The future is now!


When considering peer production, the first thought for many goes to the usual suspects: Wikipedia, Flickr, Digg, etc. But, when I was reading Benkler’s A Modality of Collective Intelligenceit reminded me some things I had been reading for work about the new top cities in the world. These cities thrive on innovation, creativity and… collaboration. Cities like Austin or Boston, in the United States, are growing at a rapid pace for a number of reasons that centre around the innovative ways that they are working across sectors to ensure growth. Austin, for example, is on the third version of its very successful Opportunity Austin plan, which bridges the gaps between business, government and academia to bring new companies to the city, encourage job growth, better quality of living, and higher wages for the citizens. By identifying the factors that make these sectors together, they are, in my opinion, taking the tenets of peer production to bigger things than just websites (not that Wikipedia is just anything, but you get my drift). Benkler describes peer production as a “form of open creation and sharing performed by groups online that: (1) sets and executes goals in a decentralized manner; (2) harnesses a diverse range of participant motivations, particularly non-monetary motivations; and (3) separates governance and management relations from exclusive forms of property and relational contracts (i.e., projects are governed as open commons or common property regimes and organizational governance utilizes combinations of participatory, meritocratic and charismatic, rather than proprietary or contractual, models)” (Benkler et al, 1). 

Now, to address the clear contradictions here. Obviously these cities are not working entirely in Benkler’s model: they aren’t doing it just for the good of the people but also for the economic payoff, votes in the next election and higher profit returns in the next quarter. They are not creating open commons in the sense that the city will become just for the people – but the city is pubic property so it’s not too far off. And I know, I know, these goals were likely not set out in a decentralized manner, though it has been shown that in a lot of these cities it is the work of one leader who sets the fire burning among a variety of leaders in the other sectors, who come together to work on a common goal. So, perhaps I have just argued myself out of this thought.

But, the more I think about peer production, the more I think that cities could work in this manner, even if they have monetary goals  or a hierarchy. Forbes published an article early this year on the “Collaborative Economy” – which are also called “Sharing Economy,” “Mesh Economy,” and “Collaborative Consumption.” From Forbes: “Individuals and organizations are finding ways to make better use of valuable resources that have remained idle during tough economic times. Access is being made affordable to those who previously could not pay for hotel rooms, a rented car, a vacation yacht, one-of-a-kind jewelry,  a gourmet meal served in a private room, or industrial or commercial space for a nascent company. In all these cases sharing or collaboration is involved. So is modern technology such as mobile, social media, sensor, data and location.” AirBnB, Car2Go, and Etsy are all collaborative communities that use versions of peer production while also making money and while likely having some sort of a formal network to guide the organization. 

So, where that does bring me? To the thought that perhaps a blended model of Kadushin’s more formal network theory, with a chain of command and structure, and Benkler’s Three Muskateers peer production is the Holy Grail for our future. Wouldn’t it be great if we used new technology and theories, along with some formal structure, to make our cities more responsive, collaborative and innovative? We can open certain doors and keep others closed; it does not have to be an all-or-nothing approach that leaves us lost. It can be a bit of Column Kadushin and a bit of Column Benkler, for a city or company that takes feedback, innovates for new policies, collaborates to bridge gaps across sectors… in the end, we would all benefit from something like that. 


5 thoughts on “The future is now!

  1. Great post. You’re right: organizations can benefit from innovation like peer production. The double bind is supposed to prevent innovation, so why not design your organization so that there is no double bind, and so that innovation, collaboration, and fresh ideas are the norm?

  2. Agreed. The problem sometimes with the peer production model is the interpretation.
    Some will try to form a brand new network from scratch rather than looking for ones that already exist.
    The transformation say from 300+ orgs into 20 sharable competing but resourcable orbs can compete better on a global level than even the strongest 1/300.
    But egos and control often trip this up.

    • I agree Jason. I completed my commerce degree in 2007, and even then the mantra for the heavier courses like corporate finance was still “maximize shareholder wealth”. How can we move away from such strong capitalistic tendencies when many of these organizations were built on the premise that those who invest in something are the only ones an organization is truly accountable to? It’s more than egos and control – it’s against the fundamental building blocks of how most private organizations were created.

  3. Gillian – fantastic post. I like how you apply Benkler’s concepts to the vitality of cities. One of the points that stood out for me in listening to Benkler is his assertion that human altruism isn’t a new phenomenon. It’s just that society has never before recognized that there are all of these other motivational impulses (other than just financial gain) such as altruism and morality that can drive the production of high quality outcomes (whether it’s vibrant cities or an online resource like Wikipedia). It goes back to the old adage that technology and innovation are never really revolutionary, but rather evolutionary. In other words, human behaviour didn’t suddenly change with the advent of social tools; rather, the social tools amplified existing human tendencies (mostly a positive result in relation to cooperation and collaboration, as Benkler points out).

  4. KateM

    Agreed – great post! I love the idea of using innovative methods and network theory to problem solve for urban improvement. Cities are an obvious host for peer-production type methods – I think you’re comments are quite insightful!

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