Wirearchy 4: Co-Creating as Disruption to the Dominant Cultural Framework

Welcome to the fourth in a series of essays exploring Wirearchy, “The power and effectiveness of people working together through connection and collaboration…taking responsibility individually and collectively rather than relying on traditional hierarchical status.”

In today’s essay Jon Husband, the creator of Wirearchy, talks about co-creation, planning and a desirable, meaningful future. Check back next Friday for the fith and final installment.

“Vision requires execution…execution requires relationships…relationships require trust”

Steve Case

Co-creating ..

.. is a term we’re starting to hear very often, and perhaps too often too soon.   I think it might cheapen and mis-direct the important process of making deep changes to the ‘colonization’ (due to the rampant corporatism of today) of the exchanges between people that are necessary to create almost anything that finds form and expression.

But clearly it’s important (generally) as a widespread new way of creating things and services, and getting things done by and with people.

The growth and spread of the term “co-creating” has led to significant interest in more open people processes, both in workplaces as well as other forms of organizations.  And more and more processes both conceptual and practical in nature from the domains of art, theatre, ludic play, improv, circus, farce and pantomime are being drawn together and applied to why and how people interact and create.

Participative processes like Open Space, World Cafes, Unconferences, Peer Circles and so on are beginning to appear in a range of hybrid forms wherever people are meeting and interacting to advance an interest, a topic or subject, a project, etc.

At the same time, in the wide-ranging realms of art and culture-making activities we’re witnessing the advanced stage of a long-term wrestling match between commercial forces and the various main forms of funding the expression of creative endeavours.

The explosions of creative technology we’ve been experiencing have spawned a series of sociological responses, in the form(s) of Barcamps, Wordcamps, Govcamps, Foo Camps, Unconferences, high-end celebrity-and-marketing-and venture-capital ‘experience’ markets, new cultural and artistic festivals with technology-and-culture-making themes.  There’s also a rapidly-increasing range of maker faires, many and various configurations of online education (viz. the recent explosion of interest in MOOCs), community-and-consensus building, organizing for activism and fundraising, and other similar events and happenings.

The impetus behind this explosion is both technological and sociological.

Technological … There has been an historical evolution of various kinds of technology over the past three decades, but for the purposes of this essay we are referring to information technology and the creation and evolution of the Internet and the Web.  When we speak of ‘co-creating”, most often we’re interested in the appearance, development and evolution of social tools, web services, massive storage, and the ongoing development of computer-and-smart-devices development.  The changes have been massive and fast, and touch virtually all areas of human activity.  And … it’s not going away.  As Stowe Boyd has said, “welcome to the post-normal world”.

Sociological … People are searching for ways to find others with similar interests and motivations so that they can engage in activities that help them learn, find work, grow capabilities and skills, and tackle vexing social and economic problems. As awareness spreads and experience grows, more and more of these types of events and purposeful gatherings occur. Thus, the “get informed and take action” aspects of general culture are strengthened and reinforced, leading to yet more of these types of activities.

Developing familiarity and practice with open and collaborative processes are ways people can prepare for a messy and uncertain (post-normal) future.  These processes invite us to play and work together.  They occur in spaces in which people can 1) learn more about themselves and the courageous act of finding and using one’s voice, 2)  show and see how useful and positive it is to expose and discuss various ideas, 3) demonstrate how effectively they can operate together in a small temporary community of ideas and energy about an issue.  It can be seen as “practicing for the future”.

The orientation to open and participative is now regularly taking form  in the arenas of education, learning and organizational change.  The processes outlined above, and others using the same principles, are cheap, easy for people to apply with a few simple rules about self-management, operate democratically, and produce results grounded in ownership and the responsibilities that have been agreed upon by the ‘community’.  The relationships and flows of information can be transferred to online spaces and often benefit from wider connectivity.

Today, our culture-making activities are well engaged in the early stages of cultural mutation. These processes are for these times.

What’s coming along next ?  “Smart” devices and Internet everywhere in our lives ?  Deep(er) changes to the way things are conceived, carried out, managed and used ?  New mental models ?  Or, will we discover real societal limits to what can be done given the current framework of laws, institutions and established practices with which people are familiar and comfortable ?

Shorter cycle-based development and release of software and web services incorporating the latest user- and-market feedback characterize our environment today. A philosophy known as Agile development and the related approach to Agile programming are having a rapidly-growing impact on how software applications, functionality and platforms are being developed. Focusing on the participation of users with respect to their needs and ways of using software is an important signal or development. It is clear evidence that the developmental and learning dynamics generated by continuous or regular feedback loops are becoming the norm in areas of activity in which change and short cycles of product development are constants.

The Internet of Things (IoT) is a concept that has come to signify the implementation of intelligent sensors and software into objects that we find and use in daily life … clothes, homes, cars, buildings, roads, and a wide range of other objects that have a place in peoples’ daily life activities. This arena of concentration is experiencing major growth, equally in terms of hardware, software and with respect to the way the capabilities are configured and used. The implications for the uptake of the IoT and the sociological changes it fosters are being explored and examined in media and network culture research centres, universities and think tanks in many societies.

The IoT concept is being combined with the new-ish concepts of Open Data and Big Data, and plays directly into the imagining of Smart Cities / Intelligent Cities. Many of the issues are known and understood, but carry the weight of necessary ethical, political and social impact policy decisions with regard to the presence of intelligent-and-connected objects and activities in our daily modern urban life.

The implications go beyond the tools and the political and economic effects of their use. Rob van Kranenburg, the author of “The Internet of Things” and colleague Christian Nold, recently published a document in which they discuss the future implications and ramifications of deploying the IoT. The new document is titled “The Internet of People for a Post-Oil World”.

This document makes clear that key opportunities associated with widespread uptake of the IoT are derived from the impact upon peoples’ activities and lives. It is expected that the proliferation of the IoT will introduce significant challenges, particularly with respect to dissembling the dominant mental model of commercializing the use of technologies and consumption of products and services generated thereby.

Therefore, they posit, we had better involve people in asking the appropriate questions about why, what, how, when and to do what with the IoT.

  • Issue for people everywhere: reclaim a politics of technology that is based on the struggle over the terms of their own participation.
  • Needed: a public debate and tangible design interventions that challenge the need for commercial tools.
  • People from all walks of life have to be at the table when we talk about alternate uses of ubiquitous computing.
  • We suggest an IoT as a non-commercial refuge … as an umbrella of emerging technologies that do not only serve capital but also facilitate grassroots survival networks in a world faced with ecological and social devastation. 

(Nold & van Kranenburg)

Whether or not these emergent issues become partly or fully commercialized, or whether they remain mainly in the domain of unfunded or grass-roots initiatives, it’s increasingly clear ‘we’ are on our way towards more integrated eco-systems of issues, people and technologies.

And in these new sets of conditions, participation and inclusion enabled by interconnectedness are quickly becoming the ‘new rules’.

In the new era of the Web of Things, if you want to build a better mousetrap …

you’ll need to ask the mouse.
(B. van Lamoen)

What the Future May Hold

Assessing and forecasting possible futures has become a legitimate domain of research and exploration over the past two or three decades. One of the powerful tools used in this domain is the ‘scenario planning’ approach, wherein alternative scenarios (usually three or four) are created based on looking at possible extrapolations and evolution of the current and emergent elements of our world’s politics, economics, anthropology, technology, psychology, sociology and philosophy.

Research observations, anecdotes and examples are combined with data to develop responses in a scenario format about a question or issue seen as important to our collective future. The responses are then crafted into the form of a narrative scenario which can be read, digested and explored. One of the best-known expositions of the method and its uses is available in the 1996 book “The Art of the Long View” by Peter Schwarz, a senior member of the renowned Royal Dutch Shell Strategic Planning Group.

A scenario planning exercise carried out by the Rockefeller Foundation looked at the possible futures for an interconnected world. The issues we face were assessed on the axes of Adaptive Capacity (low to high) and Political and Economic Alignment (weak to strong). The descriptions of the four possible scenarios shows us quickly how many of these elements are already in play. And of course, our collective future is likely to become some blend of these four scenarios as the components play themselves out in an increasingly complex world.

Screen Shot 2013-03-02 at 10.02.12 AM

Clearly these early (and now not-so-weak) signals and patterns tell us that the core assumptions and principles that have underpinned organized human activities for most of the past century – the full bloom of the industrial era – are being changed by the combinations and permutations of new, powerful, inexpensive and widely accessible information-processing technologies.  For a couple of decades now we’ve been being told by future-seekers, philosophers and technological and social innovators that we will henceforth be living, working, playing and co-creating our future at the brave new frontier offered by the information-saturated ‘wired world’.

The short description of each scenario reinforces the perception that we are both individually and collectively in transition from a linear, specialized, efficiency-driven paradigm towards a paradigm based on continuous feedback loops and principles of participation, both large and small in scope. Whether we will shape this into an harmonious and effective new paradigm or some relative degree(s) of dystopia remains to be seen. As noted earlier, these are all early signs of cultural ‘mutation’ that are already with us.

Significant transformations and mutations demand new and effective principles and guidelines. Many are seeking to articulate the outlines and ‘rules’ of our new environment. However, it seems clearer by the day that new principles are emerging that can help guide us, individually and collectively, towards our preferred future

J. Husband & H. Macleod

The concept of wirearchy (other terms also have been used to describe the elements and dynamics of emergent network principles and guidelines) has been applied to offer insight into the manifest implications of this new environment.

Today, more and more people confirm seeing these principles in action in a range of important ways.


a dynamic two-way flow of power and authority based on knowledge, trust, credibility and a focus on results, enabled by interconnected people and technology.

– Jon Husband (1999)

More and more of the emergent activities associated with communities of people and interest coming together to engage around a problem, issue or opportunity contain the elements of wirearchy (knowledge, trust, credibility and a focus on results) at the core of the initiative.

Prominent examples include the role of social media and smart mobile devices in the uprisings in Egypt, Libya and elsewhere in the Middle East, or the shocks to our traditional power structures administered by the appearance on the scene of Wikileaks, with its bias towards transparency that menaces established government dynamics. Alvin Toffler foresaw much of this in the 1990 book “PowerShift – knowledge, wealth and violence at the edge of the 21st Century” .. today this shift is indeed underway. Where will the shift will take us is an interesting (and still open) question.

To underpin and support that transition, it is becoming more and more useful to look at the utility of the principles of a domain that began emerging in the 1950?s and 60?s, in the early stages of the growth and development of what we know today as our modern society. The roots of organizational development (OD) are in humanistic psychology and sociology action and ethnographic and cybernetic/ socio-technical systems theory.  It’s a domain that emerged essentially as a counter-balance to the mechanistic and machine-metaphor-based core assumptions about the organized activities in our society.

Organizational development principles are built upon some basic assumptions about human motivations, engagement and activities. Perhaps the clearest enunciation of these principles applied generically to organized activities can be found in the six pillars of a philosophical approach called Participative Work Design, created in the 1960?s by Fred Emery (Australia) and Eric Trist (UK, US and Canada)

Participative Work Design – The Six Criteria

1.  Adequate elbow room – also known generically as ‘empowerment’
2.  Continuous learning – an obvious must
3.  An optimal level of variety – conscious avoidance of boredom or meaningless repetition
4.  Mutual support and respect – reciprocating, giving and getting help
5.  Meaningfulness – a clear sense that what one is doing is useful and aligned with personal values to an appropriate degree
6. A desirable future – people usually don’t want to invest time and energy in dead-end work

Using these humanist principles of organizational development, leading organizational complexity theorists have in recent years created models that help clarify how to evaluate and respond to the continuous turbulence and ambiguity generated by participating in interconnected flows of information.

To date we have by and large existed and responded to conditions and contexts characterized by either Simple, Complicated or Chaotic dynamics (from complexity theory fundamentals). Increasingly, Complexity is emerging as a key definer of the issues, problems and opportunities faced by our societies.

Dave Snowden, founder of the IBM Centre for Organizational Complexity, has over the past decade created and refined the Cynefin model for assessing and responding to these new challenges. It offers a well-synthesized and coherent framework for evaluating issues and conditions and then making decisions and taking appropriate action(s).

Cynefin  Method diagram

Cognitive Edge, D. Snowden


Much of today’s co-creative activities must and probably will find ways to come into being.  Indeed, a growing practical response to these various conditions (above) can be seen more and more frequently. Arguably, Occupy Wall Street was an early attempt to bring some global coherence to the power of peer-to-peer connection and conviction in the face of oppressive oligarchy / plutocracy.

Another useful example is offered by burgeoning peer-to-peer movement(s) unfolding around the world. The dynamics of co-creation are deeply embedded (if not foundational) to P2P activities. The proliferation of cultural festivals and events and happenings at salons, forums, galleries and other venues reflect participative responses to many of the challenges emerging from our growing societal complexity. These events and happenings are where people gather to view, wonder, communicate and explore the infinite ways art and culture stimulate reflection, attraction and the opening of minds and hearts.

This is all occurring at a time when it also seems people everywhere are seeing and feeling the loss of parts of their lives to the ‘enclosure’ of privatization and the diminishment of the commons (the public spaces where certain types of common services and goods are made available to the public).

Co-creating in a wide range of forms, processes and purpose may become an effective and important antidote to the spreading enclosure of human creative activity.

But .. the dominant models of governance, commercial ownership and the use and re-use of that which is co-created by people are going to have to undergo much more deep change in order to disrupt the existing paradigm of proprietary commercial creation and the model of socio-economic power that this paradigm enables and carries today.

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