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.

Transcript of Policy making for swarms

Policy making for swarmsAlberto Cottica, Edgeryders Big Picture Days, June 1st 2013

Hello, thank you all for showing up. I do research for a newly minted company called Edgeryders. The reason why the company even exists and why its business model looks the way it does itself has a lot to do with what we are going to be talking 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. At the heart of this concept there is a fundamental paradox. Swarm coops derive their uncanny efficiency from radical decentralization of decision making and action; yet, decentralization might and does cause such action to develop in directions so different from what it had been intended to be as to be unrecognizable. I guess most of us will be turning around this paradox in their head. The main tool I am using to debunk this paradox is network theory: I conceptualize swarms as people in networks. In networks, nodes might be equal in the amount of top-down power over others, but they will typically be very unequal in terms of connectivity, hence the ability to spread information (including narratives and calls to action) across the network. Uneven connectivity adds some directionality to the swarm, in the sense that the most connected people get it to go their 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-down process: some leader somewhere makes a decision and that decision is enacted. Since the accepted modi operandi of public policy are encoded into law, such top-down thinking is hardwired into organizational charts, remits and procedures. A decision maker wanting to do things differently will not in generally be enough for things to happen differently. Think of this as an especially hard area to do swarms in. Thats not a bad thing for todays purposes, because it provides us with a clean benchmark. If you can do it in the government, you can probably do it in most places.

All this is very tentative. I cant claim I know how to do this stuff. I mean, I do it, and it kind of works, but I am not sure exactly why, 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 is that I hope you guys can help me make some progress. I am also going to assume you guys have been thinking into it as hard as 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 to you, or that you dont know about.

Iatrogenics: harm done by the healer

Just 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 done by the healer.

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4 regions in Italy

One of my favorite examples of that is with public spending. In my country, Italy, we have a situation. The north of the 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.

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The result is a huge pipeline concentrated on just four regions (the region is the most important spending authority in Italy). They have a very hard time even just making it happen let alone ensuring proper monitoring.

Everyone was talking about public sector tenders.

Tiago Dias Miranda in southern Italy, 2013

The result of this situation: smart, entrepreneurial young people in Italys Mezzogiorno are talking about public sector tenders. They know all the acronyms of European programs. And why not? Though most of the money ends up 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 the country, or squatting buildings; they are not engaging in collective, trial-and-error discovery of the paths that lead 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 exploring the 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.

Public policies as a buyers market

Photo: marsmet481

But doing policy in swarms has an immediate consequence: you need to recruit people, and those people do not work for you, do not take (much) money from you and need to be convinced.

Photo: marsmet481

... and thats a big reality check right there. I believe this has given some competitive edge to my own projects. I just had to work harder to get ANYTHING off the ground.

Photo: marsmet481

Falkvinges Law: lead by getting skin in the game

So how to do it? Lets start by what I am going to call Rick Falkvinges Law (in honor of the founder of the Swedish Pirate Party): leadership in a network is exerted from the front. You start by saying: I am doing X. Whos in? This is 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.). Falkvinges Law restores the idea that risk-takers should be honored and rewarded.

Interface: the fishing rod model

Photo: Joel Obrecht

You are going to need an interface in fact, probably several layers. Governments are Weberian bureaucracies for very good accountability reasons. Swarms are very clearly not. So you need some smart relaying between the inside of the government agency and the outside, with the swarm having some kind of legitimacy without being subject to the hard constraints of public servants. Its like a fishing rod, thick and rigid atthe handle, but thin and flexible towards the end.

Timing: get friends to start the bandwagon

Photo: flod

Scholars of swarms, social networks etc. focus typically on the behavior of the formed swarm. But if youve ever tried it, you know that the hardest part is to kickstart one. We need a much better developed embryology of swarms. Me, the better method I know is still to leverage trust network of friends. This is how Vinay jumpstarted Big Picture Days: he wrote an email to twenty people trying to get the first, say, six to commit. Then, he could tell everyone You dont want to miss this cool event. Why, Alberto Cottica is coming!. Even if you dont know who the hell Alberto Cottica is, such a call works with the deep wiring of human psychology. We have plenty of experimental psychology results around that by now.

Randomness: shake things up (hence parties)

Photo: Medhin Paolos

You are making policy because someone perceives a situation that is not fixing itself. Rather than going in with a heavy intervention (traditional economists will maximize the welfare function and push the economy towards the maximum), which is iatrogenetic, you can simply shake things up a little bit to see if the system gets unstuck from its 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 from people being similar enough that they can communicate well, but different enough to give each other mild cognitive shocks, inducing new ways to look upon things. It is not hard to assess the generative potential of a relationship, but it impossible to predict in advance which potentially generative relationships will actually lead to breakthroughs. So, I just like to throw parties. Curated parties increase the number of new connections in your network and therefore, in probability, the number of new things being tried. This, in turn, increases the probability of your situation unmooring from where it had been stuck. And no iatrogenics. Win!

Transparency: requests for comments

Photo: Elena Trombetta

I find a radically transparent behavior to be advantageous when running a swarm: its a buyers market, and you need to win trust. Transparency also doubles up as a management tool: most people will just appreciate that you are being honest about, for example, how much money you spend and on what, but occasionally somebody pays close attention and ends up making useful suggestions. If you have to fight a narrative of public policy as corrupt and self-referential (I do) transparency is an amazingly effective tool in reducing conflict and suspicion.

TIme bombs: zero entrenchment

Many swarms tend to lose their magic after a while the mavericks of the early days get suitified, their project becomes a job or what have you. I like to build time bombs in my projects: if a swarm is active enough, it will find a way to survive it. In fact my company, Edgeryders, formed with the intention of providing a new core to a community that assembled around a p