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The University of Southampton
Centre for Democratic Futures

Research projects

CDF encourages research informed by a wide range of theoretical and methodological positions directed to the goal of sustainable democratic futures. Here is a taster of the types of multi-site and multi-partner research projects in which our members are engaged.

Democratic Simulation for Citizen Participation

How can we ensure better equality of participation and higher quality of participation in collective decision-making?

This project aims to support future democratic participation by building a web-based simulation tool in the form of a game in which each player acts as a local government representative, implementing local laws as they see fit, and thereby learning about participation issues and democratic choices. Our game will provide a safe environment for players to learn and experiment, and is based on a novel, sophisticated mathematical theory that allows us to simulate parts of the population, including their various political interests and other variables (e.g. health, status, education, and their interactions with the government and other players. The players will be supported by a new and highly innovative AI nudge system, able to mediate conflict and to identify stable coalitions & fair outcomes. A semantic learning framework will generate events to connect players with each other, which will allow players to shape policy decisions that do not directly affect their own playable experience. With the pump-priming funding available, we plan to develop a minimum viable prototype of the game.

The full version of the software will provide a fun, creative and engaging platform for citizens to create scenarios that represent their choice towards a local challenge: an interactive space where citizens have a voice and make choices that suit their needs. Researchers, players of the game, as well as policy makers will be given a new appreciation on how inequalities can shape democratic disengagement and increase polarisation. Likewise, academics & policy makers, investigating data from game plays, can learn & understand how to mediate and challenge inequalities via web-based technologies and how to better enable equal participation.

Principal investigator: Professor Joerg Fliege

Co-investigator/s: James Stallwood, Dr Vanissa Wanick

Learning to Live with Risk and Responsibility: Understanding Popular Responses to COVID-19

Funded by the British Academy. Principle Investigator: Nick Clarke, Geography and Environmental Science, University of Southampton. Co-Investigator: Clive Barnett, Geography, University of Exeter.    

During the COVID-19 pandemic, British citizens have been asked to act responsibly in novel ways because of the risks their behaviour poses to others and their role in complex chains of causation. This project investigates how citizens have responded to these demands, aiming to advance conceptual and empirical understandings of popular responses to the pandemic. Making use of data collected by Mass Observation, the research will develop a better understanding of how people interpreted demands to act responsibly and translated them into practices of everyday life. Expected outputs include publications on how government public health communications and associated news coverage problematized the daily routines of citizens during the pandemic, and how citizens responded to these publicly circulated imperatives to act responsibly. A research workshop is planned in partnership with Mass Observation to explore how the archive’s collections can be most effectively used to advance understandings of popular responses to COVID-19.  

Rebooting Democracy: Democratic Innovation for the Information Age

Despite continued support worldwide for democracy as a regime, democracy as a practice is suffering. Threats include declining trust in government and political parties, distorted digital communications, and rising populism and polarisation in politics. In a positive response, governments, businesses, and charities are already reimagining democracy. They have designed inventive democratic services and devices that can help sustain democratic order. Some examples include participatory budgeting, randomly selected juries, and different forms of referendums. These social innovations are often supported by civic technologies, open data applications, citizen science, and behavioural nudges such as information cues that increase civic volunteering. Yet we know little about what works beyond case studies – and we know that some of these interventions can increase disengagement, misinformation, and manipulation. A number of projects have begun to collect systematic data on how these devices improve democracy (or do not). Despite the abundance of information, research has yet to take advantage of the analytic potential of data science and new technologies. This project brings together traditional survey data, and new forms of crowdsourced and real-time data to understand what interventions actually help to sustain rather than hinder democracy.

Understanding Trust and Trustworthiness in National and Global Governance (TRUSTGOV)

What drives public trust in governance around the world? Why should critical citizens seek to ‘trust but verify’? And what can be done to strengthen the optimal level of trust? There is widespread concern that public confidence in democratic institutions and trust in democratic governance is under threat. This is one problem but in fact risks can also arise where citizens are naively trusting of untrustworthy actors. The TrustGov project aims to understand the links connecting trust and trustworthiness. 

Social and Political Change in Britain (1945-1991): Restoring Hundreds of Historical Public Opinion Surveys

This project will restore hundreds of previously unanalyzed British public opinion polls conducted between 1945 and 1991. The data are currently stored in ‘column binary format’ based on IBM punch cards, rendering them inaccessible to most researchers today. Digitizing the survey questionnaires and converting the data to modern formats will support new research and teaching by providing valuable insights on how the British public thought about key issues, personalities, and events, including the government, party leaders, international crises, and support for specific policies. The data also include insight into every-day activities, such as shopping, going on holiday, and seeing movies.

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