Photo: Greg Goebel

Can politics be collaborative?

In Edgeryders, we study  and practice collaboration, especially online. Time and again, we find it the most powerful force that people with next to no wealth and no power, like us, can evoke. We are getting good at it, though much work remains. Proof: we are a mutant company with no office, no investors, no business plan. We have nothing but each other – a tiny core of founders, and the Edgeryders community. And yet we are out there, with top-notch global organizations among our clients, and we are growing. 2016 has been a good year for us – we’ll be blogging about this soon.

2016 has also been a year of uncertainty and discontent in world politics. Many people dear to us are sad, angry or scared. Almost no one seems satisfied about their politics and their leaders. That goes both for the losing camp and the winning one. We consider this contrast, and wonder. As a culture, we are getting better at working together in diversity. Why does this not translate into more constructive politics?

As we looked into this, we realized that our default frame for politics is combat. There are opponents and allies. Its protagonists focus on winning. This is understandable but useless, except maybe as a spectator sport. What happens if we drop this frame and adopt a collaboration frame instead? What would happen if a political entity were run like a collaborative project? What would happen if lawmaking worked like Wikipedia? What if policy happened like the next release of Apache or Ubuntu?

This:

  1. Enabling as core mission. A state, or city, or region, exists only to enable the people who live there to do what they want to do. It does not need a vision, because people have their own. It only needs to enable the largest possible outcome space for the largest number of people. In return, it gets compliance and tax revenue. This would be the only focus of collaborative politics. Compare with political visionaries, who try to sell you their way of seeing things.
  2. By default, do nothing. When faced with a proposal for radical reform, the community around a collaborative project discusses it. These discussions can last a long time. Then, almost always, the radical reform does not go ahead. This is because, whatever its other flaws, the project in its current form works. Its next version might be much improved, but no one can guarantee that it will work, and when. Reform needs a rock-solid case to go forward. Compare with I-need-to-leave-a-mark-on-my-term.
  3. Focus on infrastructure. Collaborative software projects do not make things, but building blocks that people can build things with. Enabling, remember? The point is not to decide which color is best for people’s web pages, but to write code that allows anyone to easily choose any color for their own page. In the policy world, this means building infrastructure– and infrastructure is hierarchical. The more general, the better. Aqueducts are better than hospitals. Hospitals are better than arts centers. Arts centers are better than exhibitions. Compare with bullshit pet projects of elected representatives (“Let’s make an incubator for social innovation”).
  4. Unglamorous leaders. Narcissistic, flamboyant personalities do not do well in collaborative projects. People’s attention needs to be on building, so attention seekers are a liability. The most respected members of these community are nerdy, reliable people that won’t waste your time. Compare with modern politicians near you.
  5. Avoid controversy. Any successful open source project has lots of controversial proposals for moving forward. But it also has many on which everyone agrees. Controversy is a waste of time, so people go for the low-hanging fruit first, and build the things everyone agrees on first. This builds mutual trust, and might take the project in directions that make the controversy disappear altogether. Compare with politics-as-combat.
  6. Do-ocracy, not stakeholder representation and deliberation. Stakeholder representation has served us well when societies were simple and hierarchical. In those salad days, a dozen people around a table could make decisions, and depend they would be acted upon. This no longer possible. In a collaborative project we don’t discuss what to do. Within the (broad) core values of the project, you can do whatever you want as long as you have the capacity to deliver it. Who does the work calls the shots. No one gets to tell others how they should contribute.  Compare with endless debates and cross-vetoes everywhere.

You get the idea. This how we work when we build online encyclopedias and web server software. Or companies like Edgeryders. Could this be how we work when we build our cities, national parks and energy grids? Could we do that not in the name of an ideology, but simply to build our own happiness, and that of those we love?

Could there be another space to get down to building? A terrain so hyperlocal and fragmented as to be too expensive for narcissistic strongmen and Machiavellian schemers to enter? A move so lateral that it will not even exist in the same space as post-truth politics?

We don’t know, yet. But, in the wake of the dark tide of 2016, we see people in our network asking new questions. Something new, something big is on the move. As always, we will stand by our community, and help as best we can. If you, too, have been waiting for something to get in motion; if you want to be a part of building it, and figuring out where it takes, get in touch. Nadia will be revealing some of our immediate plans at AdaWeek in Paris, on November 22nd (info): if you can’t make it there, get in touch with her or join our mailing list.

[written with Nadia El-Imam]

Data_in_Opencare.001

The quest for collective intelligence: a research agenda

I am knee deep into the research work for opencare. I think I am learning new things on how to use collective intelligence in practice. This has far-reaching implications for my own work in Edgeryders, and beyond.  Far beyond, in fact. If we crack collective intelligence, we gain access to a new source of cognition. Forget my own work; this has profound implications for the future of our species. If you think that’s radical, go read the work of cultural evolution scholars, like Boyd, Richerson or Henrich. They think homo sapiens has started a major transition: evolutionary forces are pulling us towards a larger, more integrated “collective brain”. We are en route to becoming to primates what ants are to flies.

Collective intelligence is an elusive concept. It appeals to intuition, but it is hard to define and harder to measure and model. And yet, model it we must if we are to go forward. The good news is: I think I see a possible way. What follows is just a  back-of-the-envelope note, plotting a rough course for the next three years or so.

1. Data model: semantic social networks

I submit that the raw data of collective intelligence are in the form of semantic social networks. By this term I mean a way to represent human conversation. The representation is a social network, because it involves humans connected to each other by interactions. And it is semantic, because those interactions encode meaning.

2. Network science: it’s all in the links.

Collective intelligence is not additive: it’s interactional. We can only generate new insight when the information in my head comes into contact with the information in yours. So, what makes a collectivity more or less smart is the pattern of linking across its members. Network science is what allows a rigorous study of that linking, looking for the patterns of interaction which associate to the smartest behaviors.

3. Ethnography: harvesting smart outcomes

Suppose we accept that the hive mind can generate powerful insights and breakthroughs. How can we, individual human beings, lift them from the surrounding noise? Looking at what individual members of the community say and do would likely be fruitless. The problem is understanding how the group represents to itself the issue at hand; no individual you ask will be able to hold all the complexity in her head. We do have a discipline that specializes in this task: ethnography. Ethnographers are good at representing a collective point of view on something. Their skills are useful to understand just what the collective intelligence is saying.

4. “Shallow” text analytics: casting your net wider

Ethnography is like a surgical knife: super sharp and precise. But sometimes you what you need is a machete. As I write this, the opencare conversation consists of over 300,000 words, authored by 137 people. This is a very big study by ethnography standards, and these numbers are likely to double again. We are already pushing the envelope of what ethnographers can process.

So, the next step is giving them prosthetics. The natural tool is text analytics, a branch of data analysis centered on text-as-data. It comes in two flavors: shallow-and-robust and deep-and-ad-hoc. I like the shallow flavor best: it is intuitive and relatively easy to make into standard tools. When the time of your ethnographers is scarce and the raw data is abundant, you can use text analysis to find and discard contributions that are likely to be irrelevant or off topic.

5. Machine learning: weak AI for more cost-effective analysis

Beyond the simplest levels, text analytics uses a lot of machine learning techniques. It comes with the territory: human speech does not come easy to machines. At best, computers can evolve algorithms that mimic classification decisions made by skilled humans. A close cooperation between humans and machines just makes sense.

6. Agent-based modelling: understanding emergence by simulation

We do not yet have a strong intuition for how interacting individuals give rise to emergent collective intelligence. Agent-based models can help us build that intuition, as they have done in the past for other emergent phenomena. For example, Craig Reynolds’s Boids model explains flocking behaviour very well.

The above defines the “long game” research agenda for Edgeryders. And it’s already under way.

  • I am knee-deep in network science since 2009. We run real-time social network analysis on Edgeryders with Edgesense. We have developed an event format called Masters of Networks to spread the culture beyond the usual network nerds like myself. All good.
  • We collaborate with ethnographers since 2012. We have developed OpenEthnographer, our own tool to do in-database ethno coding I’d love to have a blanket agreement with an anthropology department: there is potential for groundbreaking methodological innovation in the discipline.
  • We are working with the University of Bordeaux to build a dashboard for semantic social network analysis.
  • I still need to learn a lot. I am studying agent-based modelling right now. Text analytics and machine learning are next, probably starting towards the end of 2016.

With that said, it’s early days. We are several breakthroughs short of a real mastery of collective intelligence. And without a lot of hard, thankless wrangling with the data, we will have no breakthrough at all. So… better get down to it. It is a super-interesting journey, and I am delighted and honoured to be along for the ride. I look forward to making whatever modest contribution I can.

Photo credit: jbdodane on flickr.com CC-BY-NC

Derelict urban landscape

Is social entrepreneurship still viable in the age of Trump and Brexit?

Does anyone remember social entrepreneurship? It was all the rage from the mid-2000s until recently. Social entrepreneurs are risk-takers with broad vision, like Schumpeterian entrepreneurs; but they care about fixing problems more than about making money.  For them, making money would be not  a goal, but a way to be independent from handouts from the Powers That Be. The theory is that they have the right skillset to attack the world’s problems.

This would happen through disruptive market solutions. Take housing. A social entrepreneur’s solution would be a cheap, eco-friendly houses that you could build yourself, with the help of your friends, for – say – ten thousand Euro (yes, people are working on it). This would make housing affordable to everyone, and break the tyranny of the mortgage. It would also disrupt the hell out of the real estate barons. This does not bother the social entrepreneur. Creative distruction is a good thing.

The idea took hold. An ecosystem (though not a very good one, at least not yet) emerged around it: impact investors, social accelerators, social entrepreneurship-friendly policies. Two powerful political players, above all others, backed this idea: José Manuel Barroso’s European Commission and the UK government during the Brown and Cameron-Clegg administrations.

Despite the hype and some real support, no one ever believed this was going to be easy. Even if you do get a brilliant idea and the resources to deploy it, disrupted industries won’t go down without a fight. Things would get ugly. But the social entrepreneur would hold the line. Entrepreneuring is always difficult. Yes, commitment to social betterment adds some complications, but she knows she’s making things right for the people.  That’s a big non-monetary reward.

Some people bought into the idea and had a go at building financially viable, socially beneficial companies. I guess I am one of them: I co-founded a company called Edgeryders, a not-for-profit company. We have our own market to disrupt, consultancy. We do it by delivering expert advice by smart communities, rather than professional consultants. As we go, we generate meaningful, paid work for the brilliant misfits in the precariat.

And then Brexit happened.

The Brexit vote has negative implications for social entrepreneurship.

  1. It goes in the direction of breaking up the European single market. If your company, like my own, starts by colonizing a niche this is bad. A niche in a large market might still be large enough for you to survive, thrive and expand. The same niche in a small market might be too small to support your business.
  2. It throws a wrench in the free circulation of people. This is also bad, because our talent pool is already limited. It takes a certain kind of person to fit well into a social enterprise. Employees take more risks than in ordinary companies, but without the pay offered by commercial startups. Free circulation gives us access to more smart, dedicated, hireable people. Many social enterprises tend to have both an international mindset and an international workforce.
  3. It creates instability, which is bad for business if you are selling anything new. Investment in innovation gets deprioritized during turbulence.

But Brexit has an even more important implication. It shows that many people do not want to live in the world we are trying to build for them (and ourselves). Social entrepreneurs tend to be urban liberals. They rejoice in diversity, and many of them are themselves expats. They are committed to meritocracy. They respect facts, and attempt to uphold them over beliefs an prejudices. They dislike the thought of living in the “Little England” evoked by the Leave campaign. They worry about the disregard for factual truth displayed by the whole Brexit debate. They – we – are simply not the right people to help disgruntled Brexiters to build the world they want.

Smart people have been trying to make sense of the Brexit vote, and  of the parallel rise of Donald Trump (exampleanother example). The prevailing narrative goes something like this: the white working class feels left behind. There are jobs, but they are not “good” jobs. They don’t offer “a sense of community and self-worth”. They think the world owes them (but not Syrians or Iraqis or Italians) a certain kind of life. They are  not interested in alternative paths to community and self worth which our society does offer, like cheap or free access to art, entertainment and learning opportunities.

Skilled demagogues have been working on this dissatisfaction. They were able to convince white people in Deep England to express it by “breaking the system”. In practice, this means voting for nativist political parties who target immigrants and ruling élites, in this order.   They simply don’t care what they break, or who they hurt to make their point. The loss of opportunities for social enterprises are not intentional, just more collateral damage. .

I will resist passing judgment on this stuff. It is what it is, and we need to factor it in. What I do have to pass judgment on is this: is it still worth it being a social entrepreneur? Big business is our enemy on the market. The people we were meant to help are our enemies on the political arena. Is our mission still achievable? Is it even worth anything to society at large?

Photo credit: Geoff Llerena – Reposted from CheFuturo (Italian)