Engaging the Edge – Activating citizen experts for innovation that works

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Presentation delivered at UNDP Innovation Summit in November 2013. It deals with how large, corporate bureaucracy can engage innovators "at the edge" while still complying with accountability …

Presentation delivered at UNDP Innovation Summit in November 2013. It deals with how large, corporate bureaucracy can engage innovators "at the edge" while still complying with accountability requirements. Based on an experience led by the Council of Europe in 2011-2012.

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  • 1. Engaging the edge Activating citizen experts for innovation that works Alberto Cottica It’s great to be here, thank you all for making it and for inviting me! I am originally from Italy, now based in Brussels. I have worked for or in government for the past seven years, mostly with the Ministry of economic development in Italy and the Council of Europe. I am going to share with you my own innovation dilemmas and how I attempt to solve them. I will start by laying out a diagnosis of why we meet with so many roadblocks and where we can look to for inspiration to solve them; then I will explain this in the context of a project I directed while at the Council of Europe.
  • 2. So, you want more innovation. Welcome to the club. It’s a big club these days. And for a good reason: humanity is facing massive systemic challenges – globalization, rogue finance, climate change, the rise in inequalities, the marginalization of the young generation is some parts of the world. These challenges have not been created by some state or other social agent taking conscious action: nobody voted for them. Rather, they are emergent consequences of myriads of independently made decisions by INTERdependent agents such as individuals, businesses, banks and government agencies. Since we, the people, did not start these things, we the people have no undo button. We need to come up with something to tackle these issues, fast. We need to innovate.
  • 3. Budget > 40M Euro Administrative & HR resources of a major govt Decision made by a former IBM Italy CEO Trouble is, innovation is hard. Hard for everyone, but it seems especially hard for large corporate organizations, and even more so when these organizations are part of the public sector. Here’s an innovation story from my native country, Italy. This is former Minister Francesco Rutelli in 2007, announcing the going live of a government project called italia.it Italia.it was to be an e-commerce portal to sell the services of Italian companies in the tourism industry. On paper this was a strong project, with a generous budget, the administrative and human resources of a major government, and the leadership of a decision maker, former Innovation minister Lucio Stanca, who used to be an IBM senior manager and knew well the space of large ICT projects. Despite such a favorable context, the project failed, obviously and controversially, to provide any value to the country. This is a high profile example. But in most countries failure has become the new normal in public policies; this is true at all scales of intervention, from large infrastructures to street-level urban maintenance; and at all institutional levels, from the international to the local. Just read any paper, or talk to anyone. Why is that? To answer this question, we need to open the hood and have a look at the engine of public policies.
  • 4. democratic representation + administrative process In the best case scenario, under the hood of public policies one finds democratic representation and administrative process.
  • 5. ? Representation means that citizens choose someone to make decisions in their name and in the common interest. This system is very inclusive, since voting is very easy. But it cannot take advantage the wealth of information, skills and passion embedded in the citizenry. Many try to propose ideas or offer criticisms to the representative, but she – no matter how smart and hard-working can never incorporate all of them in her mind maps. The vast majority of the citizenry’s cognitive capital is lost in step 1!
  • 6. The representative makes decision as best as she can. These decisions are then enacted by way of administrative processes. These are designed as a trasmission chain for decisions made a priori. When run well, they are very impartial and avoid abuses or worse. However, this also makes them notoriously bad at handling exceptions, scenario changes, sudden crisis... and also unsolicited information volunteered by citizens, even if it is valuable. This is reflected in the language of public policies, that calls citizens “recipients”, “beneficiaries” or even “target groups”. They are seen as passive material, rather than protagonists.
  • 7. Citizens as experts This is a tragic waste of human resources. Citizens have valuable knowledge that could be deployed to design, monitor and sometimes even implement public policies. In the case of italia.it, it’s failure did NOT come as a surprise to most observers: it had been widely predicted. The rigidity of the administrative process prevented the government from digesting that information and cancelling the project, or at least trying to fix it. What would happen if you could recruit your citizens to help with designing and deploying your public policies? Before we go into that, I’d like to take a minute to highlight the meaning of the word “knowledge” in this context. Sometimes we are polling citizens for their opinions or intentions, like in election polls. In these cases, we know the space of available alternatives before we start; some will vote for the gray party, others for the rainbow party, others will not vote at all. We just don’t know how many will do one thing versus the other. Well, this is not what we mean here. What we mean is that citizens might have a different – and richer – outlook on the problem space than we have. It makes sense: there’s more of them than there is of us, so they can throw at any given problem a massively superior quantity of brainpower. Also, for the development problems you are most interested in, they have the additional advantage that they live in all of those developing regions and countries; they were born and bred there, they speak the languages, they have access to information vectors that are not accessible to us. Citizens are experts.
  • 8. This is not new. Citizens have always been experts. What is new is the scale at which they can work together. For clarity, I am going to argue what follows in terms of processes that are enabled by electronic networks. I appreciate that some of you are working in countries where Internet access is by no means a commodity available to all citizens. Widely available Internet access does add extra scale, but citizen experts are mobilized by means of social processes: technology can be a useful tool, but that’s not where the action is. You can get very valuable results out of simple tech like SMS, post-its or paper messageboards, as long as the social and administrative plumbing are right. With that in mind, let’s look at what happens when you mobilize a large number of citizen experts. Consider, for a moment, Wikipedia...
  • 9. 4 million entries (English) 1.5 million active editors no command structure, no money Compare this to italia.it. How is a result like that achieved? Why such a large difference? Well, because under the hood Wikipedia has a very different engine.
  • 10. self-selection + social networks Under the hood of processes like this we find self selection and social networks. Self selection means this: each Wikipedia editor decides by herself that she wants to be a Wikipedia editor; which entries she wants to work on, and when. She needs no permission and has no boss. This means that each and every one of 1.5 million of editors are positioned right at the point of maximum impact – where she’s writing about things she is knowledgeable about – and of minimum effort – where she is writing about things she is passionate about, when she is ready for it. This is a Pareto-optimal result, and its beauty is that it happens without anyone needing to keep track of what millions of people know about and care about. The pairing of Wikipedia entries and editors – as well as their working schedule – is completely emergent. You have been hearing about complexity theory, and complexity is indeed the lens through which most scholars look at processes like this.
  • 11. self-selection + social networks Social networks means that the social norms and the software underpinning wikipedia allow and encourage people working on the same entry to interact. This is why Wikipedia is self-correcting: people working on the same entry can correct each other’s errors, discuss if they are not sure what to do, or flag the entry to call others for help.
  • 12. Self-selection and social networks give rise to a pattern of information exchanges and collaboration that is completely emergent: no one designed it – indeed no human designer could ever do such a thing. Generally, it has a fantastically complex layout, because it results from a myriad of individual decisions. This complexity is thought to be the mathematical signature of the blinding speed and incredible efficiency of these processes. You are looking at collective intelligence: an intelligent process that operates at a larger-then-human scale. It looks nothing like a command tree.
  • 13. Signing the reality check So why don’t we do this in government? It’s not that civil servants don’t get this; it’s that it does not sit well with prevailing notions of accountability. Open processes get things done: they are accountable to their outcome. Administrative processes do things by the book: they are accountable mostly to the procedure. You can probably argue that accountability to the outcome is a legitimate form of accountability, but you can’t single-handedly change the rules and procedures channeling your work. You are stuck. So, by the way, are most large companies and NGOs, because they are Weberian bureaucracies just like public sector agencies.
  • 14. Accountable to whom? This is true across the policy spectrum, but it is especially true for innovation. Innovators – especially the radical ones – are trying to build a new world that contains their innovation: they make themselves accountable to their vision of the future. In contrast, evaluators are accountable to a present that does not contain the innovation. Sometimes the gap can be bridged, but many times it can’t. Before the invention of the printing press, knowledge was preserved and transmitted by professional scribes manually copying manuscripts. The 15th century cultural establishment, as the printing press was introduced, lamented the attack on scribal culture; they prophesized that both the production and the perusal of written language, would be trivialized. The printing press would give rise to a tidal wave of cheap rubbish, such as porn and heretic literature. They were right on all accounts, though they failed to predict the quantum leap in learning and high-quality cultural and scientific production that rode on top of the wave, enabled by the new freedom to print. We now think of the printing press as an unambigously good thing, but this is because we are the children of the culture in which the printing press has won. Everyone opposing it went extinct and does not get to write history. Accountability to the present (present state of affairs, balance of power, stakeholders etc.) stands in the way of out-of-the-box thinking and acting of large corporate organizations... so it also prevents us from innovating.
  • 15. A priori vs. a posteriori innovation decisions The need to be accountable and the administrative plumbing nudges decision makers towards a priori innovation modalities. Typically, some decision maker would gather the best professional experts on something and ask them for a way to go. They would discuss among them and come up with some recommendations. This is, for example, how EU research priorities are chosen. A small and homogenous group of people (senior university professors) gather and say, for example “You should invest in photonics and nanotechnologies.” This is then encoded into a strategy and carried, by administrative process, right down to the level of funding opportunities for individual university departments. Do you recognize the representation + administrative process scheme? First, all innovation opportunities lying outside the few selected domains are discarded on stage 1. We could have had some world-changing idea on, say, tectonics waiting for support – bad luck. If we are lucky the senior professors will be broadly right, but chances are they will not. We have conclusive psychological research that shows that experts are lousy at prediction. They perform a bit worse than informed citizens, and only marginally better than pure randomness. Second, in doing so we deploy our whole research infrastructure towards only few goals: we are in for a lot of duplication, because – guess what – people and organizations follow incentives. Italy alone has at this time 17 “centres of excellence on nanotechnology”. It is no coincidence that a lot of research funding is allocated at the regional level, and we have 20 regions. There are exceptions, of course, but trying for more-than-incremental innovation within large corporate organizations and the prevailing notion of accountability will typically fail. It is wired to fail, because both the corporate structure and the notion of accountability are supposed to be conservative, and to prevent decision makers from doing crazy things. So you are pressed to innovate. And you are prevented from doing so successfully. That’s not a good place to be.
  • 16. Fishing for outcomes So what do we do? What I and others have been doing it over the past ten years is building appropriate interfaces. They are conceived like a fishing rod: thick and rigid at the handle, where the institution needs accountability, and thin and flexible at the end, where the innovation process needs speed and creativity. This way, the innovation is generated outside the institution; its role is to monitor continuously for good new things, help them to stay up and incorporate them into its policies as they reach maturity. This is a sort of portfolio approach to innovation: any group of citizens who wishes to try something can be thought of as an innovation lab. They can fail fast and cheaply, without affecting the agency’s credibility. Ideas and initiatives that are proven to work well can be “pulled in”. The big advantage is that you don’t have to dream up ex ante what innovations will be beneficial; you just need to be able to recognize promising existing prototypes – much easier, and much less risky! This is analogous to Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, not needing to know which entries will be written next year to have a viable, world-changing project.
  • 17. you you MASSIVELY A THINK TANK ISTRIBUTED D EXPERIENCE BASED SELF-SELECTED COLLABORATIVE I would like to give you an example of this. In 2011 I was with the Council of Europe and we were tasked with making proposal for the reform of European youth policies to member states and the European Commission. We decided to roll out a radically many-many participation exercise. We thought of it as a think tank, which would be: - distributed. People would participate from wherever they were, using an online platform as a virtual workspace). - massively collaborative. It needed not to break down as the number of participants grew. - self-selected. Anyone who cared about the issue was welcome to participate, without Council of Europe filtering. - experience-based. We emphasized stories and experiences, not opinions. We find the former are richer and less controversial than the latter. I, as director, was a Council of Europe employee: completely embedded and bound by all usual rules and procedures, but with a one year contract, which provided me with a strong incentive to succeed in the eye of the public rather than that of my direct superior. I was, you might say, the handle of the fishing rod. We called this Edgeryders. On purpose, we did not brand it Council of Europe and did not host it on corporate servers. Why did we make such an unusual move? Well, it was hard to say no to an honest attempt to understand what young people actually think, especially with an organization that has the betterment of democracy as one of its pillars. And an important source of added value was that being more extreme avoided duplication. I could tell my head of unit “look, this topic is researched to death. Do we really want another academic research on NEETS and youth unemployment? What do we have to contribute?”
  • 18. Act 1: seed And here’s how it went. Firstly, we needed to plant the seed of participation.
  • 19. Learning Campaigns Missions Where did you learn your key skills? Take an online lecture. Does it work? [...] Mission reports We did so by publicly asking questions about how young Europeans transition to adulthood. We wrote them so that each person could select the level of detail and depth that she found most appropriate to her skills, knowledge, interests and available time. We invested time in writing careful summaries about the issue at hand, making them as simple as possible while still doing justice to the question, but no simpler, as you would with professional experts. So, for example, suppose you are dealing with learning. One question might be “List your most relevant skills. Where and how did you learn them? Was it in formal education? Browsing libraries? Practicing team sports?”. Another one could be “Take a lecture in an online course. What do you think? Do you see yourself learning things that way?” Notice how we never asked them “what do you think of the education system?” or “what would you want from the education system?”. This kind of question results in rants and commonplace. We wanted experiential data. If you want to know what is important for a person, you can learn much by what she actually does.
  • 20. Act 2: grow Get people to interact. Expose them onto each other, and let the ones validate the contributions of the others. By far the easiest and cheapest way to do this is by setting up an interactive online platform. At Edgeryders we built one based entirely on free, open source software.
  • 21. We used mainstream social networks – chiefly Twitter and Facebook – to share content written by our users on the Edgeryders platform. Thus, we came into contact with new people. Some of them liked the project enough to join it, signing up on our platform and producing more content which would in turn be reshared etc.
  • 22. 1,000 9,000 Twitter users tweets Citizens as a communication team: Edgeryders on Twitter, Mar-Jun 2012 That way, your community at large doubles up as a communication team.
  • 23. 1200 500 4000 participants mission reports comments .. and we reached relatively large numbers in just a few months.
  • 24. This way, participation to Edgeryders propagated across the social graph, moving farther and farther away along the fishingrod. This approach allowed us to reach out to the edge of European society, where change starts. We found out that European young people are innovating like crazy, trying out for new ways of living in a crisis-stricken world: sharing economy, crypto currencies, urban agriculture, network bartering, co-living, co-working, open source everything. We found out that these people have no problem helping with a large, conservative bureaucracy like the Council of Europe – as long as they can do so on their own terms. People who were doing really radical stuff came out, not just online but also in Strasbourg to share what they were doing with us. We had some REALLY edgy contributors. Matthias – the guy with the bandanna in this picture – is a German open source hacker who is building an Alexandrean “operating system for the planet”. He calls it EarthOS, and is a collection of open source resource to do absolutely everything, from rooting a smartphone to building a composting toilet. Pavlik – coincidentally next to him in the picture – has been refusing to touch money for four years, and he refuses to use state-issued ID as well. This created a bit of a situation with building security when he came to our conference in Strasbourg, but as you see he we managed to get him in. Smari, an Icelander, helped design the Icelandic “crowdsourced constitution” experience, and he also helped Julian Assange edit the video in which US Army helicopters gun down Reuters journalists. Michàl, Polish, was one of the organizers of the instant movement that started from Poland 2011 and crushed ACTA, an obscure international agreement that had had no political opposition to speak off that far. Another Pole, Petros, a small entrepreneur, went bankrupt in the crisis and lost is company and his home. So he went off the grid: he found a kind soul who lets him and his partner use a piece of land in Eastern Poland, and founded there Freedom Lab. He has cheap laptops, solar panels and open source resources to make what he needs. His goal is to discover social contracts that help communities stay healthy in the long run. But we also had many more normal people, lost, happy, frustrated, smart, many young, others middle-aged. Most are struggling. The diversity seemed to be great for putting things in perspective. Many of these innovations will fail: and these generous pioneers will bear the cost of the failure. Others will change the world for everyone. You can make a difference by identifying promising candidates and help them to stay up, develop and scale.
  • 25. Act 3: harvest What we ended up with is a unique outlook on the issue of the transition of youth as seen from the trenches, were young people fight for their future every day. All of these experiments generate lots and lots of notes to compare. We needed to extract knowledge from all that content.
  • 26. We used open source ethnographic software to build an ethnography of European youth at the edge. It was quite cheap to do, since the raw data were already collected and in written form.
  • 27. The Edgeryders network in December 2012 Density 0.028 Average weighted degree 10.87 Average distance 2.3 The other way to harvest the content has been by looking at the network of the Edgeryders conversation. You can see it here; the dots represent people, and the arcs represent comments that connect them. Doing this you could easily identify the people that were generating the most interesting contributions, and pay special attention to them.
  • 28. So, what have we built?
  • 29. Inclusive: a space for individual citizens to be heard
  • 30. Diverse: be everyone to engage with everyone!
  • 31. Open: anyone can join without permission therefore self-legitimizing
  • 32. Effective: highly relevant results
  • 33. European: added value from the scale itself
  • 34. Tens of spinoff projects Having finished its work, the Council of Europe terminated the project. But by then the connections had been made: some of the more active groups of people kept on working together after termination on several project. We know of about 20, and we keep finding out more. This is one of them: an attempt to embed skills into a local community loosely to work on social problems perceived as urgent. Loosely based on 7th century Benedictine monasteries, the unMonastery went from idea to prototype in less than a year, feeding into the policies of the Italian city of Matera. Another project from the community, called the Economy App – moneyless economy for the 99%, went on to win the European Social Innovation Competition in May 2013. It is an algorithm for multiparty barter, intended to enable economic exchange in an illiquid local economy. The community is continuously coming up with new things. Many of them are about new and better way to collaborate.
  • 35. New formats for collaboration Two months ago, needing to do a press conference, somebody came up with the idea to do it on Twitter. This morphed into a format we now call Twitterstorm. It’s easy and uses only free tools, but it turns out to have some impact on the awareness of the thing being communicated. We have done three so far, each iteration a little different from the others, in pure rapid prototyping fashion. This is iteration 2. We were promoting a conference in the relatively remote city of Matera, in southern Italy. Looking at network data pulled from the Twitter APIs we noticed the network partitioned quite naturally into three parts: the green people are mostly locals, tweeting in Italian. The red people are the Edgeryders community; and the blue people on top are members of a like-minded community, mostly based in Paris, called Ouishare. Relatively few people play the role of connecting the subnetworks to each other. The result is that people that have never met and don’t even speak the same language can collaborate quite easily on a common goal, and create a common experience that makes subsequent collaboration easier.
  • 36. Edgeryders LBG consulting Open In recognition of the value of these collaborations, some of the more committed members of the community ended up donating their own time and money to spin Edgeryders off the Council of Europe. A new platform was built and hosted, and a social enterprise, Edgeryders LBG, was formed to maintain the infrastructure that keeps the community going. We also maintain the data from the original Edgeryders exercise: the Council of Europe has exhausted the funding and turned off the server, but all of the content is still online and accessible from our platform. To fund these activities, Edgeryders sells “open consulting” services: it helps clients to set up and run the kind of processes we have been talking about. So, in my experience, yes: the public sector may not be good at innovating, but can and should be an enabler of innovation. This can be done by reaching out to citizens, especially those at the edge, and supporting their efforts. This needs an adequate interface to ensure both freedom of movement at the dge and accountability and structure at the center. Done right, it delivers great results, inclusivity, legitimacy, serendipity at reasonable costs. It can even lead to spinoff projects and to the creation of new initiatives and businesses! So yes, if you get the chance, it’s worth trying. If you want to know more, don’t hesitate to get in touch, we’ d love to help.
  • 37. THANK YOU alberto@edgeryders.eu Twitter: alberto_cottica Photo credits: Jasmin Cormier, the yes man, Sukanto Debnath, Medhin Paolos, Photographic Poetry, h.koppdelaney, http://www.online-utility.org/, Filippo Podestà, Jasmin Cormier, Elena Trombetta, Sam Muirhead