Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Something in the Air - time for another Summer of Love?

Open data open government - maybe it is a viral infection from the PDF09 conference, or maybe it's an idea who's time has come, but it seems you can't move in cyberspace without bumping into it:

Open Up Government Data - Wired How-To Wiki
opendata.org.nz : Open Government for New Zealand
It Is Time To Explore The Dark Side of Government 2.0
it.gen.nz » Government Information – does it want to be free?
Tom Steinberg: Open house in Westminster - Commentators, Opinion - The Independent
Around the Corner
Planet Open Government Open Source Hacking
VisibleGovernment.ca - Open Government Data Roundup
Open government and Linked Data; now it’s time to draft… « Cloudlands
Wiki Government - Brookings Institution

And it is global - I have just picked posts from the US, Canada, UK, Italy and New Zealand, but I am sure there are others out there.

It's given me a flashback to the 60s - both the song title, and also the optimism that people can change things.




The important thing is that this energy gets translated into action, rather than floating away like balloons in the sky.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

"It's like Europe in 1944"

I used this quote last night in a discussion about the redrawing of boundaries in the 21st century global village - like Europe in the post-war period, the new information infrastructure will emerge staggering from the rubble of a recession ravaged global economy.

The information distribution supply chain is being destroyed, and will be reconstructed in a new form. This will happen in all digital media - broadcasting, music, books, newspapers.

There will be new boundaries where value is created and transferred, similar to the national boundaries that were created at the Potsdam conference in 1945.

In the period after the end of World War II, the Bretton Woods agreement also created a new financial order that has provided the foundation for international trade for the last sixty years. The main architects of these post-war arrangements were USA, Great Britain and USSR.


In the new information economy, the architects are not so easily identified, and their sources of authority are not clear. The new trans-national ecosystem will be founded on high speed fibre and wireless networks connecting houses and people around the world. Each person will have instant access to all the world's information, and the ability to create and update information directly.


Countries and government are exploring different routes to get there (for example Digital Britain, published last week), but there appears to be almost universal agreement on the end state of ubiquitous connectivity. The points for discussion are - how long until we get there, and who will pay for the infrastructure investment.


The business case for an infrastructure investments is often challenging, and the case for fibre to the home (FTTH) is no exception. As Dr Arthur Grimes comments "The potential uses for some infrastructure may not be dreamed of when the initial investment occurs". With FTTH, innovations in education, health, aged care, and environmental management will deliver huge benefits, but these will not always reflect in the bottom line for the investor.


However, communities and countries that arrive at the end state earlier will be in a powerful position to secure decision rights when the new boundaries and financial arrangements are being determined. A strategic challenge to be sure.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Down come the walls

When Twitter has the starring role in the lead item on the 6pm news, you know that social media is a real phenomenon. Talking about Iran, Kevin Anderson from the Guardian said " Regimes that used to keep an incredibly tight control on information have lost that control. In the past this (..the conflict over the election results..) would have been airbrushed out of history"


The twitter feed is Persiankiwi and is a current and graphic example of the twilight of sovereignty referenced in the previous post.


This sort of activity is seen as liberating in the context of repressive regimes - providing transparency and a voice for the people outside of tightly controlled media channels. But it is global - the disruptive force of social media makes no judgement on the government that it disrupts.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Dealing with scale

Moving from individual communities, where decision-making is based on consensus, to governance of a single global village is a daunting undertaking. But a single, globally connected information ecosystem is inevitable, and therefore it will have some form of governance (which could be anywhere on the spectrum from American wild west to Stalinist five year plan).


I think governments will try to assert control within national boundaries (such as 绿坝-花季护航 Green Dam Youth Escort),, but they will inevitably be circumvented (three days after the first news reports there were further reports that it had been hacked).


It reminds me of the early growth of the eurocurrency market in London in the 1970s, where I was working. Eurodollars were the way in which banks created money outside of the control of individual central banks. A US dollar was only under the jurisdiction of the Federal Reserve when it was held by a bank in the US. Dollars held elsewhere avoided domestic interest rate regulations, reserve requirements and other barriers to the free flow of capital. Untethered to any fixed reference point (the Gold Standard was abandoned in 1971), money moved without constraint; we are now seeing an endgame being played out.


Walter Wriston, Chairman of Citibank, wrote about the diminishing power of governments to operate in isolation; check out the speech he delivered in 1992 on the topic of his book The Twilight of Sovereignty. The question put to him "The information revolution appears to call for new political as well as economic institutions. What are these new political institutions likely to be?" remains unanswered, and the need for an answer has increased.


Information distribution is similarly immune to actions by individual governments, even those with massive financial and technical resources; as in the financial industry, the genie is not able to be re-bottled.


So the community (yes, all 6 billion of us that live in the global village) will eventually reach a point where there a no nationally imposed controls on the creation, flow, reuse, and distribution of information. Anyone in the information business (that includes newspapers, books, music, and governments) knows that there is going to be comprehensive restructuring of the information supply chain. No-one has a clue what the new governance will be – as Clay Shirky comments, we are like the printing industry in 1500.

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But, having proposed the Marae model in my previous post, I would like to suggest three principles that will help answer the question “can it scale?”


  • The system will be self regulating – that is it cannot rely on external intervention to arbitrate routinely occurring competing interests
  • The system will be recursive – the design to move from the community to the next level of aggregation is repeated as we move through the layers of scale, and there is no need for those outside to understand how an individual community operates
  • The system will be adaptive – able to respond to changes in the external environment, and supportive of innovation


We can look to the internet infrastructure itself to see how these principles can be put into action - can they apply to the content domain, for true global village governance?


Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Model for the global village

How do communities manage their affairs?


There are as many answers to this question as there are communities. The ReadWriteWeb has recently released a unique report on a guide to Online Community Management – for businesses seeking to engage with online communities.


Another example of collective oversight and governance – “of the people by the people” is the recent UK documentary UsNow which gives some pointers.


As we think about the global village, it may be helpful to look to the village as a construct for insights.


Stephen Coleman has suggested we go back to the agora of ancient Greece as a model for connecting parliament to the people. However, the agora as an “open place of assembly for all free-born, male landowners” is less than inclusive, and seems out of line with modern thinking.


Having moved to New Zealand 25 years ago, I have developed an interest in the decision making processes used by the Maori people in developing a collective view, and I think thus may be a useful place to seek a model for the global village. I am not in any way an expert on Maori decision making or protocol, and a number of the ideas that follow have been taken from a paper given by Adelaide Collins to the Australia and New Zealand Third Sector Research conference in 2002.


In New Zealand, Maori culture has been based on the Marae as a meeting place, where different ideas from within the community are brought together, and through discussion and debate, a collective view is developed. The idea of a Marae as a communal home brings to mind the notions of belonging, of community, of privacy, and of the right to control what happens in your own home. This definition can take the meaning of Marae beyond its physical presence to incorporate its social, psychological, emotional, and even spiritual meaning for people.


In Maoridom, each community decides the rules of enfranchisement. Maori communities have a network of groups, organisations and alliances bonded by culture that parallels the wider network of not-for-profit organisations, community organisations and voluntary associations that are established around particular concerns. Marae are one of the most traditional Maori institutions still operating. Defined as a physical or symbolic home for a kin-based group, Marae are primarily made up of three elements that function in a symbiotic fashion to each other: land, community, and whare tipuna (ancestral houses). Maori assume they have rangatiratanga (authority, self-determination, autonomy) over their Marae, their homes. The community organises itself into groups as necessary and these groups are made responsible for a particular aspect of Marae life.


Traditional Maori decision-making is characterised by the following:

  • Consensus is preferred even if it takes time.

  • Emotion is expected, vented and tolerated especially when mana is challenged. Reconciliation is then part of the way forward to the consensus decision.

  • Silence is important and does not mean consent. What is not said is noted.

Consider what could happen if these concepts were translated into cyberspace; how could we adapt the concepts for globally connected community – can we re-use the traditional Maori concepts as metaphors for decision-making in cyberspace?

And, most critically, can it scale to a single global village?



Friday, June 5, 2009

Foundation concepts

Two foundation concepts from W Ross Ashby.

Complex systems cannot be understood through simplification. W Ross Ashby is one of the founding fathers of systems theory, and developed the law of requisite variety, published in his 1956 book Introduction to Cybernetics. This amazing insight states that “only variety can absorb variety”; the application of the law is widespread, and was developed further by others, including Stafford Beer, who created a Viable Systems Model (VSM) as an organisational design tool.


While some have suggested that global governance can be achieved through an extension of the democratic principles (for example George Monbiot), it is clear to me that the idea of a unitary source of authority is out of line with modern developments in global systems and governance, which are based on a networked model, much better able to accommodate the inherent variety in a global population, and remain viable as a governance system.


Emerging global examples are ICANN and wikipedia; both operate on an “open mike” pluralistic model that allows each individual to provide input and a collective consensus to emerge through the interaction of ideas.


This concept underpins a lot of recent thinking in the areas of participation for example the guide to participation prepared and published using wiki technology by Laura Sommer (working for the NZ government).


Beth Noveck has also written about “Wiki Government”. Beth comments that governance by a professional elite – based on expert decision making – may be supplanted by communal pooling of knowledge as a better way to organize decision-making in the public interest: “Political philosophers from Aristotle to Rousseau to Rawls have suggested that when groups engage in the public exchange of reason, they produce better ideas."


Towards the end of his life, Ashby, with Roger Conant, published produced the Good Regulator theorem "Every Good Regulator of a System Must be a Model of that System."



What models can we create of the global village?

Monday, June 1, 2009

Back to basics






The graphic is from a resource for secondary schools - Our Changing World - soon to be published by the Global Education Center. The original idea - understanding the make-up of the global village - comes from David Smith.

In this village, the challenges of governance are massive. We only need look at the United Nations to understand how the best intentions can get derailed.

George Monbiot proposed one possible solution to this challenge; to quote extracts from Wikipedia:

Monbiot's fifth book, The Age of Consent: A Manifesto for a New World Order, was published in 2003. The four main changes to global governance which Monbiot argues for are a democratically-elected world parliament which would pass resolutions on international issues; a democratised United Nations General Assembly to replace the unelected UN Security Council; the proposed International Clearing Union which would automatically discharge trade deficits and prevent the accumulation of debt; and a fair trade organisation which would regulate world trade in a way that protects the economies of poorer countries. Monbiot emphasises that he does not present the manifesto as a "final or definitive" answer to global inequalities but intends that it should open debate and stresses that those who reject it must offer their own solutions.

We need to recognise that the global village, while a simple concept, is a metaphor for a complex system; we know that trying to understand complex systems through a reductionist approach ( trying to simplify a complex system) is unlikely to be successful. This is because the simplification removes the essential elements from a complex system. For example, in our notional global village of 100 people, one person would represent the diversity of the populations of Australia, New Zealand, the Pacific Islands and Antarctica - an impossible task.

My next post will describe how "Variety" can help us understand complexity.