Interview with Pia Mancini, political activist for the internet generation
Pia Mancini is co-founder of Open Collective, Democracy OS and Chair of Democracy Earth Foundation, and is on a mission to upgrade democracy via an open-source mobile platform which brings citizens inside the legislative process. “I am convinced that it is up to us to design the political and economic systems for the internet generation.”
We have wanted to interview this woman for a long time so it is a great pleasure and honour to sit down with Pia — entrepreneur, activist and advocate to discuss her background, how tech can be used for good and her views on a more open, connected and democratised society.
Newnham: Can you tell us about your background? What were you like growing up?
Mancini: I was born in Buenos Aires in a very opinionated family. Well, Argentineans we are quite opinionated, in general! My parents are both entrepreneurs. My mother especially is a super role model for me; she is extremely smart and business savvy. For as long as I remember she was making deals, or building a project. A total rockstar.
Both my sister and I were raised to make our own choices, as long as we could justify it and fight for them! It wasn’t always easy, Argentina for all its tango, it’s pretty conservative and a bit provincial at times.
I was pretty nerdy as a child, loved reading and politics. I think all my friends would agree on that! But I was also the activist. My sister once told me I was an activist for the world — I still laugh at that. I grew up in a privileged environment, we travelled a lot and my parents instilled in us a sense of belonging anywhere in the world. Before I had Roma, my 2 year old, I could see myself living in places as different as Shanghai, Melbourne or Mexico City. This had a strong impact in how I perceive the world and the work I do. The Earth — it’s all one big community…
Newnham: When did you first get interested in tech?
Mancini: My interest in tech comes from politics. I was always interested in politics and worked in different aspects (government, policy, campaigns, political parties) all my professional life. At one point, it became very clear that our political institutions were out of sync with how we were evolving as a common society beyond the constraints of the nation-state. I started hanging out with a group of friends with the same world view and DemocracyOS and the Net Party were born from that group.
Tech makes those fictional borders increasingly obsolete and opens up new jurisdictions, networks, and communities. I see tech as a tool that helps us build a new model for organizing human cooperation at scale.
Newnham: Can you tell us a little about your career to date, specifically DemocracyEarth and DemocracyOS and what you think led you down this particular path?
Mancini: Working in politics in Argentina was not the most rewarding career path! I had returned to Argentina a couple of years before, from living in Australia many years and was super conflicted about returning to politics. I did for a while, working for a campaign that drove me to the ground. I was exhausted, super frustrated with the unrelenting machine politics, corruption and the political corporation in general. I was already itching to get out of Argentina again, but unsure where to! So when I met some of my friends with whom we later did DemocracyOS, it was magic. I could still work in politics, but from an absolutely new angle with new tools. I felt like we could use tech to level the playing field for everyone.
I threw myself full force into that project. We did a political party, we run for elections, made a lot of noise. We had the idea that our representatives should vote according to what citizens decided on this online platform, and we build a vehicle that the system would accept, a political party, do carry them to congress. Santi, my husband, was one of the minds behind DemocracyOS and we ran for elections together, it almost broke us apart! I can’t even imagine doing that again…
DemocracyOS started taking off worldwide, Tunisia, Spain, Brazil, the USA. It’s open source so it moved around quickly, without us doing anything. If a software built in Argentina for a local political party was being used in Tunisia to debate the national constitution, we were making a mistake keeping it local. We applied to YCombinator and moved to the Bay Area for the program. Santi and I stayed there afterwards, we wanted to build political institutions for the planet, not for one country. I believe strongly that in this day and age, the territory as the sole justification for political power is insane. It blows my mind that we are represented solely by where we are living at or worse, where we were born at. And so DemocracyEarth was born. To work for a global democracy, beyond the nation-states.
Newnham: And what is Open Collective and what is the mission behind it? What do you hope to achieve long-term with it?
Mancini: Open Collective has the mission of building a financial mechanism and organizational structure for communities around the world. The underlying goal, for me personally, is the same: what structure we can build that will allow us to act unconstricted by the false borders of nation states. The current system only speaks corporations, organized in a territory, with a president and a lot of overhead. But the communities our generation builds are distributed, we operate in networks, we contribute to one project more or less without much fuss in the transitions. Think global social movements, open source projects, mission driven groups. They are stuck, because they can’t fit the assumptions governments have for corporations and therefore they can’t have funding, they can’t have an organizational structure. Open Collective set out to solve this.
Newnham: You rightly extol the power of tech to modernise democracy. What “new” tech are you excited about and why? And what part do you think it will play in creating a more, democratic, 21st century society?
Mancini: I’m a big fan of liquid democracy as a protocol for organizing democracy and of blockchains as the underlying infrastructure that can ensure an incorruptible decision recording ledger for votes and delegation of power. A fun fact: Roma’s birth was first registered on the blockchain before she was registered with the state of California. She’s a blockchain baby ❤
Newnham: As a woman who not only identifies problems but continually creates innovative solutions in fields tied to historic frameworks, what are some of the important lessons you have learned along the way about resilience in the face of adversity?
Mancini: First and foremost, never, never, never let a crisis go to waste. In the middle of the anger, frustration and the numbness that always follows them, find that thread to start pulling at. In the middle of a crises, there’s always an opportunity to push the boundaries. Second, articulating alternatives is very difficult, specially after the dust from the crisis settles. The value of organizing is underrated and it’s what can make or break what you do.
Newnham: Finally, if you could go back in time, what advice would you offer a younger Pia just starting out in her career?
Mancini: Enjoy the ride, it’s a long one.
This interview first appeared on the F = blog here.