Skip to main content Skip to navigation

Democratic Design: modelling political futures

In today’s liberal democracies, politics displays widespread disaffection and cynicism – voter turnout is low, established parties are in decline, and politicians are distrusted. A number of new democracies are facing challenges of corruption, social division, and the rise of authoritarian politics. At the same time, new democratic ideas and energy are generated by new movements from Occupy to #MeToo. Innovative new ideas such as Participatory Budgeting in Brazil are being adopted around the world.

How do we create a toolkit to help us make sense of new ideas for democracy? The main goal of this project is to forge these tools, draw them together in a democratic design framework, and show how to use them: how for example can democracy in this place, at this time, be made more engaging, effective and inclusive?

Democratic Design is an interdisciplinary project. Crucially, insights from Design Studies will deeply inform the project, including:

  • working from first principles and daring to think what democracy could be,
  • a certain humility (to design is normally to redesign),
  • highlighting the role of people who use and take part in democracy (especially ordinary citizens),
  • working on new and practical solutions (e.g. a democratic design to address global warming)

The core question of democratic design is: here and now, what combination of institutions, in what order, at what levels of a polity, may best realise key democratic principles? Whether for example it is a plan to replicate the benefits of institutions of participatory budgeting from Porto Alegre to a wider range of Brazilian cities, to design new local governance procedures in post-revolutionary Tunisia, or to address the ‘democratic deficit’ in the European Union by increasing the pressure on the Parliament and Commission to respond to European Citizens’ Initiatives, the democratic design framework can enable the work to be robust, imaginative and practical.

Some institutions within the project are familiar, such as an elected parliament with legislative authority, regulatory public agencies, and national and local elections. Others are less so in some countries, such as the citizens’ initiative and referendum, electronic town meetings, and participatory budgeting. New ideas of hybrid and mixed systems, for example ones that combine direct, representative and deliberative devices, will play a key role in the project.

Democratic Design builds on a record of writing on democracy 

The project is challenging in terms of methodologysee this blog reflection

The Leverhulme Trust was established by the Will of William Hesketh Lever, the founder of Lever Brothers. Since 1925 the Trust has provided grants and scholarships for research and education. Today, it is one of the largest all-subject providers of research funding in the UK, distributing approximately £80m a year.

For more information about the Trust, please visit

Leverhulme logo

Michael Saward, Professor of Politics and International Studies

Leverhulme Major Research Fellow