Democracy needs a redesign, says Rudy van Belkom

Dutch designer Rudy van Belkom has envisioned a radical new electoral system that would allow voters to pick and choose policies from different political parties.

Van Belkom presented his concept for Het Nieuwe Kiezen – or "the new vote" – as part of Dezeen's Good Design for a Bad World talk series at Dutch Design Week, which questioned whether designers can offer solutions to the world's biggest problems.

The designer claims democracy should be more modular. To achieve this, he wants to create an interface "like", the travel-booking website that allows you to combine flights, accommodation and dining. That way, people could tailor their vote to more closely match their views.

"I want to create a for political parties," he told Dezeen. "I want to book a hotel, I want it close to the centre, I want it closer to the station, I want these facilities, enter, and then boom – you get the best advice. But with a political party, it's not possible."

Rudy van Belkom has designed a radical new voting system

Van Belkom – who describes himself as a transition designer and is also a lecturer at Fontys Academy for Creative Industries in Tilburg – believes the current electoral system in the Netherlands polarises views and, as a result, causes divides in society.

He said that one of the biggest problems is that people are uninformed about what they're voting for, so often vote for parties that don't actually represent their views. Because of this, politicians are encouraged to focus on populist topics, rather than promoting their full range of policies.

"This system facilitates bad behaviour, both with politicians and with voters," said Van Belkom. "It's not the fault of the politician, it's not the fault of the voter that they're uninformed, it's the system that facilitates it."

Rudy Van Belkom modular voting
Called Het Nieuwe Kiezen, this modular approach to voting allows people to pick policies from different political parties

The alternative proposed by Van Belkom would allow voters choose different parties for a range of different topics, such as education, healthcare and defence. This is explained by a simple animation, which imagines each topic as a colourful block.

The designer is confident that his system could eventually be adopted, but expects it to take another 20 years at least. The biggest obstacle, he claims, is that people don't like change – so even if a new system is significantly better, it will still be a hard sell.

"It's more of a cultural change," he said.

Van Belkom presented his concept at Dutch Design Week, as part of the Good Design for a Bad World talks hosted by Dezeen

Van Belkom outlined his concept during the Good Design for a Bad World talk focused on design and politics, where he was joined on the panel by Design Indaba founder Ravi Naidoo, art historian Lennart Booij and Istanbul Biennial 2018 curator Jan Boelen.

The talk discussed current problems with democracy, including the rise of nationalism and xenophobia, with Van Belkom pointing out that the Dutch electoral system was introduced in 1918 "and hasn't changed since". He said: "The system is broken".

Dezeen's livestream of the talk has so far been watched by over 25,000 people.

But Van Belkom has also taken other action to get his message out. In the national election earlier this year, he conducted a " voting experience experiment", which saw 75,000 people compare their personal views with those of the political party they voted for.

He found that less than 20 per cent of the views correlated.

"I'm just trying to apply the principles of design to the system," he added. "I believe it's evolution."

Read the full interview below:

Amy Frearson: Can you explain your proposal?

Rudy van Belkom: In essence, it's a modular voting system. So instead of voting for just one party, you can vote in different themes for different parties.

The idea is actually based on innovations around us. We don't subscribe to one newspaper, we select different articles. Same with your insurance package – 10 or 20 years ago you would have one insurance package for everyone, but now you tailor it.

So this is a modular voting system, but voting in a theme also means operating in a theme. I think that's an even bigger impact, because the whole parliament system needs to change. So the voting changes are one part, and the parliament changes are another part. So you no longer just have one big chamber like the one we have in Holland now, with 150 people in it talking at the same time. I used design principles to innovate the system. It's modular, it's not based on gut feelings or populism, and it's multidisciplinary, so instead of the big chamber you have teams.

Amy Frearson: Have you specified what each of the chambers would be, or do you want the idea to be flexible?

Rudy van Belkom: The themes will probably be the same as the themes that are relevant right now: education, healthcare, defence, etc. The current system is based on a pillarised society, but nowadays, society has changed. I can't be put in one box – I'm not left or right. So it could be that within defence I'm on the left side of the spectrum, but when it comes to healthcare, I'm on the right side of the spectrum, and there is not one political party that reflects my personal needs.

It's a solution and it's more like a sketch of a new voting system, so it's open for change

Amy Frearson: There will likely be people that care about certain topics and not others. In your system, would you allow people to only vote in certain themes and not others?

Rudy van Belkom: Yes. The thing is, I don't think a modular voting system is a holy grail. It's a solution and it's more like a sketch of a new voting system, so it's open for change. The most important thing is that you test it and put it in practice, instead of just talking about it. I go to a lot of things about politics and changing the system, and most of the time they start by saying: "Oh my, there's not a lot of trust in the system". Three hours later, they conclude that there's not a lot of trust in the system. We already discussed that, right? So what's the solution and why don't we just test it?

We know the current system doesn't work. I'm not a rocket scientist, everyone can see that it's not working now. But I think it's really strange that nobody tries to test new innovations, and not just little things, the big things too. It's possible.

Amy Frearson: How long have you been developing this proposal?

Rudy van Belkom: Roughly three years ago I had the idea and I wanted to share it with people. So I created an animation, more like a stop-motion animation, that explains the concept. Design-wise it's a pretty sweet animation, if I say so myself!

I thought, if I put this video online it would go viral, because you know, come on, a new voting system, right? But politics is difficult– it's not sexy. People like to say "in The Hague, all these suckers screw me up". They like to complain. But if someone says there is a solution... so it took some more time. I realised telling people about it was not enough.

So in 2017, when there were elections in the Netherlands, I created a voting experience experiment, because I believe people vote uninformed and I believe people don't know what they're voting for. For example, people might think one party is a good party because they're good on education, but in reality they don't know what the points of view are. I created a voting experience where people could find out if what they were voting for was actually representing them. There was 75,000 people who participated and it showed that, on average, 10 to 20 percent of what people think actually correlates to what party they vote for.

I believe people vote uninformed and I believe people don't know what they're voting for

The next step was making people aware the defaults of the system and the new plans I'm working on right now. It's called Het Nieuwe Kiezen, which in English means "the new vote" or "the new way of choosing". I thought, in what way do people choose right now? For example, if you go on holiday, what's the thing you do? You go online and compare. But if you want to vote for a political party, you can go online, but you can't really compare. You can't really see how the different political parties relate to each other. It should be more like I want to book a hotel, I want it close to the centre, I want it closer to the station, I want these facilities, enter, and then boom – you get the best advice. But with a political party, it's not possible. I want to create a for political parties.

Amy Frearson: So what you're saying is, these types of systems don't even require much technical innovation, they could be drastically improved using the principles of service design, an area that many designers and businesses are trained in?

Rudy van Belkom: I'm just trying to apply the principles of design to the system. I believe it's evolution. If we are here right now you could come up with something that is really far away, really radical. But it will never happen, because you need political parties to adapt, to change. So I created something that is pretty close to the current political system.

I first wanted to make people aware of the defaults in the system. But then people were asking: "I understand, but how can that help me?" So I thought, okay, that's step two: help people get better informed. Research shows that some people are not informed but also some are wrongly informed. These are the people who are a bigger danger, because they think they are well informed and they are wrong. This system facilitates bad behaviour, both with politicians and with voters. It's not the fault of the politician, it's not the fault of the voter that they're uninformed, it's the system that facilitates it.

You could say a referendum is a good democratic tool but it's not, it polarises everything – it's agree or disagree. For example a referendum, I believe – and this is just my personal opinion – I believe that a referendum on a local level is great. I want to be involved in the society I live in, the community I live in. But on a national or international level, people can't make those kind of decisions.

My biggest obstacle is that no people don't like change

Amy Frearson: Do you think thats is because, at a local level, you can trust that people have an understanding of what they're voting for, and at a national level you can't?

Rudy van Belkom: Yes. It's like I said, a lot of democratic innovations are about saying: "Let's fuck the system". Then the system is your enemy. But I think, don't fuck the system, innovate the system, be a partner of the system. That's a big change.

In Holland there's a party that's pretty big but they're populistic, so a lot of politicians shout the things that people want to hear. And, because people aren't informed, so they just react on that. It's a vicious circle. People are not informed, so politicians just say what they want people to hear.

Amy Frearson: So if you change the system people use to vote, that changes the way government works, but it also changes the way election candidates campaign?

Rudy van Belkom: That's the biggest change I want to create – it's more of a cultural change. Politicians should campaign more on the content instead of populism, and voters need to vote more on the content, instead of gut feeling.

Amy Frearson: Are there are any countries that you know of that have a system that is anywhere close to what you're proposing?

Rudy van Belkom: I did some research but I haven't found one.

Amy Frearson: Why do you think that is? What is the obstacle in pushing this idea forward?

Rudy van Belkom: My biggest obstacle is that no people don't like change. Nobody likes change because I think we are evolutionarily programmed to not like change, otherwise we wouldn't survive. We don't want to take risks. And most people are advocates of the devil. I mean, it's easy to point out why it's not working, but it's far more difficult to come up with a solution that could work. It's human. That's why it doesn't pull me down, it's just a tradition that it takes about 20 to 25 years. Like with Van Gogh, he wasn't alive when he was successful. This is probably my story as well. In 80 years or something, people will say: "Oh yeah, the modular voting system, that's the guy, right?"

Amy Frearson: So your plan is to try and maintain the momentum, and keep pushing for years, in the hope people will get there in the end?

Rudy van Belkom: That's the plan! It's a hobby you know.

Amy Frearson: It's a big commitment!

Rudy van Belkom: Yes that's true! When I started it, I knew it would take me forever. But there are small signals of change already. I was raised in a smaller village that just created a programme bringing together a theme that asks all parties to vote on a theme. So it's already a little bit of the way I propose.

I do believe the momentum is now but I still believe it will take me 20 more years.

Amy Frearson: But you're confident that, if you keep going, things will change?

Rudy van Belkom: As a designer, I'm trained to think about possibilities and change people's behaviour. Like I said, I want to create for political parties. If people start to use it, and if people start to use it massively, and they use it for three or four years... It's a slow change, but I think people will say: "Hey, wait a minute, I can orientate myself within a theme, it should make sense if I can vote within a theme."