The Power of Collaboration Over Potholes

In July 2005, Clay Shirky, one of the web’s leading thinkers and a professor at New York University, kicked off a talk at the TED conference in which he asked a simple question: “How do groups get anything done?”

The simplicity of the question veiled how radical his answer would be.

In a talk that would best described as prescient, Shirky outlined how the traditional model of group activity, that is institutions, will be supplanted by a more inclusive, nimble model based on collaboration.

To makes sense of that, let’s back up a bit and take a look at some of elements. The institutions that Shirky was talking about that summer are the classic public and private institutions that spring to mind when you think of government departments or corporations; large monolithic organizations, often with layers of management and bureaucracy.

So how to institutions like these get anything done? As Shirky explained it, they hire a bunch people that understand how to do what needs to be done, and go about doing it. For hundreds of years this model has worked just fine. In fact, it forms the framework of the capitalist economy.

But it is beginning to erode.

Now with the advent of the internet and the dramatic drop in the costs of communication a new model has emerged. And it is both more efficient and more inclusive than the old model, in fact it even threatens the existence of the old model.

The new model is based on collaboration.

In his presentation at TED, Shirky used the example of Flickr, the photo sharing site, but there are hundreds of similar examples sprouting up today, and I’d like to focus on one that is particularly relevant to anyone living in just about any city in the world.

A pothole.

How do you get a pothole fixed?

If you’re trying to fix potholes, the first thing you need to do if to find the potholes that need to be fixed. So how do you do that?

The classic response to that would be that you organize a municipal department, give it a fancy name, say the Municipal Department of Pothole Vigilance and Remediation, hire a bunch of people and give them their marching orders; troll around the city and find potholes that need to be fixed.

But there’s an inherent problem with this model. The problem is that it’s exclusionary; when you create an your pothole department, you have to limit access. You can’t hire everybody. So in order to focus your efforts, you have to pick and choose between between people who can find and fix a pothole, you have to select some and reject others, in short you have to create an exclusionary institution.

The problem with exclusionary institutions is that very often they get their priorities mixed up. So once you’ve hired all those pothole fixers, put them in a room together and set them to the task, their first priority is no longer finding and fixing potholes. It’s making sure the institutions survives – making sure they keep their jobs. “One of the first things that happens when you institutionalize a problem is that the first goal of the institution immediately shifts from whatever the nominal goal was to self preservation,” Shirky said.

That problem is a paradox of institutions. But there are other problems too. There’s management problems, you have to manage your employees, there’s legal problems, accounting problems, and even physical problems – you need an office for all your employees, you need phone lines and washrooms, pensions, unions, equipment, uniforms. It goes on and on. In short the act of creating institutions bakes in a lot of overhead into the process.

But the internet, and more specifically advances in the way we collaborate and communicate has lead to a different approach.

Instead of having an army of pothole fixers trolling the city looking for potholes to fix, some cities like New York for example, are turning this task over to residents.

In New York, residents with a smart phone can submit select quality-of-life complaints, like a pothole that needs fixing, with a photo, to a 311 service, which will be able to identify the location of the complaint based on the phone’s GPS locator, and then, hopefully, send someone to fix it.

The different approaches illustrate what Shirky calls the difference between and institutional approach and collaborative approach.

In the collaborative approach, the pothole fixers don’t have to troll around trying to find potholes to fix. The resident do that. And they get nothing in return. The residents don’t get paid, they don’t get uniforms or pensions or offices. In fact they don’t get much of anything. The inefficiencies in the institutional approach have been stripped out of the process. And yet they contribute to the process simply because they want the potholes on their streets fixed.

The efficiencies are obvious. But there are other advantages as well, once the process of finding potholes has been moved to collaborative structure from an institutional structure you’ve dramatically increased your field of vision. Now instead of having say twenty employees trying to find potholes, there are potentially millions of residents doing the same thing. The system is based not on the high performance of a handful of employees finding lots of potholes, but on the low performance of hundreds and even thousands of contributors doing little things, like finding one pothole. It’s like aggregating rain drops to create a river.

So the next time you’re asking yourself ‘How am I going to get this done?’ You may want to give some thought to using a collaborative approach to the problem, and keep an eye out for the potholes.

Editor Notes – why stop at potholes? Once local people see how this works you can include: grafitti, fly tipping, sex or drugs litter, vandalism – the list is endless. This’ll stop councils trying to find grandiose schemes that no one wants to justify their existence and get them starting to think how to solve real problems in people’s lives at minimal cost in near real time


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