Photo: UN Photos / Rick Bajormas

One, United Nations Plaza

Yesterday was my first day at a new job. I am joining the UNDP Accelerator Labs team. For readers unfamiliar with development policies, UNDP is the United Nations Development Programme. The Accelerator Labs is a network of policy innovation facilities, unique for ambition, scale and degree of decentralization. There are 91 Labs, covering 115 countries. Each Lab reports to the country office it is embedded in, and not to a central command structure. The team I am joining is its support structure, meant to help the network ease into a position where UNDP can make the most of it. We are anchored in UNDP’s headquarters in New York in One, United Nations Plaza, and report directly to its Administrator’s cabinet.

I look forward to getting started. In part, of course, that’s because of novelty value. It’s always exciting to start something new. But it’s also because of continuity value. This job feels good, because it allows me to keep following my chosen intellectual path: mobilizing collaboration, homo sapiens‘s superpower, for better governance of human communities. I like to shorthand that with “collective intelligence”.

This is a hunch I have followed since the late 1990s, when I was in a  band (long story), in the Internet’s infancy. A few years later, I watched in awe as large-scale, decentralized collaboration assembled itself like a crystal on the substrate of electronic media. It was an age of miracles: an expansive encyclopedia, Wikipedia. A fine-grained map of the whole world, OpenStreetMap. A global network of commentary, the blogosphere. All this without central command structures or barriers to contribution, continuously self-correcting, and with very little money. It seemed to be the central phenomenon of our time.

In those days, I used to hang out with a group of researchers clustered around David Lane, a veteran of the Santa Fe Institute. The Institute was developing the powerful intuition of emergence, a word that describes entities which have properties not observed at the level of its component parts. Internet-enabled mass collaboration seemed a good example of that. For example, individual Wikipedians can usually not correct their own errors, but Wikipedia can. What could we achieve if we found the right way to work together?

I cared about societal outcomes, and still do. I had trained as an economist to understand the social world, so that I could help change it, for the better. As I watched collaborative dynamics unfold, I wondered how they could be deployed in the service of the public. This was not considered an economic question in mainstream academic circles. In fact, it was barely a scientific one. But David had the intellectual fearlessness of the SFI old guard, and some of it must have rubbed off on me. The question was interesting and relevant. If economics would not claim it as its own, that was economics’ loss.

So, I joined the Policy Evaluation Unit of the Italian Ministry for economic development. My colleagues and had a mandate to experiment with digital media to encourage a more transparent, collaborative, information-rich relationship between government and governed. The idea was to get “eyes on the street”, mobilizing the citizenry’s collective intelligence to improve policy design and monitoring. And that was it for me: since then, I have followed the same hunch. And another one: that collaborative dynamics might have a recognizable mathematical signature, like the appearance of certain frequency distributions in state transitions in physics. Put together, these two hunches carried the promise of reconciling local specificity with scale. Local specificity, because granular, local knowledge would inform different policy actions in different places, just as each Wikipedia article is written by the people that care about it, and only by them. And scale, because, common patterns of behavior would underpin all these actions, just as the discuss-and-edit dynamics underpins all Wikipedia articles.

I have not found the Holy Grail of decentralized-and-coherent collective intelligence at the policy maker’s fingertips (yet?). Still, as I followed those hunches, I found myself leading public sector initiatives at the regional, national, and supranational levels; authoring the first book in Italian on collaborative government; going back to school for a doctorate on online communities as social networks (I graduated when I was over 50 years old!); starting a social enterprise, Edgeryders, which is, to everyone’s surprise, still standing and profitable after ten years; looking to ethnography  and science fiction for inspiration and epistemic agility. I learned much. We all did.

In all this, UNDP’s innovation people have been constant travel companions. Among them, Milica Begovic, Khatuna Sandroshvili, Gina Lucarelli (now my direct superior), and of course Giulio Quaggiottosensei were particularly generous in following my group’s work, critiquing it with rigour and empathy, and sometimes trying it out themselves. In this new position, I have the opportunity to contribute to their work from up close. In this sense, UNDP feels like home, like I’m just moving to a different office in the same building. It will do me good, too. The nimbleness and freedom of Edgeryders are valuable to me, but so is the opportunity to try out our ideas on the field, in a large, venerable, global organization like UNDP. It also comes at the right time in a personal sense. Though theory is great fun, I am very worried for the current polycrisis, and feel the need to move closer to the field of actual policy making. And I love the way my new team thinks big. “What do eight billion people know?” asks Gina in the trailer for a recent documentary on the Accelerator Labs. And, you know what? That’s exactly the right question. I look forward to searching for its answer.

I have resigned from Edgeryders, and leave it into the capable hands of my co-founders and the workgroup we have built up over the years. We will all continue to learn from each other, across organizational borders. Over the years, I learned that solid, warm, enduring human relationships are a trellis for collective intelligence to grow on. And that these relationships remain, no matter the logo on your business card.

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