Tag Archives: UNDP

Stretching the Overton window: the need for (more) radical reform in the language of leading institutions

Large, venerable institutions like the United Nations or the European Union prefer to use understated language. When discussing possible reform, they tend to deploy expressions like “adjustment” or “course correction”. They are incrementalists, not firebrands.

This is even more true when economic reforms are concerned. As long as I have been intellectually active, economics has been an intellectually and politically conservative discipline. The mainstream economists’ idea of policy was the identification and correction of market failures. Well-functioning markets automatically deliver the best possible outcome for all.

In the past few years, though, I have started to see increasingly strong language – already widely used in the corridors, mind you – making it into high-profile official documents. I choose to interpret this as a harbinger of hope: as multiple crises bring our societies under increasing strain, policy makers realize that the old ways of thinking are just not going to cut it. The good old Overton window has served our institutions well, helping to guarantee stability. But now stability has become impossible; business as usual is setting the world on fire, quite literally. The Overton window needs to be blown wide open.

And so the language is changing: the aforementioned large, venerable institutions are now calling for a lot more radicality. In this short post I want to note the expression I have noticed. If you know of any more, please let me know, it may help people advocating for bolder thinking, as it is already helping me. Brace for interesting times.

What institutions are calling for (in rough chronological order)

  1. Green New Deal (US Democratic Party).
  2. Green transition (EU)
  3. Just transitions (everybody, from the EU to South Africa
  4. Systems transformation (UNDP, 2022-2025 Strategic plan)
  5. Transformative shifts (UNEP, strategic plan 2022-2025)
  6. Systemic change (IPCC, Assessment Report 6, Summary for Policymakers)
  7. Structural transformation (OECD, but I seem to have lost the reference. Can anyone help me?
  8. Extraordinary turnarounds (Club of Rome, Earth4All report
The Edgeryders team at the unMonastery: left to right, Matthias Ansorg, Nadia El-Imam, Alberto Cottica, Noemi Salantiu, Arthur Doohan, Ben Vickers. Photo: Sam Muirhead CC-BY

The business corporation as a symbiont to a community: Edgeryders crosses a watershed

Last week Edgeryders LBG, the company I co-founded, closed its first substantial deal. We are going to be working with the United Nations Development Programme, scanning the horizon in three countries (Armenia, Egypt and Georgia) in the hope to detect trends that will shape our common future as they start to unfold. We are very excited: this is exactly the kind of cutting-edge work we aspire to do, and Giulio Quaggiotto and his posse at UNDP-CIS are exactly the kind of people we aspire to work with.

This deal marks a watershed in the Edgeryders trajectory. We were a joint project of the Council of Europe and the European Commission from launch in late 2011 to sunset at the end of 2012. In January 2013 some of us, enamoured with what we had come to see as a uniquely valuable community, stepped in and spun it off onto a newly built online platform. In May 2013 we founded a non-profit social enterprise, Edgeryders LBG, to provide the infrastructure and the sense of direction we felt were needed to keep the community together.

We wanted to do this by providing work opportunities to our community on the edge (many of us are close to uncontractable for various reasons: too young and unexperienced, too old, too minority, too anti-authoritarian, too inclined towards being self-taught rather than academic achievers…). And not just any work opportunities: meaningful ones, cutting-edge, high-risk, potentially world-changing, one-step-removed-from crazy work opportunities. We want to be the skunkworks of the global society, the Foreign Legion of social innovation, the people that have little to lose, and so can afford to go to the ugliest places and take on the scariest work.

We would do this in part directly, by going out and pitching our community as a “distributed think tank” that swarms near-instantly around any interesting problem you throw at it; but the most innovative part of the model was that we would also help members of the community to provide those opportunities for themselves and each other. To secure this, we built our company so that it can serve as a vehicle for anyone in the community to use. This way, people would be able to quickly prototype their ideas without worrying about having to start a company: if they needed an incorporation they could simply use us as a “corporate shell”, an interface towards a world that understands corporations but not communities. Basically, anyone who wishes to do so (with minimal limitations) can put on an Edgeryders hat and talk to potential clients or funders as if representing the company – this makes us the first (to my knowledge) corporation without permission. On launching a successful project, we simply hire them to run them: this is a process we describe as hiring yourself. Of course, we also informally try and help people with ideas and the will to work hard, mostly by connecting with others in the community with relevant skills and experience.

We gave ourselves a year to find out whether this plan had a chance of working. We were not too worried – we had learnt our lesson from the tech industry so many of us gravitate around, and had made it really cheap to fail.

Three months to go to that deadline. Here’s where we are:

  1. On the corporate front, we have secured the UNDP contract. Two more contracts are in the pipeline, and we expect them to come through well before May.
  2. We have secured a deal with the Italian city of Matera to provide a (spectacular!) building and some seed funding for the world’s first unMonastery, a project of some visionary edgeryders led by Ben Vickers. After much preparation, unMonastery Matera went live on February 1st.
  3. We have served as a corporate shell for several community projects. Two of them succeeded in raising seed funding: these are Matthias Ansorg’s Economy App, winner of the first European Social Innovation Competition in 2013, and David Bovill’s Viral Academy, recipient of a Nominet Trust grant on digital innovation in 2014. I am confident that many more will come through, for reasons explained below. Another project just launched is Said Hamideh’s EdgeLance, a communication agency that leverages the unusual brand of creativity of many edgeryders to build cutting-edge communication services. Said, a professional freelance communicator, has chosen wrap EdgeLance into the Edgeryders LBG corporate shell. News of more initiatives are coming in daily.
  4. Meanwhile, the community has thrived despite the end of the Council of Europe’s tenure. We have been able to organize, with no funding at all, the third Living On The Edge event, that gathered over 100 edgeryders from all over the continent in the (then unfinished) unMonastery premises. Over the past year, the community has gathered 700 new members and produced about 1,000 posts, wikis and tasks and well over 3,000 comments.

My conclusion: our proof of concept is done. Edgeryders can indeed be a viable business. But we are well aware that proving a concept is not the same thing as making it work in practice. We may be fast and smart, but incumbent consulting conglomerates are big, and scary. Can we really carve a niche for ourselves, expand it and keep the McKinseys, Accentures and Gartners of the world away from it?

Time will tell. But we do have one thing we have going for us: we are not a predator, we are a mutualistic symbiont to our communityWe don’t just recruit the smartest people from the community; we hate digital sharecropping, and try very hard never to be the slightest bit exploitative. We invest in the community and serve it as best we can; we believe we can only be a viable business because we serve it. Investments in this community pay back tenfolds, because it is so smart and fast as to be almost frightening. New conventions and tools continue to be proposed: some are adopted and spread, like the community call, the “call a human” button, the Twitterstorm, the Task Manager.

Among the potentially most significant are the FormStorm and its Recycling Bin, dreamed up by Ksenia Serova and her crew: the idea is to socialize application writing, helping each other take part in contests and competitions. This was tested very successfully with the European Social Innovation Competition: the community got together (virtually) and produced 13 applications (about 1% of the total applications submitted throughout Europe). Two of them, Giacomo Neri’s Moove and Epelia’s Food Supply Unchained, were shortlisted for the semi-finals (Lois is prototyping the latter in unMonastery Matera, another sign that a whole ecosystem is emerging from what we do). More, much more is cooking.

While many edgeryders are individually very smart, we believe this kind of performance to be an emergent property of the whole community, with its tools and its values. It is, truly, collective intelligence.  And if this is what happens with fewer than two thousands registered users, we can only imagine how fast this crowd can move as that number scales  to a mere twenty thousands. We can’t wait to find out.

A phrase from Chris Anderson’s famous article about the makers movement’s next industrial revolution comes to mind. In that article, he describes his own company, DIY Drones, as a typical small, family-run business, initially run by Anderson’s garage. Then he adds:

But the difference between this kind of small business and the dry cleaners and corner shops that make up the majority of micro-enterprise in the country is that we’re global and high tech. Two-thirds of our sales come from outside the US, and our products compete at the low end with defense contractors like Lockheed Martin and Boeing. Although we don’t employ many people or make much money, our basic model is to lower the cost of technology by a factor of 10 (mostly by not charging for intellectual property). […] When you take an order of magnitude out of pricing in any market, you can radically reshape it, bringing in more and different customers.

This describes accurately what we are trying to do to consulting. We are tiny, barely starting to bootstrap from sweat equity, and yet we are already global – we are doing work in Armenia, Egypt, Georgia, Germany, Italy, the UK; we are negotiating deals in South Africa, Sweden, Uganda, the United Arab Emirates; we participate in conferences in places like Thailand and Montenegro (not to mention the fact that our community lives in 40 countries). We are resolutely open, both in content an in software, hence we don’t charge for intellectual property. And yes, we are cheap, and we aim to get people and orgs who do good work, but can’t afford to pay for standard consulting, to turn to us.

If you like this vision, you can help make it come true.

  • If you run a business, a public- or a third sector organization you can join UNDP as one of our “founding clients”: you will be an early adopter of  our open consulting services, and we will strive to reward your belief in us by overdelivering and sharing with you our learning journey. If you wish to find out more about how this would work, just contact me.
  • If you are building a project for a better world, or want to collaborate to one, consider joining the Edgeryders community. Be sure to contact Noemi to say hello, she’ll help you make the most of the community.

We scan the horizon for UNDP, to discern the shadow of the future. But the feeling is very strong that a warm, glowing piece of future is right here.

#LOTE2 gearing up: can citizens do actual policy design?

Designing policy
I am looking forward to #LOTE2. Some of the most interesting people I know are coming: as if that were not enough, we are also coming up with a really great, interactive, no-spectator-allowed program. My favorite part is the Policy Hero Challenge: the idea is to take up some of the recommendations generated by the Edgeryders project and hammer it into policy. Real, solid, compliant, accountable, honest-to-God policy; the stuff that could be put before Parliament, or just be signed into existence by a senior bureaucrat as is. Of course citizens – even very smart ones – typically cannot do that. So, we are deploying professional policy makers in each session. They are tasked with not allowing the session to be simplistic.

Let me give you an example. We have a session on rewiring innovation policy. Edgeryders think innovation policy in Europe is missing the opportunity to support innovative people, as it simply can’t see beyond organization. So, how would innovation policy that targets individuals look like? I can imagine the conversation starting like this:

CITIZEN: “Governments only like to give big money to big tech companies. Everybody knows these are not the most innovative players! I mean, Dilbert works for a large tech corporation. Are you really giving taxpayer euro to Dilbert’s boss to innovate?”

POLICY MAKER: “Not so fast. We are required to account for every penny, and that is a good thing. Large organizations can show us how they spend taxpayer money: they have sophisticated accounting systems and they own large assets – so, if they don’t deliver, we can always sue them and get the money back. For example, in 2009 there was a really nasty episode with some small firms that put together a scam […] Of course, if we had reliable ex ante project quality indicators, we could take more risks on the accounting as long as we would be supporting the best projects, but measuring the quality of an innovation project a priori is a very hard problem. Here’s why […].”

It boils down to this: if you want to make policy, you have to take on board its full complexity. A dumbed-down version just won’t work: at least, I can’t think of any way to do this without treating everyone as an intelligent adult, and demanding everybody behaves like one. And when you think of it this is a really beautiful idea. It demands full honesty and transparency from policy makers; intellectual rigour and hard work from citizens; and mutual respect from everyone. It brings out the best everyone has to give. And it might work.

I am really, really curious to run the experiment, and very proud. I am proud of the Edgeryders community for making the effort (God knows many of them are broke, and investing time and money to come to Brussels to have this kind of discussion is a really generous gift); proud of our policy makers, Prabhat Agarwal and his colleagues at the European Commission’s DG Connect, Justyna Krol and her unit at UNDP-CIS, Anna Maria Darmanin at the European Economic and Social Committee, Amelia Andersdotter at the European Parliament; super-proud of my colleagues at the Council of Europe – Gilda Farrell, Nadia El-Imam, Malcolm Cox, Noemi Salantiu, Andrei Trubceac, Joel Obrecht – for supporting the event even though it is not an official Council of Europe one.

And I am proud of you all, my fellow humans, so well represented by the wonderful people at #LOTE2. After all of the screwups in the long, bloody history of what we today call government; after all the false starts, broken promises, bogus ideologies, visionary leaderships betrayed by mediocrity (and don’t even get me started on the really heavy stuff of Gulags and secret police), it looks like we are still smart enough to look truth in the eye; strong enough to forgive each other; and crazy enough to try again, and even think that, this time, we might get it right.

If you want to participate to #LOTE2, read this.