The few make decisions that affect the many: this is a common feature of all governance models that work at the national scale, including the democratic ones. Some scholars – myself included – are looking to deploy open decision making processes, so that many people might participate through collective intelligence dynamics; but such processes are nowhere near ready to go. Most people appear to think that the concentration of decision making power is a necessary evil, but it does create a tension between the few in the decision room and the many who stand outside it.
Diversity trumps ability
In 2004 economists Lu Hong and Scott Page came up with a radically new idea: diverse group perform better in solving complex problems than groups composed of the best people available. In a nutshell, diversity trumps ability. It works like this: imagine a group faced with a difficult problem. "Difficult" in this context means it is not even clear what kind of a problem it is. The only way towards solving it appears to be trying to attack it with different approaches, and hope that one will work. Further, imagine that each person in the group has mastered a limited number of approaches to problems, and that each approach solves well a few types of problems, but is useless on all others. An example could be a car whose engine won't start. The problem could be of mechanical nature; or of electrical nature; or in the software of the onboard electronics; it could even be that there is no fuel in the tank. If all you have to throw at the problem is ten mechanics, even very good ones, that might not help you if the problem is in the electric circuitry. A group with diverse skills can try more approaches, and so have a higher probability of coming to a solution. It follows that, when faced with a difficult problem, your best bet is to build a very diverse group to attack it (paper).
This seems to make sense. So how come political and cultural élites tend to be so homogenous? Why do we not see more skaters in ministries, athletes in boards of directors, circus artists heading charities? There are many reasons for this, but one of the most important is that collaborating in diversity is hard. Cultural differences get in the way of communication; ways of working do not match; divergent interests result in conflict and selfish behaviour.
In the global social innovation scene, where I find myself more and more as of the last few years, at the moment we have a really difficult, pressing problem: the state, after centuries of building public assets (from road networks to hospitals, from libraries to mass literacy), seems unable to continue to steward many such assets, and is in retreat. Can citizens come together as communities, step into the breach? And now?
Stewardship by communities
The global Edgeryders community has collected over a hundred case studies of ordinary citizens who decide they care about some asset that belongs to everyone and benefits everyone, step forward and get to work to preserve and enhance it. Their stories are amazingly diverse, from the pensioner running the only botanical garden in Montenegro to the bunch of Californian hackers sitting in an abandoned McDonald's re-engineering the technology to read the digital photos taken by the first Lunar Orbiter in 1966. These stories inspired us to set up Living On The Edge 4, a conference dedicated to citizen-led stewardship.
No point in waiting around, hoping that someone would do something about it. We don't exactly see anyone qualified to do the job. The state? In retreat. Private business? Terrible track record, just look what happened to energy utilities in Russia or railways in the UK when privatization kicked in. The only option left is to rise up to the challenge ourselves. Are we qualified? No way. So, we are coming together to learn how to become better stewards, as citizens. This is really difficult, and to do it we need not only ability, but diversity. In fact we think we weed the most diverse group we can put in the field. Living On The Edge 4 is run by a team of curators the like of which the world has never seen. It includes Fabrizio Barca, former cabinet minister and presently general director at the Italian Treasury; Caroline Paulick-Thiel, German activist who spearheaded the effort to defend the pocket-sized utopia of a href="http://prinzessinnengarten.net/about/">Prinzessinnengarten in Berlin from speculation; Swede Amelia Andersdotter, the youngest MEPs in history (elected at 21!), now president of the European Pirate Party; German open source hacker Matthias Ansorg, winner of the first European social innovation competition (a man who bought a 1968 firetruck and is turning it into a fully bespoke open source mobile apartment!); Robin Chase, serial entrepreneur in the sharing economy and Bostonian patrician; and Nadia El-Imam, Afro-Swedish engineer and entrepreneur, currently serving as Edgeryders CEO.
The job of this exceptional team is not that of leading, but rather that to help the Edgeryders community to map out the terrain of stewardship, not very well known as yet. In line with hacker tradition, the agenda of Living On The Edge 4 (and that of the hackathon preceding it) is set by the community; curators are there to connect each talk and workshop to each other, highlight similarities and differences, try to get a sense for what works and in which circumstances.
Trial and error in Matera
Can senior civil servants, politicians and high-profile entrepreneurs really work side by side in relative harmony with hackers, squatters and digital nomads? We are aware of the risks of misunderstandings and even clashes, but on the whole we believe that yes, they can. Certainly we did our best to set the stage for a fruitful, rewarding interaction. First, we carefully handpicked our curators as people who are, certainly, bearers of strong cultures of their own, but are also curious of the cultures and approaches of others. Second, we did not just put them in contact with each other, but put ourselves forward as stewards of those new relationships, offering to explain to the ones what might look weird or unsettling in the behaviour of the others. And third, we chose for Living On The Edge 4 an inspiring physical environment: the unMonastery in Matera, a place where experimentation is normal, and errors are acknowledged and accepted as part of the process, rather than frowned upon.
Ours is just an experiment. It might fail, or be an extraordinary success. Whichever way it goes, we will try to learn from success or failure, to make it a milestone in the journey that leads to better methods to attack, together, the ever more urgent and global problems we face. How the journey goes depends on you, too: if you want to help Fabrizio Barca, Amelia Andersdotter and the others to get there, join the People of the Edge in Matera.
(Translated from the Italian and reposted from: http://www.chefuturo.it/2014/10/solo-un-patto-tra-politici-hackers-e-cittadini-puo-consentire-di-prendersi-cura-davvero-dei-beni-pubblici/)