Why Davos attendees should be backing a Global Citizens’ Assembly

“Citizens’ assemblies can help save the world order.” This is what Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chair of the World Economic Forum, argued in 2020

Citizens’ assemblies are decision-making bodies, consisting of ordinary people selected through random selection. They are brought together to deliberate on political issues and generate policy recommendations. Since the 1990s, governments have been embracing citizens’ assemblies. They have become a way to improve the quality of their decision-making processes, but also to recoup legitimacy. This view is proliferating. So much so that an OECD report now documents up to 800 examples of assemblies, happening in over 30 countries. 

Most of these assemblies are convened at the local level but more and more are conducted nationally too. This includes the famous Irish assemblies on marriage equality and abortion. The Irish assemblies resulted in nationwide referenda, passing breakthrough legislation.

António Guterres, Klaus Schwab and Borge Brende at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2023. Image: World Economic Forum / Benedikt von Loebell, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0/Flickr

France’s answer was the Citizens’ Conventions. The assembly on climate change influenced the most ambitious French climate bill to date. More recently there was one on end-of-life issues. This, Macron promised, would shape forthcoming legislation.

Back in 2021, the first Global Assembly was organised in parallel to COP26, with endorsement from António Guterres. He called it “a practical way of showing how we can accelerate action through solidarity and people power.” 

A key component in achieving inclusive global governance

These assemblies might not “save the world”, but they should be a key component in achieving more inclusive global governance and complement the three proposals in this field put forward by the “We The Peoples” campaign thus far. These include a World Citizens’ Initiative, UN Parliamentary Assembly and UN Civil Society Envoy.

A Global Citizens Assembly, in particular, could consider the alleged latest threat to humanity: artificial intelligence. Citizens’ assemblies have demonstrated success and impact in the political world. They have offered a counterweight to the polarising tendencies of conventional politics. There is every reason to believe they could make an impact on corporate governance. This is especially needed given the existentially important issue of AI regulation. 

More and more business leaders are seeing it this way too. Last year, OpenAI’s CEO Sam Altman called for “every person on earth [to] come together, [and] have a really thoughtful deliberative conversation about where we want to draw the boundary on this [AI] system”.

A Global Citizens’ Assembly could deal with AI

This initiated a flurry of interest and innovation into how citizens’ might improve AI Regulation. Open AI started their “Democratic Inputs to AI” program, Anthropic initiated the Constitutional AI project and, most recently Meta ran ambitious Community Forums. The latter brought thousands of randomly selected participants from all over the world to deliberate on AI regulation.

However, not all business leaders are convinced by the need to consult widely on ways to control AI. Former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, voiced that he “would much rather have the current companies define reasonable boundaries.”

But that is arguably leaving too much power in the hands of agents with a conflict of interest, that is to say, profit versus humanity’s welfare. Many tech CEOs willingly recognize this in the case of AI development, indeed much more than they did on issues like public health biotech or climate change. This conflict of interest is the reason for Open AI’s unusual governance structure. The for-profit company is intended to be under the control of a board, whose mission is to preserve humanity first and foremost. Whatever the flaws of this particular model of governance, the motivation behind it seems right. A sensible proposal, we’ve argued as Landemore and Tasioulas, is to replace, or add to the appointed board members a citizens’ assembly, whose members would be selected from all over the world.

Right now, plans are afoot to launch a permanent global citizens’ assembly at the UN Summit of the Future in New York in September this year. The summit is António Guterres’ shot at rebooting global governance. It could be the greatest occasion yet to build an ongoing global pillar of AI governance.

This year’s World Economic Forum is about “Rebuilding Trust” with specific focuses on climate and AI. It’s hard to think of a better way it could achieve this than by fully backing the establishment of a permanent Global Citizens’ Assembly that would focus on these issues. An assembly that would, for the first time, give ordinary people from across the planet a seat at the global governance table. 

Hélène Landemore
Hélène Landemore is Professor of Political Science at Yale University, and Distinguished Researcher at the Institute for Ethics in AI at the University of Oxford. In 2022-23 she served on the governance board of the French citizens’ convention on end of life organised by the CESE (Economic, Social and Environmental Council).
Rich Wilson
Rich Wilson is the CEO of the Iswe Foundation. In 2004 he founded Involve. In 2020, he co-founded the world’s first Global Citizens’ Assembly. Rich is a trustee of the Local Trust and advises governments, movements and foundations around the world on democratic and political systems change.