About two months ago, we set out to convene a smart swarm of grassroots initiatives to renew health and social care. The idea was big and ambitious: cast communities as care providers, alongside the state and private business. We had decided to run for a 100 million dollars grant, the MacArthur’s Foundation 100&Change. But not as an organization. We would run as a smart swarm of grassroots initiatives around care.
We have researched “care by communities” in the opencare project. We fancy ourselves experts in the field. But this new task was not research: it was design. How could all those independent local initiatives combine a in a tentative system-level solution? No way this could happen through scaling grassroots initiatives. They are so fast end efficient because they mobilize local resources: skills, mutual trust, capital, institutions. They should scale as far as these resources extend, but no further. No, what we needed was an ecosystem, an organic mosaic of local solutions. We needed to think like biologists, not like engineers.
There was only one problem: you can’t design an ecosystems. Ecosystems evolve. They are so fast, efficient, diverse and beautiful precisely because no one agency controls them. Hell, they die if you try to control them too tightly. So, we did not try to design care by community at scale. Instead, we designed a context that speeds up mutation, adaptation, exchange (both cultural and economic) and selection of grassroots initiatives. The key is to hardcode incentives for them to want to interact. With no interactivity there is no ecosystem; if it does not have links, it’s not a network.
I hate application forms just as much as the next guy, but this one was a lot of fun. It felt right, honest. It is so strange that we could see no point in trying to bullshit the judges into selecting us. We are proposing something different, and scary, and exciting. If they go for it, better they go with their eyes wide open.
But there is something else that makes me think we are on the right track. This: everybody hates the grant cycle. It just does not work, and it has to go. Putting money on the table attracts the sharks as well as the good guys, and the sharks have an advantage: they don’t care about the problems, they only need to please the grant giver. Grant givers know this, so they respond by putting in place rules and control systems to keep the sharks away. But of course the sharks mutate, camouflage. They go to the right conferences. They talk to funders. They pick up the exciting new concepts and ape them, turning them into hollow buzzwords. So the grant givers erect new barriers, and so on. The result is an arms race. The losers are the doers, who need to spend more and more time differentiating themselves from the parasites. Some of them even give up, focus more and more on getting the next grant, and become parasites themselves. In the grant cycle nobody can hear you scream.
This won’t happen in Open&Change. For two reasons.
First, there is no incentive to become a parasite. If we win, we win as a swarm. MacArthur will perceive the swarm, not the single organizations. Our best path to prosperity is to avoid mission drift, use the swarm to get our initiative off the ground, and never have to chase a grant again.
Second, we are not alone. We share the grant with hundreds of peers. They can and should be our partners, suppliers, clients, friends. The grant brings us together, instead of driving us apart in a competitive logic.
Against all the odds, I am quite upbeat about Open&Change. It feels like we are onto something. Judge for yourself: we have published a draft application form in Creative Commons. You are welcome to read, comment, and help make it better. If you are a potential competitor feel free to use it, but please do credit us, as per the terms of the license.
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