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Policy making for swarms


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REcent years have seen a rising interest for "swarms", meaning instant campaigns, unconferences, hackathons and other unorthodox constellations of people in action that are both collaborative and non-hierarchical. For years now I have been involved in policy initiatives that incorporate an element of that openness, of that fluidity. Can we really speak of policy making for swarms? If so, what does that mean?

These slides accompanied my talk at Big Picture Days Episode 1 in London, on June 1st 2013.

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Policy making for swarms

  1. 1. Policy making for swarmsAlberto Cottica, Edgeryders – Big Picture Days, June 1st 2013Hello, thank you all for showing up. I do research for a newly minted company called Edgeryders. The reason why thecompany even exists and why its business model looks the way it does itself has a lot to do with what we are going to betalking about today. But more on that later.We are here to talk about swarm coops, or whatever you want to call these unorthodox constellations of people in action. Atthe heart of this concept there is a fundamental paradox. Swarm coops derive their uncanny efficiency from radicaldecentralization of decision making and action; yet, decentralization might and does cause such action to develop in directionsso different from what it had been intended to be as to be unrecognizable. I guess most of us will be turning around thisparadox in their head. The main tool I am using to debunk this paradox is network theory: I conceptualize swarms as people innetworks. In networks, nodes might be equal in the amount of top-down power over others, but they will typically be veryunequal in terms of connectivity, hence the ability to spread information (including narratives and calls to action) across thenetwork. Uneven connectivity adds some directionality to the swarm, in the sense that the most connected people get it to gotheir way most of the times.I am going to try and give you a perhaps slightly unusual perspective on swarm coops. I am a policy guy – public policy design(and some deployment) is what paid my bills for the last ten years. Public policy is generally understood as a top-downprocess: some leader somewhere makes a decision and that decision is enacted. Since the accepted modi operandi of publicpolicy are encoded into law, such top-down thinking is hardwired into organizational charts, remits and procedures. A decisionmaker wanting to do things differently will not in generally be enough for things to happen differently. Think of this as anespecially hard area to do swarms in. That’s not a bad thing for today’s purposes, because it provides us with a cleanbenchmark. If you can do it in the government, you can probably do it in most places.All this is very tentative. I can’t claim I know how to do this stuff. I mean, I do it, and it kind of works, but I am not sure exactlywhy, so I would be the first not to want to turn the revenue agency into a swarm just yet. In fact, the reason why I am here isthat I hope you guys can help me make some progress. I am also going to assume you guys have been thinking into it as hardas I have, so I am giving you the full complexity of the argument. Stop me if I touch on something that does not make sense toyou, or that you don’t know about.
  2. 2. Iatrogenics: harm done by the healerJust a word on why public sector agencies might want to think in swarms. As our societies get ever more complex,they get ever more difficult to second guess. There is a real risk of what Nassim Taleb calls iatrogenics, harm doneby the healer.
  3. 3. 0501001502002007-2013 – Billion €102196World Bank lending commitmentsItaly, strategic national framework pipelineThe world4 regionsin ItalyOne of my favorite examples of that is with public spending. In my country, Italy, we have a situation. The north ofthe country is well-developed, with quite a strong manufacturing economy, whereas its south is lagging behind.This is a high political priority, and for at least fifty years we have thrown money and brains at it.
  4. 4. 017503500525070002007-2013 – per capita €605732.7The world4 regionsin ItalyWorld Bank lending commitmentsItaly, strategic national framework pipelineThe worldThe result is a huge pipeline concentrated on just four regions (the region is the most important spendingauthority in Italy). They have a very hard time even just making it happen – let alone ensuring proper monitoring.
  5. 5. “Everyone was talking aboutpublic sector tenders.”– Tiago Dias Miranda in southern Italy, 2013The result of this situation: smart, entrepreneurial young people in Italy’s Mezzogiorno are talking about publicsector tenders. They know all the acronyms of European programs. And why not? Though most of the money endsup with networks of incumbents, even the crumbs can be quite a big payoff. But of course, in development terms,this is just a distraction: as they write funding applications, they are not starting companies, or leaving thecountry, or squatting buildings; they are not engaging in collective, trial-and-error discovery of the paths thatlead to the healing of the economy. And in fact, the economy does not heal. The government means mostly well,but the amount of damage inflicted is terrifying. This is why I and others are exploring other ways. I am exploringthe way of smart crowds, or swarms. It is not a bad thing to explore: if you are low on the public policy food chain,swarms give you an alternative power base.
  6. 6. Public policies as a buyer’s marketPhoto: marsmet481But doing policy in swarms has an immediate consequence: you need to recruit people, and those people do notwork for you, do not take (much) money from you and need to be convinced.
  7. 7. Photo: marsmet481... and that’s a big reality check right there. I believe this has given some competitive edge to my own projects. Ijust had to work harder to get ANYTHING off the ground.
  8. 8. Photo: marsmet481Falkvinge’s Law: lead by getting skin in the gameSo how to do it? Let’s start by what I am going to call Rick Falkvinge’s Law (in honor of the founder of the SwedishPirate Party): leadership in a network is exerted from the front. You start by saying: “I am doing X. Who’s in?” Thisis more radical than it seems. Nassim Taleb has pointed out that modern society rewards non-risk takers(corporates, politicians, bureaucrats), and that this is new (Alexander the Great led his own charges etc.).Falkvinge’s Law restores the idea that risk-takers should be honored and rewarded.
  9. 9. Interface: the fishing rod modelPhoto: Joel ObrechtYou are going to need an interface – in fact, probably several layers. Governments are Weberian bureaucracies forvery good accountability reasons. Swarms are very clearly not. So you need some smart relaying between theinside of the government agency and the outside, with the swarm having some kind of legitimacy without beingsubject to the hard constraints of public servants. It’s like a fishing rod, thick and rigid atthe handle, but thin andflexible towards the end.
  10. 10. Timing: get friends to start the bandwagonPhoto: flodScholars of swarms, social networks etc. focus typically on the behavior of the formed swarm. But if you’ve evertried it, you know that the hardest part is to kickstart one. We need a much better developed embryology ofswarms. Me, the better method I know is still to leverage trust network of friends. This is how Vinay jumpstartedBig Picture Days: he wrote an email to twenty people trying to get the first, say, six to commit. Then, he could telleveryone “You don’t want to miss this cool event. Why, Alberto Cottica is coming!”. Even if you don’t know whothe hell Alberto Cottica is, such a call works with the deep wiring of human psychology. We have plenty ofexperimental psychology results around that by now.
  11. 11. Randomness: shake things up (hence parties)Photo: Medhin PaolosYou are making policy because someone perceives a situation that is not fixing itself. Rather than going in with aheavy intervention (traditional economists will “maximize the welfare function” and push the economy towards themaximum), which is iatrogenetic, you can simply shake things up a little bit to see if the system gets unstuck fromits present undesirable attractor and starts moving towards a better one. Complexity thinking has given us,among other things, an attractive theory of innovation based on generative relationships: innovation stems frompeople being similar enough that they can communicate well, but different enough to give each other mildcognitive shocks, inducing new ways to look upon things. It is not hard to assess the generative potential of arelationship, but it impossible to predict in advance which potentially generative relationships will actually lead tobreakthroughs.So, I just like to throw parties. Curated parties increase the number of new connections in your network andtherefore, in probability, the number of new things being tried. This, in turn, increases the probability of yoursituation unmooring from where it had been stuck. And no iatrogenics. Win!
  12. 12. Transparency: requests for commentsPhoto: Elena TrombettaI find a radically transparent behavior to be advantageous when running a swarm: it’s a buyers market, and youneed to win trust. Transparency also doubles up as a management tool: most people will just appreciate that youare being honest about, for example, how much money you spend and on what, but occasionally somebody paysclose attention and ends up making useful suggestions. If you have to fight a narrative of public policy as corruptand self-referential (I do) transparency is an amazingly effective tool in reducing conflict and suspicion.
  13. 13. TIme bombs: zero entrenchmentMany swarms tend to lose their magic after a while – the mavericks of the early days get suitified, their projectbecomes a job or what have you. I like to build time bombs in my projects: if a swarm is active enough, it will finda way to survive it. In fact my company, Edgeryders, formed with the intention of providing a new core to acommunity that assembled around a public sector project I used to direct. The project ended, but some of us feltthe community was too good to pass on, so we decided to build a small organization to provide it with thescaffolding initially provided by the public sector project.
  14. 14. Efficiency: don’t touch the wicked problemPhoto: Alberto CotticaWhen you are doing stuff with a swarm and it appears to be working, outside people will try to get it ontoproblems they care about. I try to resist this. It implies a revision of the social contract, which tends to beconflictual: also, it might destroy that feeling of effortless impact that core community members find intoxicating.Generally, bad idea.
  15. 15. Trust: no strings attached (even give people cash)Photo: MaxymediaControl is costly and boring. Relinquishing it, and rather focusing on enabling people to take initiative makes yousave a lot of time and money, and is a huge motivator, as people feel empowered and trusted. If you can, youshould give people a little cash with no strings attached. There is a recent Ugandan study that provides evidencethat, even without swarms, even giving money to young rural poor results in increased hours worked andincreased income for the people in question.
  16. 16. Measure: do you have enough complexity?Photo: MaxymediaTo do this stuff, you need a minimum of complexity. A nail does not evolve; you can’t jumpstart a swarm in yourfamily, and you probably can’t in a village either. In the natural world, complexity has mathematical signaturesthat scientists can look for. Swarms that do most of the heavy lifting online leave behind them a trail of data thatyou can search for self-organizing behavior. I am personally involved in an effort to find cheap, quick methods toinvestigate the matter. If you care about this, we should definitely speak, there’s not many of us out there.
  17. 17. Dogfood: eat your own (and we do)Photo: NikonColucciEdgeryders eats its own dogfood. It is a pretty unique case of a company that grew out of a community that grewout of a public sector project. The company exists to provide the scaffolding for the community to stay connected;and to empower community members to jumpstart cool projects that benefit everyone, like the unMonastery.
  18. 18. So,what do you think?