Future Melbourne: The Dawning of the Age of P2PGovernance

Future Melbourne

This is my first post to the p2p blog (though I’ve wanted to for some time). Michel has asked me to discuss my experiences with the Future Melbourne project – the transformation of a traditional city planning exercise governed by a few, to a global, wiki-based collaboration on the future of Melbourne, Australia.

First, here’s some background:

A month before I graduated with my PhD that proposed a theoretical framework for mass collaboration (Nov ’07) I was contacted by the manager of the City of Melbourne’s Strategic Planning and Sustainability Branch – David Mayes. David had a vision for reengineering the City of Melbourne’s process for generating its next 2020 ten year strategic plan. Previously, such plans were produced using cooperative participation (contribution of discrete elements that are synthesised by someone other than the contributors). However a requirement of this project was that the new plan be produced by collaborative participation (contribution with the capacity to add/edit/delete by all in order to inclusively represent the perspectives of all involved through collective contribution and synthesis).

What followed was several months of meetings in order to map the existing process and redevelop it with the aim of leveraging the potential of collaboration while taking advantage of ‘Web2.0’ opportunities and the emergent capacities of mass collaboration. I, along with my business partner, Marcus Leonard, also created a company CollabForge in response to this job as well as others coming through now.

Fast forward five months:

The city’s ten year plan has been migrated to a wiki-based collaborative environment for both internal collaboration, and public consultation.

  • Facilitated by the wiki, the plan has undergone internal collaborative development by the City’s special team in charge of the plan’s creation, Future Melbourne, City officers, Councilors, and hundreds of stakeholders (in contrast to Sydney’s recently released plan which was put together in the traditional mode by more or less a handful of people).
  • The project launched its public consultation on the plan May 17th, 2008, and so far around 100 public participants have registered (529 in total registered to the wiki) and there have been approximately 70 high quality public contributions to the either the plan directly, or one of the many ‘discussion pages’ associated with the plan’s content. And interestingly, while editing the wiki is open to anyone in the world upon registration, to date, there has not been a single instance of vandalism or off-topic content – and to think that this was one of the primary concerns before launching the wiki for consultation!

While this isn’t the first project to use a wiki for public consultation, it is (as far as I know) the first in Australia. It is also the first (in the world as far as i know) to use a wiki so extensively in a city planning process. It is also possible the wiki may play some role in the life of the plan post Council adoption in October. But one step at a time :-)…

Yet more interesting are the implications: could this be the beginning of participatory governance, p2p governance or WikiGovernance where the public relies less on the elected representatives and is more able to directly engage in the creation and implementation of policy? I don’t know the answer to this (I suspect so) but one thing is for sure, this project is raising all kinds of other interesting questions. Here’s a few:

Where exactly are the boundaries between the government and the public (in terms of authority, liability etc)? As the plan is edited by the public, their contributions are incorporated in real time becoming a part of the plan’s fabric. This creates a very fuzzy boundary indeed between ‘official’ or ‘certified’ contributions and those by any old John or Jane with an interesting idea.

Melbourne has traditionally generated 10 year plans. With an online collaborative environment supported by a wiki, could/should the model move towards a living plan that responds in a day-to-day fashion? If so, how would Council go about ‘signing-off’ for each change?

Will everyone be a lobbyist in the future? Participating in the writing of the City’s plan puts one in direct contact with the highest echelons of the City’s officers. If one is persistent and comes back over the course of a month, relationships are developed and pressure can be applied – in a full public view. If wiki consultation becomes popular in more sectors of governance (and business etc) you can bet that it will be leveraged by the public. In addition, we are also supporting group forming with the capacity to create your own special interest group in order to leverage the collective intelligence of others with similar interests.

As a point of interest, here’s few examples of the quality/content of participation thus far:

And of course I’d like to extend an open invitation to anyone reading to get involved in the action – give us your thoughts on this new potential, share your knowledge with us from your own perspective/field/interests – promote your initiatives that might help us as we do our best to develop a well informed and inclusive plan for our city.

You can also follow my updates at http://mark-elliott.net

6 Comments Future Melbourne: The Dawning of the Age of P2PGovernance

  1. AvatarZbigniew Lukasiak

    It is natural to expect that the first editors will be those interested in the general theme of collaboration – so it is not surprising that so far everyone is so nice and cultural there. But after the general public learns what is at stakes I would expect more, maybe not vandalism per se, but power-plays, editig wars. At Wikipedia you can always present two conflicting opinions – when city planning you have to choose one course of action – so the question is how do you plan to reconcile conflicts?

  2. Avatarmark_elliott

    Well, that is an interesting issue – true, there does need to be a final, single decision. I also anticipated the need for conflict resolution and developed a basic plan (informed by the Wikipedia experience) which you can see here. But (as you’ve intimated) we haven’t needed to draw upon this yet. I think it is an issue of maturity in a more general sense – WikiGovernance / p2p governance is still extremely young (with our project being one of the first) so i think there are few who really grasp the potential for influence through this channel/medium. However I’m quite sure that it won’t be long until special interest groups and lobbyists develop a better understanding of the potentials. This will likely spawn more conflict (along with healthy debate) surrounding the struggle for the representation of a decision. However i see this in no way as a drawback, rather it would simply be an indication of maturity of the medium through the mirroring of life’s normal activities within it. At which point, our dispute resolution policies would no doubt develop accordingly and given enough time, perhaps the need to be able to represent more perspectives/interests in policy would exert pressure upon government to rethink how ‘valid’ policy is formed, created & updated. Great comment! does that answer your question?

  3. AvatarMichel Bauwens


    Would’nt you say that the key is to separate the idea forming, from the representational and interest-based decision-making. What is happening until today is that ‘interests’ distort not only representation, but also crucially the input phases of solution-seeking, so that solutions are filtered a priori with interests already in mind, thereby prohibiting good ideas to filter through. But if we have a mechanism to allow good ideas to filter through, then it becomes a lot more difficult, with that transparency build in, for illegitimate interests to come through to the back door, and they can only acquire legitimacy by engaging with the good ideas, not filterning them out a priori.

  4. Avatarmark_elliott

    I think this sums up the ideal role that a wiki type platform might play Michel – providing a publicly accessible means of developing the ideas which opens them up to scrutiny and discussion, while enabling the further development of the ideas in a transparent and open-access way. It feels like the Future Melbourne project has achieved this, however I think I’ll invite one of the City officers over to join in and give his inside perspective…

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  6. AvatarFutureMelbourne

    Hello and apologies I couldn’t get involved in this discussion sooner, some interesting ideas floating around here.

    From an internal perspective, what we have found most telling with the Future Melbourne wiki has been the reconfiguration of traditional structures of influence. Specifically, large organisations are typically more familiar with drafting a traditional written submission in response to projects such as the Future Melbourne city plan.

    However, our wiki was constructed to preference contributions of the individual. This led to concerns aired by organisations worried that their ideas/edits wouldn’t be afforded the same level of importance as had previously been the case. Consequently, most organisations have since selected to draft hardcopy written submissions.

    Ironically, we’ve found that individuals who directly edited the plan, then discussed their changes on the discussion pages, now find their ideas remain within the final content essentially unchanged. This contrasts starkly with the process required by a 3rd party to interpret the content of written submissions and then somehow incorporate these ideas into the plan in the best perceived possible way.

    I agree that this new form of online consultation/participation will take time before the majority of people feel comfortable taking part. However, once the possibilities of direct participation become apparent then organisations will be one such group who will need to re-evaluate the way they engage with planning processes if they wish to maintain an element of influence over the final outcome.

    Future Melbourne Team

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