Designing a framework for thinking about society

For my own intellectual development in keeping up with modern times, it has become extremely important to understand the context of societal decision-making across an extended time horizon. What things are fundamental to maintaining and developing a modern standard of living? How do our decisions regarding matters of the day relate to the structures of a civilization that are not dependent on the context of the time in history that we currently inhabit?

How should a politician think about the structures that will always be around? Why is it important?

Though these are heavy questions, they all boil down to this: how do we define a standard of living at its simplest, and how do we go about making it real?

This is a very important pair of questions that will always be at the core of operating a society. If we cannot define a clear goal for a standard of living, it is impossible to devise a clear strategy for striving towards it. The purpose of this text is to convey my thoughts on measuring the standard of living of a society, on how to approach the design of a society at its simplest, and on how to consider the question of what services a society should provide at minimum.

With a clear definition of a goal, and how reaching it is measured, problems in societal leadership and management can be solved with more ease.

Considering what the world looks like now

To start, let’s take a step back.

Thanks to the rapid increase in media consumption that our modern society has faced during the past decade or so, ranging from the spread of smartphones to the services and content built on top of them, the skill of slowing down and taking a step back from the day-to-day has become more relevant than ever before in history. We’ve been washed away with real-time news and twitter-chatter, which has, in my view, led to the forgoing of political responsibilities to think across extended time periods.

This is not to say that it isn’t important to keep building a responsive working culture in politics and bureaucracy to serve our citizens better every day – quite the contrary, that is what we should be focusing on fully. However, responsiveness is hard to build efficiently into an organisation if clear priorities aren’t set on what to respond to in what order. Recent years have seen politicians fall prey to focusing on whoever is yelling loudest at them.

With a clear separation of duties between politicians and bureaucrats, and an understanding of why both play an equally important role in moving society forwards, we can be both long-term stable and short-term responsive. The separation of duties comes down to one of leadership and management, where politicians are the architects leading the design of a society, and bureaucrats are the managers in charge of building it.

Keeping this co-operation between politics and bureaucracy under control requires the design of a societal blueprint that can stand firmly across the test of time. Such a blueprint would allow politicians and bureaucrats to slow down, look at a common understanding of where society stands, and where it should be going. What would that design look like, and how would we go about framing it?

To design something, we need to give it a goal and build a strategy for how to commonly understand said goal, so that we can end up with a proposal of a design. In the next section, I present my thoughts on how to define a service level measure for a standard of living for a society, a pair of clear societal goals.

Afterwards, I present my design for a strategic blueprint for how a society could start going about making the pair of societal goals commonly understandable, and what services to start focusing on with full gusto. In time, that would allow for the construction of a political and financial strategy to fulfil promises made around those services, and meet the success measures they would be assessed by.

Redefining societal goals around clear measurement

In order for us to be able to draw out a design for a society that can stand the test of time, we have to consider how the moment we are living in now is similar to where we are from and where we are going. This thinking unveils the fundamentals of civilization – the parts of its operating mechanisms that will always be around in one form of another. It gives us something concrete to zoom back in upon when things get complicated in the day-to-day, and we need to focus our thoughts back on what’s important.

Fundamentals are important so that we have something to measure against across generations. If we can’t measure society, we have no way to define where we are in terms of standard of living compared to times of the past and the future.

They say GDP is outdated as a measure of a standard of living – and I agree. If we can define a fundamentally simple way of measuring a standard of living, one that actually makes sense in the context of the real life of a citizen, then we can start considering ways to strive towards better results from the present moment.

In my view, the functionality and service level of a civilization, my simplest definition of a standard of living, can be reduced down to two measurable factors:

  1. The financial sustainability of the supply-demand chain – the “time is money” argument: the supply time and accuracy of a good or service relative to when it was demanded and when it was demanded for
    • Example: a citizen is sick with a standard disease. How quickly is that disease cured?
    • Example: a citizen needs to get somewhere. How effectively does the national transportation infrastructure allow that to happen?
    • Example with an added quality measure: a citizen wants to invest time into an education. How quickly is a diploma constructed, and what is its worth in the job market?
  1. The moral sustainability of the supply-demand chain – the “money should be clean” argument: maintaining a net positive balance of externalities for society such that all costs are internalized by their creators, unless agreed upon separately as part of the political process, whereupon the cost is internalized by society
    • Example: an organisation gains a competitive advantage by illicitly bending environmental law. How fully are the costs allocated to shareholders?
    • Example: a municipality underutilizes the construction capacity it is provided by national infrastructure, such as a main railroad or highway cutting through town. How is the municipality charged by the higher governing body for access to infrastructure it is underutilizing, or is the municipality allowed to freeride on common goods? (this is happening at a cost of tens of millions of euros in Kirkkonummi, Finland, where I’ve been an elected council representative)
    • Example: an industry is protected for national security reasons, to preserve operative knowhow within a nation’s borders. How explicitly is this argument made in public by the politician in charge, and what is the cost-sharing agreement between society and the industry? Do the people agree with this protection, or would they rather trust neighboring states to provide a more efficient specialization of labor?

For me, a civilization is this simple. A standard of living is about removing the annoyance of needlessly laggard supply and not paying for the unsustainable actions of others. For me, Rawls’ justice as fairness in a society is realized through leadership focus on these two factors. In a society where I have reasonable delivery times for my reasonable demands, and am not unduly paying for the externalities of others, I believe I am being served justly and fairly by the state.

Once a citizen doesn’t have to live in uncertainty about the supply schedule for their reasonable life demands, and once a citizen can be confident that they are not responsible for the undue costs of others, then conditions exist for an individual citizen to take responsibility for their own life, again a goal of Rawls’ philosophy. For example, If we look at the rapid growth in demand of digital services across the past few years, then citizens seem to very naturally seek the removal of unnecessary friction in operating their lives, so that they can focus their time on what matters to them.

By looking at the world we live in today, the leap of faith to claiming that a society should optimize for service delivery time is not a huge one to make. In such a society, the societal machine is fully focused on working for the citizens as a whole, as it will be measured on how well it is actually serving them and what it is making them pay for. The individual citizen has no excuses when the system is running cleanly – providing what is needed for an egalitarian starting point in life and not misallocating costs. Initial definitions of what these needs are is discussed in the next section.

What makes a logistical philosophy of societal measurement so appealing is that the bureaucrats, the societal engineers who actually have to build politicians’ promises into reality, would end up having the final say on how they are measured. Politicians can always discuss what a reasonable time for service delivery is, because they listen to their constituents opinion, but bureaucrats know how delivering the service actually works. The co-operation between political leadership and bureaucratic management would have perfect conditions to blossom in.

Time is the least subjective opinion available as a measurement criteria, the easiest to compare relative to what a citizen was promised, and the most relevant for determining citizen satisfaction levels (no one wants to deal with a system any longer than necessary). Simultaneously, service delivery time can always be objectively compared with other societies.

Time will always be objective, once the definition of a reasonable time has been subjectively agreed by contract.

In short – time-based measurement allows for the co-operation of subjective opinions and objective comparison. It is metaphorical to the product engineers at the IT company my girlfriend works at, where the engineers count out their own estimates of engineering time for a client proposal, instead of having to work to a schedule sold by a salesman or project manager. Co-operation in determining delivery measurement criteria between sales and engineering is exactly the same as the co-operation of politicians and bureaucrats.

A design framework for society

What are reasonable, minimum-level demands for a citizen, and how quickly should they be supplied? How is individual sovereignty, the right to not pay for the unsustainable actions of others, unless otherwise agreed upon, maximized across time?

These are deep, underlying questions, the answers to which govern the progress of a nation – they are the underlying drivers providing the measurements for a determination of a standard of living, as discussed in the previous section. By considering the minimum building blocks of a civilization, we can begin to scope out a fair service level of a society towards its citizens:

At its most basic, a civilization is not too complex a system to consider. It starts with the obvious realization that the state of a society is the sum of its citizens and their perceptions of their standards of living, and how they project those perceptions in the decisions they make every day.

In the reality of today, perceptions of standards of living are as varied as the population – with no commonly understood scale of measurement, everyone is free to build their opinions of how good or bad life is according to whatever measure guides their thinking the most.

The capacity of individuals to logically project political and financial arguments across time varies greatly. Furthermore, the mix between learned and believed understanding of how a society works, and the capacity to see how an individual and a society are related as a function of each other, probably varies even more. The individuals that compose society are a full spectrum of capacity to make informed decisions, but all decisions will have an impact on the whole.

For this reason, it is imperative to simplify how we talk about a society so that it is understandable by a significant majority, but still functional for practical usage by the leading minority. At the end of the day, satisfaction will be determined by how objectively those serving and those being served can discuss measurement. This goal of shared understanding, in my view, centrally reflects Rawls’ opinion that it is the work of political philosophy to describe workable political arrangements that can gain support from real people.

The ultimate goal of this design for a societal blueprint is to begin working to create a common language for such a shared understanding between the leaders of society and those being led as part of it. What should be provided at minimum, and at what service level? Though it will likely take some time, I personally do not see it as too difficult of a job, rather as one that simply requires perseverance.

Introducing the components of the framework

The individuals that compose society will make decisions in financial life and in political elections that end up forming the following fundamental components. The goal is to show how a certain set of fundamental, existential markets rest on top of the foundations of society, and how those markets are a minimum baseline for a sustainable, fear-free life for any individual citizen.

Background processing: an individual is always part of a societal moral and academic “legal system” that governs the operative status of how the society thinks – what is the present state of the collective’s thinking from a moral and scientific point-of-view? This is coded in law and academia, which set the fundamental contractual conditions for how society as a whole thinks and operates.

Everyone comes from a cultural background that defines their morality and beliefs of right and wrong, and everyone has some educational background that defines their knowledge and learnings of what is sustainable and what isn’t, which guides whether they want more or less of that in society. Moral beliefs have been codified into the existing legal system of a nation and, to the extent of the capacity of the level of societal education in the past, this legal system, founded on morality, has been further balanced with educational knowledge. We will come back to how background processing works later.

Balance challenge number 1: Morality drives perceptions of what should be considered a reasonable demand and what shouldn’t. Knowledge drives perceptions of what can be considered realistic and what can’t. The existing background processing system is always based on a past-state analysis of balance, which needs to constantly be updated. How are beliefs and knowledge balanced in the system? What should be updated and what should be conserved in the background legal system that runs society?

Foreground processing: To work on balance challenge number one, a political and financial power system appears on top of the background processing system with the task of constantly updating the background processing system with new beliefs and knowledge. What is the probable future state of a society?

This can be seen via the exertion of political and financial power happening in the markets for media airtime and financial assets of whatever form. The political and financial media carry a huge amount of responsibility as to what ideas have the capacity to spread throughout society, and how political and financial debates are framed. We will come back to how foreground processing works later.

Balance challenge number 2: Politics drives perceptions of an ideal society, and finance drives perceptions of an ideal operation. The operating state of the foreground processing system can always be measured by looking at the media and the financial markets, and by considering what narratives and ideas are receiving airtime and investments. Measuring the operating state of the foreground processing system is important, since it has the power to mold the future of the background processing system that we all fall back on. How are differing viewpoints balanced in the media, and what are the markets funding?

Individuals will always be impacted by the flow of mainstream ideas, and these will impact their decision-making. For further reading on this topic, I heartily recommend Social Physics, a book by MIT professor Alex Pentland.

The fundamental functional markets for existential needs: This is the end game for an individual citizen. As part of a pre-existent background processing system, with political and financial influence on the foreground processing system, an individual will always end up relying on the markets for existential needs. These will define what could, potentially, be considered as fundamental societal service level rights for citizens. These markets come in two forms:

  1. Functional markets for individual needs: no matter who you are or where you are from, you will always need the following from the marketplace: housing (construction), food and water (nourishment), the opportunity to increase your understanding (education), and the opportunity to be at your physical best (healthcare). After this, you don’t really need anything, but you will still be motivated to work, since we all want more in life – we aspire to experience all that life has to offer, be it in the form of travel, culture, sport – you name it. But aspirations have to wait for the basics to be in order.
  2. Functional markets for societal needs: no matter what the society, it will always need the following to allow the individual to function on top of it: the power to put things in motion (energy), a pathway to move things in (infrastructure), trustworthy domicile within society (security), and the building blocks of everything a society contains (raw materials).

There is rarely any reason to not invest into these markets, as the knowhow they require will be required generation after generation, and there will always be other societies in need of help with them. Indeed, it is absolutely silly that a highly-educated nation such as Finland is not investing heavily into all of these industries. But that’s a story for another time.

The main thing to note about the fundamental functional markets is that they are fully co-dependent on each other. A society is nothing without its individuals, and an individual is nothing without a society. At a core level, the supplies and demands that criss-cross these two pools of markets drive the economy and shape our reality, since we will never be able to escape the fundamental systemic nature of a civilization – as individuals, we will always be part of the whole. All the profit that these industries generate flow into the free market, where we all spend money on silly stuff like watching cat videos on YouTube and other things the free market generates.

Finally, considering the fact that the functional markets will always be around, they are industries that are likely to consolidate quite naturally. With a fair amount of competition, and a high amount of operative oversight, it would not take long for a certain standard of realistic delivery times to be set, and for the ethical standards of the industries to be set in stone. This would make sure that the existential markets would become the standard bearers for how industries measure themselves and how they operate without unduly externalizing costs – role model industries for those operating in the free markets.

How are the components led?

If we accept the nature of the fundamental functional markets as given – that is to say, we agree that they must always be around – then we must consider one step further about how those are operated in practice. That requires taking a step back and reobserving the background and foreground processing systems – in other words, that requires considering the main roles that these systems have in leading the operation of the eight fundamental functional markets, which will in turn be serving citizens.

To do so, we need to identify a final set of three fundamental functional markets that, essentially, govern the operation of the eight functional markets for individual and societal needs. The movement of supplies and demands of these eight markets will naturally be mediated by three fundamental interchange markets – logistics (operative prioritization, providing schedules for movement of goods and services), finance (investment prioritization, providing initial power for movement), and media (information prioritization, setting direction of movement). At their core, the interchange markets are time allocation markets – logistics considers what stuff moves first. Finance considers what investment proposal gets money first. Media considers what information the markets or the public need to know first about what will be happening, or what has already happened.

The power to prioritize, which the interchange markets control, will end up guiding the real-world operations of the eight functional markets that serve citizens and set their standard of living. Thus, it is clear, for obvious reasons, that the interchange markets should be governed through significant levels of societal transparency and understanding. There is a rumored secret, fourth market – the black market – but that is, by definition, not “officially” a part of society. We’ll leave the black market as a randomizing factor in a societal system.

I mentioned that we would return to the functioning of the foreground and background processing systems. Earlier, we considered their impact on the eight functional markets that directly serve citizens. Now, we can see that these eight markets are governed in practice by the functioning of the three interchange markets that prioritize the movement of goods and services, information, and investment finance. The interchange markets can be likened to the foreground processing system. 

In other words, the financial and political decisions that citizens make will, primarily, guide the functioning of the interchange markets, which will only secondarily impact the eight functional markets that serve the citizens directly. To reiterate, transparency of the interchange markets is really, really important.

So – what about the background processing system then? When the determination of transparency in the interchange markets requires more clarification, then unsolved issues will fall back on the background processing system. In other words, situations requiring further determination of transparency in the interchange markets will fall back on the judicial and ethical governing systems to answer the question: is this allowed or not, and are we pointing the finger in the right direction?

If one wishes to stretch their thinking a bit, then it is possible to see a conceptual link between a societal background/foreground processing system and Daniel Kahneman’s System-1/System-2 types of thinking. A society is a collective of individual thinking – is it not? – so it makes sense to theorize that a society’s way of thinking would, conceptually, look similar to that of an individual.

Just to note the obvious: the need for transparency is the foundation required for any legal investigation, criminal or civil – was whatever happened allowed or not, and are we pointing the finger in the right direction to assert potential blame? That’s what the courts are all about, at the end of the day. Here, we’re just keeping our focus on considering society through a market-oriented view.

Tying together a common blueprint

From the original design framework, we can now tie together a common blueprint for how an individual citizen’s decisions end up affecting the societal services that end up serving them directly. In practice, we’re looking at four levels of operation of how demands and supplies work together to eventually provide services for citizens:

A citizen has a demand, the legal system assesses whether it is allowed and reasonable, the interchange markets determine how to prioritize the demand, and the functional markets end up supplying it – either directly or through the auxiliary free market for non-essential goods and services. Finally, the citizen’s demand is met with a supply, and the difference in expected delivery time and realized delivery time will, primarily, guide citizen satisfaction.

Moving forward with a common blueprint

Early on in this text, I mentioned the separation of duties between politicians and bureaucrats. At the end of the day, if these two groups of people operating society are able to share a common blueprint of what they are doing, what system they are running, and how they are measured, then it should not be too far-fetched to assume that society would run much smoother, and that standards of living would increase when focus is shifted towards service delivery time for the citizen.

Just to put things in perspective, this is what the business world would call “customer-centric thought”. I am, in many ways, not presenting anything new – just focusing on the societal customer, an individual citizen.

Leadership and management of the societal system would breathe more freely when every leader and manager understands what their role is as part of society, why it’s important, and how it is measured. That begins with understanding how a society works, which is what the blueprint above is for.

In a world with such shared understanding, bureaucrats would primarily be working to ensure the transparent and sustainable operation of the interchange markets and the functional markets, setting realistic service level goals related to them, keeping in line with the development of modern technology. Because of the importance of the provision of their services, the interchange and functional markets would have clear service level goals directly aligned with the citizens they are serving.

Politicians, on the other hand, would be working to ensure that the background processing system is stable, and that “outdated code” is being removed at a steady pace, keeping in line with the development of modern beliefs and scientific understanding. Politicians would also spend more time with the citizens they’re meant to be serving as, with a shared societal blueprint, there would be a significant increase in inter-party understanding and a corresponding decrease in the need for childish politicking. This frees up politicians’ time to focus on the citizen.

Politicians and bureaucrats would meet in public discourse, in conjunction with representatives of the economy and the media, to form a four-way “societal leadership team” that discusses who is doing what in the foreground processing system, and how their actions are helping progress towards common goals – the measurement of which everyone would understand. The societal public discourse would become goal-oriented towards the service level granted to every citizen, what it should be and how well it should function, as measured by delivery time and positive net externalities.

Defining service levels

So what are the common societal goals? The well-being of an individual citizen, ultimately, rests on the operation of the fundamental functional markets. They would become the logical place to deduce a minimum service level from, designing services based on these basic needs, and assessing whether things that go beyond the basics should be an internalized cost of society, or should they be left to the free market. Ensuring transparency of the interchange markets, and understanding what that means, would become a citizen’s duty.

This is what is happening today – this is, pretty much, how the world works behind the scenes – we’re just missing a common map, a mutual design blueprint, to compare our thoughts against.

Setting the definitions of an acceptable service level should become the talk of politics, and the concept of what is reasonable or not could be compared to the design framework. Does an individual really need some societal service, or is some existing service just nice to have, or perhaps even destructive to citizen motivation? Is the current level of transparency in the interchange markets acceptable? So on, and so forth.

Just some other new twists to the societal discourse: measuring based on time has an added benefit – only time is comparable across time! Future generations would be able to look at how their delivery times for fundamental services compare to those of previous generations, and maintain full objectivity. Is society slipping in time, or gaining in it? For me as a huge Formula 1 fan, time-based measurement comes very naturally – I’d love to see it applied to the functional measurement of a society.

With a common design for a societal framework that the majority would have no trouble understanding, society would start focusing on more concrete definitions of the things it actually seeks, with the goal of enabling its citizens to live happy and peaceful lives. I would posit that everyone would probably be quite quick to realize obvious things such as, just for example:

Everyone should have a home that is healthy to live in (within six months of becoming homeless)

Everyone should have access to physical and intellectual self-improvement (within a week of demand)

Everyone should have access to healthy food (within a matter of hours of demand)

Society should have reliable, speedy, modern infrastructure (to enable a set level of travel times)

Society should run on sustainable energy sources (to stop time running out on raw materials)

Society should feel secure (to start a time measurement of “days since last death in international conflict”)

And so on.

Why would everyone find these things obvious? What’s the point with making society as understandable as possible with a common framework?

Simple. The more someone has to lose, the less they’ll be willing to lash out at society and cause unrest. The higher the opportunity cost of setting out on a path of destruction in one’s life, the less likely it is to happen. All this requires is an understanding what one is part of as a citizen – if a citizen understands how society should look, and how that would be of personal benefit, then work towards that vision is infinitely more likely than without said understanding.

What’s the best strategy for ending terrorism, for example? Really easy. Invest heavily into the development and modernization of the existential markets in the Middle East, so that everyone can live a secure life. Make the opportunity cost as high as possible.

If we can agree on the basic necessities for living a life free from fear of one’s personal sustainability, then we can start working together on making it happen. All we need is a common map, a common way of measurement, and a shared societal design that we can all agree upon.

We need a blueprint for the future. We have all the data from history that we need to draw it out and start talking about it.

My proposal lies in communicating via the design framework above, so that we have something to point at and start comparing our thoughts against. Let the 21st century political debate begin!

© 2017 Jens J. Sørensen