Monday, September 19, 2005

The Tragedy of the Electronic Commons

"When two attorneys enraged millions of Internet users by publishing identical advertisements on six thousand unique network discussions known as "newsgroups," they were attacking a tradition of cooperation. Now the same attorneys are flogging a book and trying to convince readers of op-ed articles that they have been the victims of elitist attacks by Internet intellectuals who oppose honest business on the Net. Citizens on and off the Internet need to understand exactly how these hucksters are trying to deceive us, before we lose a precious resource.

For many people, these thousands of newsgroups have constituted a worldwide, multimillion member, collective thinktank, available twenty-four hours a day to answer any question from the trivial to the scholarly. If you have a question about sports statistics, scientific knowledge, technical lore -- anything -- someone has the answer. This magical knowledge-multiplying quality comes from the voluntary effort of many people who freely contribute expertise. That power of a large group of people to act as a thinktank for each other is vulnerable to misuse. A small number of malefactors can mess up a good thing for a large number of cooperative citizens."

Later in the blog...

"The lawyers' actions conveyed the message that their personal commercial ambitions were more important than the value of the commons. And that is the message they have been preaching -- get yours while you can, and ignore the protests of those who value the online culture of information-sharing. If these carpetbaggers prove successful, will others follow? How far can a network of cooperative agreements be pushed by the self-interest of individuals before it loses its value? When a flood of irrelevant announcements swamps newsgroups and mailing lists, what will happen to the support networks for cancer patients and Alzheimers' caregivers?"

The Tragedy of the Electronic Commons, Howard Rheingold,

Law, Custom and the Commons

Law, Custom, and the Commons
by Randy T. Simmons

Dr. Simmons heads the political science department of Utah State University and is a senior associate of PERC (Political Economy Research Center) in Bozeman, Montana.

"Free and unregulated access to scarce resources has long been recognized as a serious problem. Two thousand years ago Aristotle wrote: What belongs in common to the most people is accorded the least care: they take thought for their own things above all.

More recently, the biologist and human ecologist Garrett Hardin argued: Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society which believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.

Fortunately, however, there are ways to avoid such ruin.

Hardin used an example of a pasture to illustrate how the commons can produce tragedy. As long as grazing on the commonly owned pasture is below carrying capacity, each herdsman may add another cow without harming any cows—they all still have enough to eat. But once carrying capacity is reached, adding the additional cow has negative consequences for all users of the common pasture.

The rational herdsman faced with adding the extra cow calculates his share of the benefits of an additional cow. It is 100 percent. He also calculates his share of the cost. It is 1/n herdsmen; that is, it is the cost divided by the number of herdsmen. So he adds another cow. And another . . . as do all the other herdsmen. Each may care for what is common but can do nothing about it, since one person exercising restraint only assures himself a smaller herd, not a stable, preserved commons.

Thus, the commons is a trap—an individual acting in his self-interest makes himself, along with everyone else, worse off in the long run. Yet acting in the group interest cannot stop the inevitable ruin.

If the commons inevitably leads to tragedy, humans should have killed themselves off thousands of years ago. Instead, people developed ways of making individuals responsible for their own actions.

Responsibility is created by moving people out of a system of open access and creating rights of access and use. Creating such use-rights, therefore, means that a resource is no longer everybody’s property. But use-rights are meaningless unless they are protected or enforced with some degree of legal or customary agreement. The most effective system of responsibility is private property rights because owners are responsible for their own costs and benefits. If you degrade your own property, you suffer the consequences because your wealth is reduced.

If, instead, you improve the property, your wealth is increased. You capture the benefits of your actions and pay the costs of them as well. The only exception is when you create costs to others by what you do on your own property, such as damming a stream or polluting the air. Legal institutions not only protect people’s rights to do what they want with their property but also protect the rights of others (third parties) to be free from harm caused by others. "

Complete document found at

Inventing the Innovation Commons

"The Internet is both the result of and the enabling infrastructure for new ways of organizing collective action via communication technology. This new social contract enables the creation and maintenance of public goods, a commons for knowledge resources."

"Before the word "hacker" was misappropriated to describe people who break into computer systems, the term was coined (in the early 1960s) to describe people who create computer systems. The first people to call themselves hackers were loyal to an informal social contract called "the hacker ethic." As Steven Levy described it, this ethic include these principles:
  • Access to computers should be unlimited and total.
  • Always yield to the Hands-On Imperative
  • All information should be free.
  • Mistrust authority - promote decentralization."

Howard Rheingold
Smart Mobs
Basic Books, 2002

Friday, September 16, 2005


In the emergence of food sharing, "the Inuit knows that the best place for him to store his surplus is in someone else's stomach."

There is a tension between self-interest and collective action. Yet, symbiosis and cooperation have been observed at every level from cell to ecosystem. There are some genetic reasons why this is so. It was that stream of thought that originated my interest in the subject of an innovation commons (Creating an Innovation Commons).

When we get to the level of human interaction, factors other than genetics play a vital role. Game theory is a tool that has helped us understand how and why we cooperate.

Howard Rheingold treats the subject in Smart Mobs. He writes, "Game theory is based on several assumptions; that the players are in conflict, that they must take action, that the results of the actions will determine which player wins according to definite rules, and that all players (this is the kicker) are expected to always act rationally by choosing the strategy that will maximize their gain regardless of the consequences to others. These are the kind of rules that don't fit real life with predictive precision, but they do attract economists, because they map onto behavior of observable phenomena like markets, arms races, cartels, and traffic."

The game that has attracted a lot of attention is Prisoner's Dilemma. Moreover, it is of interest to us because it has something to say about cooperation.

Basically, Prisoner's Dilemma story is this:

Two are charged with the same crime and are being held separately by the police. The prisoners cannot communicate with each other. The prisoner who testifies against his/her partner will go free, and the partner will be sentenced to three years in jail. If both prisoners decide to testify against each other, they each will get a two-year sentence. And, if neither testifies, they will both get a one-year sentence.

Clearly if they both pursue their common interest, collectively they serve the shortest amount of time, 2 years. The other solutions are 3, 3 and 4 years collectively. However, if one decides to purse their self-interest, i.e. think only of them self, they could go free. But, if both act in what they perceive to be their own self-interest, they maximize their loss, individually and collectively.

The game became really interesting, on both a practical and theoretical level, when they began to model the Interactive Prisoner's Dilemma. The game is not played just once, but many times. In this case, history matters. What happened the time before, or all the times before, does influence the present game. Also, the future impacts the present. How might the other player react in the future to my actions now? In Rheingold's words, "'Reputation' is another way of looking at this 'shadow of the future.'"

This is a game simulation ideal for computers. In a now famous experiment Robert Axelrod proposed a "Computer Prisoner's Dilemma Tournament" wherein various strategies of playing the game, represented by computer programs, would play against each other. "He ran fourteen entries against each other and against a random rule over and over. 'To my considerable surprise,' Axelrod reported, "the winner was the simplest of all the programs submitted, TIT FOR TAT. TIT FOR TAT is merely the strategy of starting with cooperation and thereafter doing what the other player did on the previous move.'"

Axelrod repeated the experiment with professors of evolutionary biology, physics and computer science. He made them all aware of the results of the first experiment. The results were the same.

These results raised the question of how a cooperative strategy could gain a foothold in a predominant uncooperative environment. Axelrod's experiments showed that, "Within a pool of entirely uncooperative strategies, cooperative strategies evolve from small clusters of individuals who reciprocate cooperation, even if the cooperative strategies have only a small proportion of their interactions with each other. Clusters of cooperatives amass points for themselves faster than defectors can. Strategies based on reciprocity can survive against a variety of strategies, and 'cooperation, once established on the basis of reciprocity, can protect itself from invasion by less cooperative strategies. Thus the gear wheels of social evolution have a ratchet.'"

"Cooperatives can thrive amid populations of defectors if they learn how to recognize one another and interact with one another," he concludes. "Cooperators who clump together can out compete noncooperative strategies by creating public good that benefit themselves but not the defectors...Reciprocity, cooperation, reputation, social grooming and social dilemmas all appear to be fundamental pieces of the smart mob puzzle."

If it is the best strategy for an Inuit to store his surplus of food, a scarce resource, in the stomach of another, surely it is better to store knowledge, an abundant resource, in the minds of others. The food gets used up. The knowledge generates new knowledge.


  1. Smart Mobs, Howard Rheingold, Basic Books, 2002, pages 38 - 46
  2. Game Theory - Wikipedia, (9 pages)
  3. Game Theory, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, (40 pages)
  4. Prisoner's Dilemma,, an iterated prisoner's dilemma game and simulation

Governing Common Pool Resources

Howard Rheingold, in his great book, Smart Mobs, writes about the governance of common pool resources (CPR), "In 1990, sociologist Elinor Ostrom argued that external authorities might not be necessary in governing what she called common pool resources (CPRs)." Ostrom made a series of studies of the ways in which people cooperated in the management of commons throughout the world. "In comparing the communities, Ostrom found that groups that are able to organize and govern their behavior successfully are marked by the following design principles:
  • Group boundaries are cleanly defined
  • Rules governing the use of collective goods are well matched to local needs and conditions
  • Most individuals affected by theses rules can participate in modifying the rules.
  • The rights of community members to devise their own rules is respected by external authorities.
  • A system for monitoring members' behavior exists; the community members themselves undertake this monitoring.
  • A graduated system of sanctions is used.
  • Community members have access to low-cost conflict resolution mechanisms.
  • For CPRs that are parts of larger systems, appropriation, provision, monitoring, enforcement, conflict resolution and governance activities are organized in multiple layers of nested enterprises.

..."Ostrom provided an ample and specific agenda for future research; "All efforts to organize collective actions, whether by an external ruler, an entrepreneur, or a set of principles who wish to gain collective benefits, must address a common set of problems. These have to do with coping with free-riding, solving commitment problems, arranging for the supply of institutions, and monitoring individual compliance with sets of rules."

Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution
Howard Rheingold
Basic Books, 2002

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Virtuous Circle

A virtuous circle or cycle is a condition in which a favorable circumstance or result gives rise to another that subsequently supports the first.

Wikipedia ( explains "In many parts of economics there is an assumption that a complex system of determinants will tend to lead to a state of equilibrium. When this tendency is absent we use terms like virtuous circle and vicious circle (or virtuous cycle and vicious cycle) to describe these unstable pattern of events. Both circles are complexes of events with no tendency towards equilibrium (at least in the short run). Both systems of events have feedback loops in which each iteration of the cycle reinforces the first (positive feedback). The difference between the two is that a virtuous cycle has favorable results and a vicious cycle has deleterious results. These cycles will continue in the direction of their momentum until an exogenous factor intervenes and stops the cycle. The prefix "hyper" is sometimes used to describe these cycles. The most well known vicious circle is hyperinflation."

Wikipedia gives an example of a virtuous circle resulting from innovation:

"Economic growth can be seen as a virtuous circle. It might start with an exogenous factor like technological innovation. As people get familiar with the new technology, there could be learning curve effects and economies of scale. This could lead to reduced costs and improved production efficiencies. In a competitive market structure, this will likely result in lower average prices. As prices decrease, consumption could increase and aggregate output also. Increased levels of output leads to more learning and scale effects and a new cycle starts."

What would a virtuous and a vicious circle look like for an innovation commons? This after all is the heart of the matter. It could assist us in understanding the question that started the whole effort, "Why are some innovation commons successful and others fail?"

Inclusive Innovation

Jeff de Cagna wrote in a Fast Company blog, "As I read some of the BlogJam posts, I cannot help but ask the following question:

If I'm not "personally brilliant," is there a role for me to play in the work of innovation?

I certainly hope and believe the answer is yes. If we're going to talk about distributed, collaborative "open innovation" that transcends the old-school proprietary R&D approach, then we need to think about how to make innovation as inclusive as possible, allowing everyone to connect to the work in ways that feel personally authentic to those individuals. I don't believe that we should try to limit involvement in innovation (intentionally or otherwise) to only the select few people who possess the "right" combination of genetic traits, personal attributes or learned skills.

As I wrote in a post yesterday, not everyone working on innovation needs to be a wild-eyed, right-brain creative power-brainstomer/prototyper. Innovation demands all kinds of talents, and I think we should look for ways to capitalize on all of them. Our organizations truly cannot afford to waste any brain cells!"

Democratic Innovation

Jeff de Cagna writes in his blog, "Associations today face a potent and relentless adversary: profound change. Yes, it’s true, we’ve always faced change in our organizations, but not like this. The very nature of change itself is changing. Change today is more constant than episodic, more complex than clear, more non-linear than cyclical and it is occurring at a greatly accelerated pace. We find that in this environment many of the tried-and-true heuristics of association management are remarkably ineffectual and, sometimes, counterproductive. Unfortunately, far too many association leaders continue to struggle with the politics of incrementalism, cost-cutting and risk avoidance as they try to come up with fresh answers about what to do next.

In face of such harsh and unforgiving realities, staff and volunteer association leaders must respond in a way that is just as forceful and unyielding. But that response cannot come in the form of tips, tools or techniques for "managing change" or "doing more with less." That is just so much tinkering around the margins. Instead, what we need is a new ideology, a different system of beliefs that challenges us to rediscover the "plausible promise" of our organizations and to act confidently and decisively to make them relevant, renewable and resilient for the 21st Century.
For me, that ideology is what I call "innovation democracy." It is grounded in the fundamental conviction that, at their core, both innovation and associations are about freedom. Associations are about the freedom to collaborate, to serve and to act collectively on behalf of a worthwhile vision of what the world can be. And that is where innovation comes in. Innovation is about the freedom to imagine what is possible, to create it and, in so doing, make an enduring contribution to the world in which you live. In my view, one that is largely contrary to the prevailing orthodoxy of the association world, innovation and associations are intimately, if opaquely, connected."

He goes on to elaborate six principles of democratic innovation:
  • Strategy is a coherent portfolio of experiments developed across the association
  • Technology supports the social architecture of association innovation
  • Association culture remains vibrant by emphasizing variety, transparency and inclusion.
  • Curiosity, inquiry and discovery shape the association's intellectual property.
  • A high "return on engagement' in the association drives financial investment.
  • Association leaders create leaders by distributing responsibility for innovation.

The complete blog is available at

The Commons

"Effective debate requires a shared set of references and metaphors. The expansion of culture and knowledge depends on linguistic and conceptual shorthand based on shared knowledge and experience. Collaborative, innovative discussion is impossible if every item must be expanded and reduced to so-called first principles. This body of knowledge, experience and ideas has come to be known as a commons.

If nature has made any one thing less susceptible than all others of exclusive property, it is the action of the thinking power called an idea, which an individual may exclusively possess as long as he keeps it to himself; but the moment it is divulged, it forces itself into the possession of every one, and the receiver cannot dispossess himself of it. Its peculiar character, too, is that no one possesses the less, because every other possesses the whole of it. He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me.

That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density in any point, and like the air in which we breathe, move, and have our physical being, incapable of confinement or exclusive appropriation. (Thomas Jefferson)

Another aspect: the Internet may be considered a commons or public network, though there is persistent threat of enclosure (transferring resources from the commons to individual ownership) based on enforcement of intellectual property and distribution rights. However no one owns the Internet, and no single national entity has jurisdiction, so it remains an open, accessible platform for all kinds of activity, including the evolution of the social commons described above."

Joichi Ito, "Emergent Democracy", Chapter 1, Extreme Democracy, edited by Jon Lebkowsky and Mitch Ratcliffe,

For more information visit Extreme Democracy,


Tom Atlee, founder of the non-profit Co-Intelligence Institute, has written and spoken for twenty years on politics, democracy and cultural transformation. His two resource packed websites – and – capture his innovative thinking and provide a treasure-trove of resources about collective process and participatory democracy. His recent book, The Tao of Democracy,, describes his concept of co-intelligence and offers an amazing compilation of initiatives that highlight how citizen dialogue and deliberation are powerful ways to help us solve our common problems

Healthy communities, institutions and societies -- perhaps even our collective survival -- depend on our ability to organize our collective affairs more wisely, in tune with each other and nature.

This ability to wisely organize our lives together -- all of us being wiser together than any of us could be alone -- we call co-intelligence.

Co-intelligence is a capacity that goes far beyond individual IQ-based intelligence. Co-intelligence is intelligence that's grounded in wholeness, interconnectedness and co-creativity.It is collective, collaborative, synergistic, wise, resonant, heartful, and connected to greater sources of intelligence.

Co-intelligence is emerging through new developments in democracy, organizational development, collaborative processes, the Internet and systems sciences like ecology and complexity. Today millions of people are involved in co-creating co-intelligence. Our diverse efforts grow more effective as we discover we are part of a larger transformational enterprise, and as we learn together and from each other.

The Co-Intelligence Institute works to further the understanding and development of co-intelligence. It focuses on catalyzing co-intelligence in the realms of politics, governance and cultural evolution. We research, network, advocate, and help organize leading-edge experiments and conversations in order to weave what is possible into new, wiser forms of civilization.

Open Space Technology

What is an Open Space Technology meeting?

Open Space Technology has been defined as:
  • a simple, powerful way to catalyze effective working conversations and truly inviting organizations -- to thrive in times of swirling change.
  • a methodological tool that enables self-organizing groups of all sizes to deal with hugely complex issues in a very short period of time.
  • a powerful group process that supports positive transformation in organizations, increases productivity, inspires creative solutions, improves communication and enhances collaboration.
  • the most effective process for organizations and communities to identify critical issues, voice to their passions and concerns, learn from each other, and, when appropriate, take collective responsibility for finding solutions.

The goal of an Open Space Technology meeting is to create time and space for people to engage deeply and creatively around issues of concern to them. The agenda is set by people with the power and desire to see it through, and typically, Open Space meetings result in transformative experiences for the individuals and groups involved.

What is Open Space Technology best used for?

Open Space Technology is useful in almost any context including strategic direction setting, envisioning the future, conflict resolution, morale building, consultation with stakeholders, community planning, collaboration and deep learning about issues and perspectives.

When is Open Space Technology the best meeting format to use?

Any situation in which there is:

  • A real issue of concern
  • Diversity of players
  • Complexity of elements
  • Presence of passion (including conflict)
  • A need for a quick decision

Open Space will work under all of these circumstances. It is only inappropriate when the outcome of the meeting is predetermined or if sponsors are not prepared to change as a result of the meeting.

What outcomes can I expect from an Open Space Technology Meeting?

Open Space Technology meetings can produce the following deliverables:

  • Every single issue that anybody cares about enough to raise will be "on the table".
  • All issues will receive as much discussion as people care to give them.
  • All discussion will be captured in a book, and made available to the participants.
  • All issues will be prioritized.
  • Related issues will be converged.
  • Responsibility will be taken for next step actions.

In meetings of one and a half or two and a half days duration, all of these deliverables will be achieved with deep conversation and commitment to action. Meetings of a shorter duration will have many of these positive effects, but typically in meetings of a day or less, there is more emphasis on conversation and less on action.

How does an Open Space Technology meeting work?

Open Space operates under four principles and one law. The four principles are:

  • Whoever comes are the right people
  • Whatever happens is the only thing that could have happened.
  • When it starts is the right time
  • When it's over it's over

The Law is known as the Law of Two Feet:

"If you find yourself in a situation where you are not contributing or learning, move somewhere where you can."

The four principles and the law work to create a powerful event motivated by the passion and bounded by the responsibility of the participants.

From Chris Corrigan, Consulting in Organizational and Community Development, web site,

Oliver Markley ( brought Open Space to my attention. I have to read and study it before I can apply it to an Innovation Commons, but this web site summarized the process so well that I wanted to pass it along quickly.

There is also a Wiki at


In 1995, Donna Prestwood, Barbara Benjamin and I, created, produced and hosted 8 two-hour live satellite TV broadcasts for the National Technological University (NTU) on leadership, which we entitled "Leadership in the Interactive Age."

In the session called, Personal Ingenuity and Emerging Technologies, we described three characteristics of inevitable opportunities in technology:
  • The space between
  • Synergy
  • Beauty

My point was, as I presented these three criteria, that if a technology operated on the space between people (things, ideas, concepts), enhanced synergy, and was beautiful (elegant), it probably had a good chance of being a success. I would probably add time shifting now, and still think it's a pretty good list.

I want to focus on beauty right now, because I think it is imperative that we keep our eye on this criteria as we move to more collaborative, emergent behavior types of human systems.

Rollo May was an existential psychologist and a philosopher. I read several books of his in the 1980s. In My Quest for Beauty, May wrote, "Poincare, the great contemporary mathematician, sounds like Plato when he asks the question of how new mathematical discoveries are made. Then he answers,

'The useful combinations are precisely the most beautiful, I mean those best able to charm this special sensibility that all mathematicians know...But only certain ones are harmonious, consequently, at once useful and beautiful.'

Writing about Shiller, May comments, "...we best let him speak for himself.

'Beauty alone confers happiness on all, and under its influence every being forgets that he is limited.'

Shiller hastens to add that this forgetting is temporary, however, for the sense of limitations is crucial to our creating beauty. We actually create beauty out of the endeavor to come to terms with the paradox on the one hand of freedom and on the other of destiny. Our limits come from both nature and spirit, finite and infinite, objective and subjective."

May agrees with Shiller that beauty is born in play. "Play is the one activity where the fusion of inner vision and objective facts is achieved. Out of this comes the living form which is beauty. This living form is vital, alive, dynamic; and at the same time it gives serenity and repose..."

May remarks, "Artists wrestle with fate in the endeavor to make objective their inner subjective vision." And, in order to do that people must be psychologically healthy. Beauty is a result of creativity that is driven by the engine of paradox, the duality of opposites (finite/infinite, life/death, yin/yang, right/left brain). "Death is the mother of beauty", wrote Wallace Stevens.

"Thus creativity brings together what Freud summed up as the two purposes of life: to love and to work. (Otto) Rank was only going further than Freud by pointing out that both of these, love and work, are aspects of creativity."

May later writes, "Let us explore the human mind as it engages in the creative act. The capacity to create - which we all have, although to varying degrees - is essentially the ability to find form in chaos, to create form where there is only formlessness. This is what leads to beauty, for beauty is that form.

Beauty reveals a form in the universe - the harmony of the spheres, as Kepler called it. It is a form which is present in the circling of the planets. It is a form which is felt in the curves and balance of our own bodies. And it is present especially in the way we see the world, for we form and reform the world in the very act of perceiving it. The imagination to do this is one of the elements that make us human beings."

But what is form? "Form is a pattern, an image and an order given to what would otherwise simply be chaos. Form is the nonmaterial structure of our lives, on the basis of which we live and on which we base our own particular character." Henry Miller wrote of creative people that they want "to make of the chaos about them an order that is their own."

In another seeming paradox, May points out that "the form dictates the content." We select a form "because the content can best be formed out of the chaos" and put into "whatever form seems to fit." "Form", he continues, "is nonmaterial, and has its existence only as things are related to other things." Writing about Pythagoras, he explains, "he held that the fundamental element (of the universe) was no substance at all, but was really the form in which everything in nature is related to everything else."

At a personal level, our own quest for beauty through our creativity gives us grace. May writes, "Creativity gives us grace in the sense that it is balm for our anxiety and a relief from our alienation. It is grace by virtue of its power to reconcile us to our deepest selves, to lead us to our own depths where primary and secondary functions are unified. Here the right brain and the left brain work together is seeing the wholeness of the world."

Chaos is essential for creativity and thus beauty. Too much order will stifle creativity. The role of the artist changes depending upon the environment. If too much chaos exists, the artist creates new order. If too much order exists, the role of the artist is to create chaos.

If you have any doubt about beauty being a serious objective of any undertaking, listen to what Rollo May has to say. "Beauty is the expereince that gives us a sense of joy and a sense of peace simultaneously. Other happenings give us joy and afterwards a peace, but in beauty these are the same experience. Beauty is serene and at the same time exhilarating; it increases one's sense of being alive. Beauty gives us not only a feeling of wonder; it imparts to us at the same moment timelessness, a repose - which why we speak of beauty as being eternal.

Beauty is the mystery which enchants us. Like all higher experiences of being human, beauty is dynamic; its sense of repose, paradoxically, is never dead, and if it seems to be dead, it is no longer beauty."

Innovation commons, as well as other open, collaborative systems, are by their very nature chaotic systems. The goal is to find the order in the chaos through the individual and collective creativity of its members. This will happen if their is a shared vision, will and significance in the group. The balance of order and chaos is extremely important, as well as the timing of that balance, which should change from more chaotic to more ordered over time, or else the effort will not be productive. The group has to collectively and individually be on a quest for beauty, in addition to functionality, in order to avoid building a termite mound.

My Quest for Beauty
Rollo May
Saybrook, 1985

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

The Limits of an Innovation Commons

In 1979 I saw a lecture by Phillip Morrison, an MIT professor, on PBS entitled "Termites to Telescopes". The implications of that lecture have haunted me ever since. Morrison described how African termites build very large and complex mounds for their nests.

Communication among termites is not completely understood. Since they live and work in darkness, they are blind, as we know the term. Smell and touch seem to be the preferred form of communication. Termites build nests from a material that they make with body chemicals and cellulose, wood fiber. Big termite nests, like those found in Africa or Australia, can be several feet high and last decades. A nest may contain millions of individuals. Termites require carefully controlled humidity and temperature conditions inside the nest. The structure and material provide this function. Function and form are in consonance.

Construction of a nest follows a simple procedure. At some point for reasons unknown, and by mechanisms unknown, upon sensing a "signal" of some sort, termite workers start producing the pellets of material they use to construct nests. The termites begin to pile these pellets, each working individually, cementing them together with an adhesive they produce.

At some later time, sensing another "signal," the workers "look" around them. If they see a pile of pellets larger than theirs in the immediate vicinity, they abandon their project and go work on the higher pile. Through this process they select those piles they will work on.

A little while later, sensing still another "signal," the workers "look" around to see if there is a pile of nearly the same height within a specified distance of the pile they are working upon. If not, they abandon their pile and search for two piles that are close together. Again, after time has elapsed, termite workers begin to form the arch at the top. This process is repeated many times until an interlocking web of randomly constructed arches is completed.

In this process there are no high-performing termites. The entire process can be written in the form of a set of simple logical instructions - a program. There is no plan. Randomness plays an important role. The instructions and the responses seem to be genetically programmed into the termite worker. Signals do not seem to be given by anyone. Environmental conditions dictate the start of the process. When it is time to build a nest, a nest is built. The processes can be defined logically, analytically. Time may even play a role in the behavior changes once the building has begun. No one has a vision of the outcome. Everyone follows the rules and the result is functionally correct, but not elegant.

I wonder what a city landscape would look like if it was populated with buildings that all looked like this. To me, it would look like an artist version of an alien planet.

The question that haunts me in this age of peer to peer collaborations, with dependence upon emergent behavior from a large group of individuals, is the results may be functional, but will they be beautiful? Or, is beauty as a concept simply going to disappear? Or will we see functionality as beauty?

Morrison was interested in another question, "Could the termites eventually build a telescope?"
Even though termites can construct arches, could they ever build a cathedral?
More to the point, could we, if we operated in like manner?

What are the limits of free, open collaborative systems? It's hard to image any of modern civilizations greatest projects being completed in this manner.

ACA Call for Presenters

The American Creativity Association is holding it's 2006 International Conference on March 22 - 24, 2006 in Austin, Texas at the Austin-Bergstrom Airport Hilton. The call for presenters as well as other information about the conference is available on their web site ( Proposals must be submitted before October 31, 2005. Linda Shafer & Barry Silverberg are Conference co-Chairs. Contact Barry Silverberg at with questions or suggestions.

Paul Schumann ( is organizing a focus on advances in the understanding of innovation in organizations. The desire is to have seminars, workshops and panel discussions on new systems and knowledge of organizational innovation, especially open, collaborative ones. Topics of interest are developing insights in a complex future, discovering opportunities and threats, attracting collaborators and leading collaborations, open systems for innovation, issues of recognition and reward in open collaborations, the microeconomics of innovation and measurement systems. Anyone interested in this special focus on innovation should contact Paul Schumann (512.302.1935) before submitting a proposal on the ACA web site.

Wednesday, September 7, 2005

Problems with the Values Survey

The values survey is dificult. The comments I receive will be in this blog.

From David Pearce Snyder

After first learning survey design at RAND, I sent out several Delphi polls quite similar in content and length to your Value Survey. Everyone responded to the first several surveys, with considerable grumbling, because they were required to respond. After that, my typical response rates were 1% to 3%, and my RAND mentor, Olaf Helmer, told me that, unless there were tangible incentives, people simply wouldn't respond to such lengthy inquiries. Market researchers routinely offer rewards to get folks to respond to much shorter polls.

With respect to your particular survey, I (myself) would not find the 126 (!!) dimensions covered by your inquiry relevant to my decision to participate in an innovation commons. The 4 criteria that motivate my interest/desire to participate in a collaborative dialogue are:

[1] Does the subject matter merit the commitment of my limited time and attention?

[2] Do I have something valuable to contribute on the topic?

[3] Do I currently have the time and attention available to devote to creating meaningful input, given the other immediate demands on my time and attention?

[4] If I do not put in my particular 2-cents, is it likely that others will do so? (In other words, is my input likely to be unique?)

Were I to have answered "Yes" to my own 4 questions with respect to your values survey, it would have taken me a weekend or more to have agonized over how I felt about each of your subtly nuanced categories: e.g. "Community/Personalist" vs. "Community/Supportive." These criteria may have meaning to other folks, but I haven't any way of judging their feelings. For me, the 4 criteria listed above are all that matter. And, the value survey only gets a "yes" answer from my Question #1.

My bottom line assessment of the survey is that it's waaay tooo loooong and much too me-tic-u-lous to evoke meaningful/useful responses from anybody.

From Mark Fox

The reason I didn't take the survey is because I am too stupid to understand it :) I read the questions and had to re-read them several times. Then I couldn't easily make a connection with what I thought the question meant related to an innovation commons. I guess I don't understand the intent. I was confused on how a question abount morales, likeability, and religious beliefs applied to an innovation network.So because I didn't understand it really, I chose not to complete it and throw in meaningless answers.Just my feedback, I can go look at it again.

Tuesday, September 6, 2005

A Poetic Thought

The Light Within

I stood one day beside the sea
And watched her waves roll in.
I saw them swell and rise and curl,
And then collapse within.
Again! Again! They'd come and break,
And drift up on the shore;
And when quite spent, their place retake
Amid the constant roar.
And I could not but wonder then
What keeps the rolling in,
Until I noted on the break,
The light they held within.
You see it just as they have raised
The brine where it will go-
You see it for a moment fine,
And then the undertow.
And yet, that moment of their height-
When light is held within-
Must be the reason, when they fall
They rise to try again.
The light brigade of another realm,
They reach as they are told,
And question not the tidal helm,
For duty makes them bold.
And too, they know-- I'm sure they must--
That someone's made them more,
And so they rise and fall and hold,
Their lights just off the shore.

© Dillon McKinsey