Invitation for GT students: VIP project on Digital Deliberation

Can Deliberation work better than this?

VIP Team Advisors:  Michael Hoffmann (School of Public Policy, Philosophy Program), Chris Le Dantec (Language, Media, and Communication, Participatory Publics Lab)

Vertically Integrated Project (VIP) offers students to work on long-term research and development projects with faculty and graduate students for academic credit. The long-term nature of VIPs creates an environment of mentorship, with faculty and graduate students mentoring teams, experienced students mentoring new members, and students moving into leadership roles as others graduate.

VIP attracts students from many disciplines and enables the completion of large-scale design/discovery projects.

Apply to join the VIP team on Digital Deliberation every semester.


Imagine you are living in a neighborhood of 20,000 people and the city planning department proposes to build a number of high-rises with corresponding enlargements of roads etc. Many hate the idea and plan actions against it but there are also businesses interested to attract new customers, manufacturers who need a transportation infrastructure, parents who want their children walk and bike to school safely, disenfranchised and poor communities with various needs, and so on. This is an example of a so-called wicked problem. Problems are wicked if they cannot even be clearly stated because there is no agreement about what the problem exactly is. Since we always approach problems from a certain point of view, these problems will be perceived and specified differently as a function of varying knowledge, conflicting interests, world-views, and values.

According to the ideals of deliberative and participatory democracy and decision making it would be best to approach wicked problems in a process of deliberation and coordinated reasoning that realizes two goals: first, it brings together a large variety of people from diverse walks of life and provides them opportunities to express their specific points of views, experiences, needs, interests, world-views, and values so that new and useful knowledge can be generated collaboratively; second, this process stimulates—for each participant—reflection on the limitations of one's own particular point of view, on weaknesses, gaps, biases, and hidden assumptions in one's own thinking, as well as efforts to correct these limitations. This way, the ideal of deliberation and coordinated reasoning would allow consensus building based on the sort of creativity that often sparks from controversy, and based on collaborative learning that involves reflection, improving one's own reasoning, and changing one's mind.

The goal of the VIP Digital Deliberation is to design, test, iteratively improve, and implement an attractive online platform that supports and structures reflective online deliberation for the benefit of society.

Intended domains for which this platform should be useful do not only include political participation and civic engagement, but also large-scale research collaborations and educational projects that focus on deliberation as a skill that needs to be trained. As a first step, the project focuses on developing the Reflect! system that supports problem-based learning on wicked problems.

Here are some of the challenges that need to be dealt with to achieve this goal:

  • Obviously, we feel much more comfortable talking to people who share our views. But this is not sufficient when it comes to wicked problems and the resolution of conflicts. Instead of rehearsing time and again the same opinions, we need to talk to people whose opinions we do not share.

  • Peaceful decision making and conflict resolution are only possible if people are able to change their mind based on the better argument. This again requires to organize deliberation in a way that supports reflection on one's own reasoning. People need to be enabled to identify—in the process of deliberating with others—weaknesses, gaps, biases, and limitations in their own thinking, and they should be supported to improve it.

  • Instead of winning an argument, it is much better to stimulate creativity so that solutions can be found that more stakeholders can support.

  • Participating in public deliberation should be experienced as exciting and rewarding.

Research Issues

  • How can deliberation be broken down into scripted sequences so that cognitive load is optimally distributed?
  • How to make large-scale deliberation enjoyable, exciting, and productive?
  • How to design a deliberation platform that stimulates reflection and the self-correction of reasoning and that allows the control of biases, tunnel vision, and groupthink?
  • How can an increase of diversity be built into the design of deliberation tools?
  • What features are needed to connect deliberation to forms of community engagement and discourse?
  • How does deliberation relate to persuasion and action?
  • How to guide users through tens of thousands of topics with millions of positions on these topics without frustrating them with endless searches, redundancies, low quality of contributions, and misplaced entries?

Methods and Technologies

HTML5 and responsive Javascript frameworks, usability testing, psychological experiments, surveys, focus groups.

Contact Information

Dr. Michael Hoffmann, 404-385-6083, m.hoffmann [at]

Dr. Christopher Le Dantec, 404-385-7555, ledantec [at]