Can politics be collaborative? – The Vision for The Reef

Available in: :gb: English / :it: Italian

:gb: English version

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?


  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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”).

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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 know they would be executed. 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.

Yesterday (November 22) we presented an actionable plan for how we can get started on making this happen. Right now, without waiting for anyone. While boosting our individual economic and psychosocial resilience.

It’s a first stab at articulating something we have been working towards for some years now.

Here it is, what do you think?

This a BIG puzzle. You hold important pieces, whether or not you know it.

So please do share your reflections. In comments on slides, below or in an email:

I’ll 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 me or join our mailing list.

[written with Alberto Cottica. Photo: Volodymyr Goinyk / ShutterStock]

:it: Italian version

A Edgeryders studiamo e pratichiamo la collaborazione, soprattutto online. Progetto dopo progetto, troviamo che è la forza più potente che le persone con poche ricchezze e nessun potere, come noi, possa mettere in campo. Stiamo diventando bravi a collaborare. La prova: siamo un’azienda mutante senza una sede, senza investitori e senza business plan. Non abbiamo niente se non noi stessi – un minuscolo nucleo di fondatori, e la comunità di Edgeryders. Eppure siamo in campo. Alcune organizzazioni leader nel mondo sono nostri clienti. Cresciamo. Il 2016 è stato un buon anno per noi – ne scriveremo presto.

Il 2016 è stato anche un anno di incertezza e malcontento nella politica mondiale. Molte persone che abbiamo care sono tristi, arrabbiate o impaurite. Quasi nessuno sembra soddisfatto della politica e dei suoi leaders. Questo è vero sia nel campo dei perdenti che in quello dei vincitori. Questo contrasto ci meraviglia. La nostra cultura sta imparando a lavorare sempre meglio insieme nella diversità. Perché questo non si traduce in una politica più costruttiva?

Riflettendo su queste cose, ci siamo accorti che tendiamo a inquadrare la politica come combattimento. Ci sono attacchi, alleati, nemici. I suoi protagonisti si concentrano sul vincere. Questo è comprensibile ma inutile, eccetto forse in quanto intrattenimento. Cosa succede se abbandoniamo questo punto di vista e ne adottiamo uno collaborativo? Cosa succederebbe se un’entità politica fosse gestita come un progetto collaborativo? Se la produzione di leggi funzionasse come Wikipedia? Se le politiche pubbliche fossero implementate come una versione di Apache o Ubuntu?


  • Abilitare è la missione chiave. Uno stato, una città, una regione, esistono solo per abilitare le persone che ci vivono a fare quello che vogliono fare. Non hanno bisogno di avere una visione, perché le persone ne hanno già una loro. Deve solo allargare al massimo lo spazio del possibile, per il numero più alto possibile di persone. In cambio, ottiene compliance e gettito fiscale. Questo sarebbe l’unico obiettivo della politica collaborativa. Confronta con i visionari politici, che cercano di venderti il loro modo di vedere le cose.

  • Nel dubbio, non fare niente. Quando viene proposto un cambiamento importante, la comunità intorno a un progetto collaborativo lo discute. Queste discussioni possono essere lunghe. Poi, quasi sempre, il cambiamento non va avanti. Questo è perché, quali che siano i suoi difetti, il progetto nella sua forma attuale funziona. La sua prossima versione potrebbe migliorare molto, ma nessuno può garantire che funzionerebbe, o quanto ci vorrebbe per metterla a terra. Il cambiamento radicale richiede argomenti molto forti per andare avanti. Confronta con “devo fare qualcosa per lasciare un segno del mio mandato”

  • Concentrarsi sulle infrastrutture. I progetti collaborativi per il software non fanno programmi, ma componenti con cui le persone possono fare programmi. Il punto non è di decidere qual è il colore migliore per le pagine web, ma di scrivere codice che permette a tutti di scegliere facilmente qualunque colore per le loro pagine. Nel mondo delle politiche pubbliche, questo significa costruire infrastruttura, e l’infrastruttura è gerarchica. Più è generale, meglio è. Gli acquedotti sono meglio degli ospedali. Gli ospedali sono meglio dei centri culturali. I centri culturali sono meglio delle mostre. Confronta con i tanti progetti inutili degli amministratori (“Facciamo un incubatore per l’innovazione sociale fondata su blockchain”).

  • Leaders NON carismatici. Le personalità narcisiste e appariscenti non funzionano bene nei progetti collaborativi. L’attenzione delle persone deve essere sul costruire, quindi chi cerca attenzione è un peso morto per gli altri. Le persone più in vista di queste comunità sono persone affidabili e spesso un po’ nerd, che non ti fanno perdere tempo. Confronta con un leader politico a scelta.

  • Evita la controversia. Tutti i progetti open source di successo hanno molte proposte controverse per andare avanti. Ma ne hanno anche molte su cui tutti sono d’accordo. Le controversie fanno perdere tempo, quindi le persone realizzano per prime le proposte condivise. Questo crea fiducia reciproca, e potrebbe fare evolvere il progetto in una direzione in cui la controversia sparisce completamente. Confronta con la politica-come-combattimento.

  • Do-ocracy, non rappresentazione degli interessi e deliberazione. La rappresentazione degli interessi (stakeholder representation) ci ha servito bene quando le società erano semplici e gerarchiche. A quei tempi, una decina di persone intorno a un tavolo potevano prendere una decisione, sapendo che sarebbe stata eseguita. Questo non è più possibile. In un progetto collaborativo non si discute sul cosa fare. Nell’ambito dei valori di riferimento, puoi fare quello che vuoi purché ne abbia la capacità. Chi fa il lavoro decide cosa fare e come farlo. Nessuno può dire a nessun altro come contribuire. Confronta con interminabili dibattiti e veti incrociati.

Quando scriviamo enciclopedie online o software per web servers lavoriamo così. Stessa cosa quando facciamo imprese come Edgeryders. Potremmo lavorare così anche quando costruiamo le città, i parchi nazionali, le griglie elettriche? Potremmo farlo non nel nome di un’ideologia, ma semplicemente per costruire la nostra stessa felicità e abbondanza, e quella di coloro che amiamo?

Potrebbe esserci un altro spazio dove costruire? Un terreno così iperlocale e frammentato da divenire troppo costoso per uomini forti narcisisti e consiglieri machiavellici? Una mossa così laterale da non esistere nemmeno nello stesso spazio della politica post-truth?

Non lo sappiamo ancora. Ma, mentre sale la marea nera del 2016, vediamo gente nelle nostre reti che pone domande nuove. Qualcosa di nuovo, qualcosa di grande si sta muovendo. Come sempre, staremo vicino alla nostra comunità, e daremo una mano per quanto possiamo. Se anche tu aspetti da tempo che qualcosa si metta in moto; se vuoi contribuire a costruirlo, e a capire dove ci porterà, sentiamoci. Rivelerà alcuni dei nostri piani immediati a AdaWeek a Parigi, il 22 novembre (info). Se non puoi venire, scrivimi o iscriviti alla mailing list. [written with Alberto Cottica]


I think you hit a couple of things very squarely on the head. Lego is was so successful because they did not make toys - they made stuff that lets you make toys.

When I read “politics as combat” I instantly thought of the term “alliance finder” I used in our call a while ago (and it had rubbed the wrong way then - but it seemed factually correct) and you have very well put the issue into words there.

I like the “by default do nothing”. I think it was Burke who (could have) said: “Don’t just do something, sit there!” :wink:

But I think this is too strict: “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.”

I would say it needs to be pretty safe-to-fail. So a tinkering type approach, or a small (firewalled) pilot project is recommendable. Realistically though the natural centralization of power make this difficult.

I need to check the gslides still.


Fair point

That works, @trythis. I had in mind radical reform – say, the equivalent of moving from Drupal 7 to Drupal 8. That’s not safe to fail, because both success and failure would entail a massive effort sink. What you have in mind is incremental reform – say, the equivalent of installing a module on That is safe to fail – does not work, uninstall the module, you have spent a few hours installing and testing, no big deal. Am I in the right ballpark?

Got it right there

This was the main point.

The other one is that you should try to distribute your operations onto more than one platform. This will incurr a certain efficiency penalty, but if you want resilience (or anti-fragility) you need to embrace a certain amount of day-to-day inefficiency. In political talk you federalize what you can and you plan for dealing with failure of your or a neighbor’s system.

Another aspect that made me raise an eyebrow was the title itself. To me the essence of politics is compromise and consensus. I strongly associate this with collaboration in difficult situations so it seems like a tautology. However it is true that political systems aren’t all the same. First past the post has quite different dynamics than proportional representation for example.

I got a bunch of very interesting ideas regarding the wider topic (not focused on the collaboration part) from Etienne Chouard (mostly about sidestepping professional politics), and some more on experiments in a society from Graeber here: “Palaeolithic Politics and Why It Still Matters”

The problems with/before really radical (in depth and width)

I think practically the most critical aspects about deeply radical reforms are that no one really knows what to do anymore.

Perhaps even more difficult is having and communicating a especially widely applicable radical idea in the political domain. The pros may seem plausible (and only have potential stakeholders/winners) but the cons seem probable (and often much more obvious to existing stakeholders). On top of that you may not even think of 8 of the 10 most important (positive or negative) changes before they are reliably entrenched.

That is why I rather lean to small scale doing & documenting as approach. Perhaps the documentation should be done by three different parties to get more perspectives. Incremental changes are cool but tend to run into diminishing returns. Once you are faced with even a slight pressure for radical change (I’d argue that was about 30-40 years ago for “The West”) you look for small and resilient (ineffective?) communities for which you can nicely document the inflows and outflows of their systems, give them an incentive (or simply permission) to change and watch closely.

Collaboration vs Compromise

Maybe this a way to frame it understandably:

Urban and rural population exist very differently from each other. In many case they have practically mutually exclusive desires. Their collaboration may boil down to compromising/finding a consensus on very many issues (especially: “Could this be how we work when we build our cities, national parks and energy grids”).

Another thing: I would be careful with the term “post-truth politics”. I can expand on that if you like, but in short I’d put the starting date and important milestones in “post-truth politics” much earlier. Current developments are more interesting for their “emotionally appealing narrative” (to some) I’d say. Again not exactly something new, but currently visibly and vocally crystallizing around a couple of more or less interesting alt-right issues.


Fabrication or general hostility

From a conversation with a friend last week: “what I don’t understand is why everyone is so angry. People have never had it so good (in Sweden). You go on your yearly trip to Thailand, have your beer etc. What more do you want, why complain?”

A few observations / notes to discuss on what I believe are contributing to my sense of “this time it’s different”:

  • Increasingly segmented information landscapes: specific groups are targeted with specific untruths/shaping of reality that affirm their views
  • the sheer volume and speed of information dissemination means that e.g. most people only have time to (barely) read headlines, so talking points very quickly become dogmas. And people become increasingly vested in not having their dogmas challenged.
  • speed at which we are bombarded with information makes it hard for even the most critical thinker to filter out all the bs and social dynamics online reward "sharing" provocative headlines from authors having to up the drama to get attention from exhausted brains.
  • a backlash against some of the ideals of the enlightenment: e.g. separation of church and state, individual liberty and religious tolerance, constitutional government, personal liberty, reason as a virtue.
  • While people always have and always will engage in fabrication, what I am seeing now is that people are actively undermining the value of facts and reason: "Michael Deacon, parliamentary sketchwriter for The Daily Telegraph, summarised the core message of post-truth politics as "Facts are negative. Facts are pessimistic. Facts are unpatriotic." He added that post-truth politics can also include a claimed rejection of partisanship and negative campaigning.[24] In this context, campaigners can push a utopian "positive campaign" to which rebuttals can be dismissed as smears and scaremongering and opposition as partisan" - Wikipedia entry on post-truth politics
  • This is a very big one: dynamics online reward “sharing” provocative headlines more on/of this

The term I like for this is: global weirding. On an aside: this is very similar to the actually scary dynamic of climate change IMHO. The rise of average global temperature is perhaps close to the worst metric they could have chosen to scare people into action.

2 failed harvests ahead of the Syrian crisis, and we are still talking about potential climate refugees. In my book this is exactly what it’ll look like, and the main question here is not how we can stop it, but how we decide to ride it out (which will also determine if we’ll ride it out for say 300 years or 600 years)

  • People tend to look at relative wealth and change over time. Western middle class hasn’t been doing well lately (erst kommt das fressen dann die moral / interest vs values):

Roger Pielke Jr.'s Blog: Income Inequality in Global Perspective

wider context:

- I would reframe this one: speed at which we are bombarded with information makes it hard” -> effective death of quality journalism has done a piss poor job at turning data into useful (beyond ryling people up) information, not to mention knowledge or wisdom.

It doesn’t help that people tend to consume anglosphere media if they are above average, which is particularly disfunctional as far as I can tell (and mired in certain disfunctional bipartisan shit show narratives, excuse me french, with certain bizzare spillover effects).

Not related but perhaps interesting for open care: it blipped up too late - but I spend enough time on reddit as it is…

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Those observations

I certainly agree with them overall.  Here in the USA I think it’s pretty fair to say that we are in an existential crisis - certainly beyond any I have known, and I was born when Truman was President.  Bush II took us there, just about, but he didn’t start there.  We were all mad the GOP stole the 2000 election, but we had no idea what was in store for us.  Now it is just so much worse.  These guys about to take over know that history and demographics are not on their side and they are going to be very aggressive in carrying out their agenda while they still have time.  Consider that had only the 18-25 agre group voted, Trump would only have carried four states, and none of them with much population.  On the other hand, California is the complete opposite - progressives/Democrats have a 2/3 majority in both houses and every elected statewide official including the Governor.  And an economy bigger than France.  I see some Trumpsters from time to time around here, but not much.  In Oakland Trump only got 4% of the vote.

I also agree that climate change is driving much of this, exacerbated by overpopulation, loss of topsoil, good water and other resources.  In other words, the environmnet - the earth itself - is driving much of the angst, whether some know it or not, or admit it.

I get the feeling this “collaborative politicvs” is a kind of “think globally, act locally” idea you are putting forth, but with the addition of “be networked.”  If so, I like it.  And an interesting sort of koan when it goes along with, “we propose building a political terrain that is so hyperlocal and fragmented…”

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Collaborative politics, how to start?

Like @Nadia 's Swedish friend, I am also wondering why people in Western Europe are angry with no obvious reason in their life environment (“you go on vacation, you have your beer” etc.). Trythis pointed out that people look at relative wealth increases, and the Western middle class is lacking in this etc… That may be the trigger, but the worldwide contagious dynamics of it make me think there is something like “global mood swings” on a very long timeline (100 year cycles?).

So to start collaborative politics in this situation, indeed you’d have to drop out and tune in somewhere else … . Which makes The Reef a bit like the role of monasteries during the Dark Middle Ages: preserving high culture and knowledge, and expanding it even, through a time of collapse of the surrounding civilization. (Might be a blatantly naive description, but it’s here for illustratory purposes.) A modern day example of that might be Calafou, hosting Vitaly Buterin while he was building the Ethereum system (which is deeply political in its consequences).

Independently of how we name it, we have been gravitating to ideas like these since years now. Remember “The New St. James Way” (a series of hacker monasteries throughout Europe, connected by travelling members), proposed by our Spanish friends in Tbilisi?

From that background, I have two practical points to add to The Reef planning:

  • (1) To be able to make political statements, The Reef spaces must be economically resilient, or it will be dependent on donors / host cities too much. I know Nadia has renting out rooms in mind. Add to this a good deal of DIY and maker activities (grow food, make furniture, repair electronics etc., just like Calafou does) and you end up with very low running costs.
  • (2) To be able to make political statements, The Reef spaces must be permanent enough and each one specialized enough to become good at what they do. Say, one is about care provision – if it would be temporary, just for a few weeks, it would be a waste. I'd propose to make LOTE6 the start of a permanent Reef space, not just a temporary protoptype.
  • (3) To be able to make political statements, The Reef spaces must be mobile if needed. Because that's the ultimate "threat", and it has to be credible: "If you, city, do not like the way we engage in your politics, country politics and European politics with the result of our work, we can pack up and go. There are so many more cities who like to have us, because ultimately, we're a benefit for a city." To be mobile, from my experience of how I organize my own furnitture and stuff, I propose a combination of EPAL pallets (the usual 120 x 80 cm wooden pallet), Euro boxes of various sizes that double as shelves etc. (Euro boxes are made to fit nicely on these pallets), and two or four 20 ft ISO containers for putting the pallets in and also as mobile outdoor spaces. That way, moving to any place in Europe means hiring one or two trucks to pick up two ISO containers each, each filled with the pallets containing all the stuff. Tear down and set up is one week in total.
  • (4) To be effective, the space must be able to make political statements without being affected much by "mainstream" politics. I'd call this "government interference minimization" and I had this idea once for quasi-sovereign communes ("EarthOS Level 5" for those who know :P ). Basically it is hacking together a quasi-sovereign space where you don't have to care much about what happens outside. Own your space, grow your food, and leave the country in time with a few containers of stuff before they want you to take part in their wars … .

Great points

Both these here by @Matthias and those by @Alex_Levene .

Ok, I guess we are officially discussing this Reef thing now. I created a dedicated group and assigned this post to it:

Of Matt’s points, I am most interested on the first one. I’d like to contribute by working around economic resilience and sustainability. I started already by writing this post. Comments welcome, as always.

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Addendum: Framing as a sovereign space

Framing is so important for success it seems, and here’s a wild idea for it, inspired by Nadia’s brainstorming about founding embassies, and some comment by Mr. Viktor Vorski about what may come after nation states (and that the current political troubles might show the inadequacy of nation states for the current time).

Once I read in a history book about the fall of the Roman Empire that they could have saved much of its high culture and civilization had they intentionally split up the Empire into sovereign cities in due time. That is, way before the fall of the Northern border front where Northern European tribes where always making trouble. A centrally controlled Empire that could not fund its armies adequately anymore was simply not something possible or worth it to keep up. Of course the Emperors did not do this, and we know the results. Using a backstory like this, The Reef spaces could be easily framed as seeds for quasi-sovereign organizations in a networked world of the future after the fall of nation states. Just be clear that the spaces and its members respect the laws of the powers that be (to not get prosecuted like the German “Reichsbüger” movement now). And then you’re free to build up your sovereignty over time by minimizing influence of governments on the space and on its members, and at the same time minimizing all dependency on these governments. If nation states really fall, we’ll not have to start from scratch. If they don’t fall, it nonetheless makes fro a great story preparing for this, which will be attractive during troubled political timess :slight_smile:

Quite the vision!

Wow, @Matthias . That’s thinking on a grand scale.

Just let’s be aware that, as always, there is a tradeoff between efficiency and dependency reduction. If the Empire is providing defence, it is wasteful (but resilient) to fund your own city’s militia. For most key infrastructure The Reef will be unable to afford its own duplicate for a long time. So, the most promising “seeds of sovereignty” are likely to be (IMHO) in the tools and norms around coordination and knowledge management. No, you are not food independent, but you have the skills and organisational flexibility to get most of the way there in five years if need be.

Much to agree with here in Matthias’ views. I have 2 caveats to add to the idea:

Any space created by Edgeryders must interlock with the people already on the ground in those areas. If we are seen as ‘fly by night’, get out when it gets too difficult, then are we really any different to the Multinational corporation? My gut is that we know we are, but to the local person in that town/city we are the same.

Following on from that:

Whilst having a highly mobile, responsive component to the Reef should be seen as a priority and a core section of the structure i believe we need to come together around an existing permanent structure. There are 2 reasons for this. 1. An existing structure will be likely to have access to core amenities (water, sanitation, electric) Whilst the aim may be to divest ourselves of these needs, or create alternative sources for them in the short to medium term access will make transition smoother and more accessible. 2. Legacy. If we do need to move on from the space we leave behind us a core structure that can continue to do some of the work, if only in the hands of the remaining local supporters.

If we look to the Monastery model as the concept then i think we need to think about the importance that permanence and physical structure played in the ability to become central to their communities. There will always need to be the wandering monk, but there must also be the fixed point. The relationship is symbiotic.

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