of core industries and systems. Doing this well in Web3 will provide opportunities to harness digital infrastructures in physical contexts, and provide powerful tools to address some of our world's most urgent challenges.
If this caught your interest, join us for the next conversations. On June 16, 6.30-7.30 PM (EST), the conversation will explore: ‘DAO to DAO - what are we seeing and learning from inter-DAO cooperation?’. On June 30, 6.30-7.30 PM (EST), the conversation will turn to: ‘New and old - what can Web3 learn from and contribute to existing governance perspectives and practices?’. Set a Twitter reminder here.
Some other governance discovery being undertaken by @SuperBenefitDAO:
Header image: Aaron Neumann - Own work, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=84826213