Think The Unthinkable

DSC00811Can you envision a society without money? Can you conceive of a functioning economic system without corporations or in which corporations as we have come to know them play a much-diminished role? Can you imagine a truly participatory governance system beyond Congress, Parliament, or Duma? The mere prospects seem jarring, if not subversive. And yet, I would argue, if you are not thinking these thoughts, you are not paying attention. Because looking across the landscape of deep global recession, environmental crisis, and ongoing technological transformation, it is clear that we are at the beginning of a large-scale organizational transformation that will impact everything we do—from how we organize production to how we grow our food to how we govern ourselves.

It is hard to imagine this today, but people have been conducting economic activities for millennia outside of formal organizational frameworks. In such “traditional” or “peasant economies,” humans were engaged in production of a variety of goods and services in which they sold or traded with others in their geographic proximity. You knew who was a good baker, a good shoemaker, who repaid debts on time, and who was a cheat. However, such transactions were limited in scale. The genius of the types of organizations we’ve perfected in the 20th century is that they allowed us to massively increase the range and scale of these interactions by aggregating resources among strangers and by becoming institutional proxies for the kind of trust we previously reserved for our neighbors and family. We needed large hierarchical organizations in order to find, aggregate, and allocate resources efficiently at massive scales.

What happens, however, if we can increasingly find, aggregate, and allocate resources without the organizational infrastructure we’ve created? What if we do not need organizational proxies, or at least, the kind of proxies we’ve come to rely on, for most things we do? In his book “Here Comes Everybody,” Clay Shirky, professor of new media at NYU, writes, “When we change the way we communicate, we change society.” Today, we are indeed changing the communications infrastructure and are just beginning to feel the reverberations of this transformation in our economic life. Publisher Tim O’Reilly calls the infrastructure we are building the “architecture of participation,” and its existence will lead us to re-invent ourselves as a society and as individuals.

After all, organizations we have built are not pre-ordained, inevitable, or immutable creations—they are products of particular times, outgrowths of existing technological, social, and demographic forces. Or as Doug Ruskoff, writer and media expert, puts it, “Economics is not a natural science.”

The new architecture of participation will cause us to reweave the social fabric that links the individual to others and to the larger whole in entirely new ways. It will enable people to find each other, to connect and trade with each other in efficient and productive new ways that are outside of established organizational structures.

So pay attention to new organizational forms that are beginning to dot our landscape. From Kickstarter and LendingClub (new platforms for giving, raising capital, and lending); to Patientslikeme and Curetogether (grassroots platforms for sharing detailed health and treatment data); to numerous mission-oriented project organization platforms like Groundcrew; these are all harbingers of things to come. What is important to study is not whether these particular organizations will survive but the larger shifts they represent. Their design usually does not emerge as a whole from the outset. Rather, we see new structures emerge little by little from the contribution of many. In this, they resemble biological structures in which complexity emerges without a grand central design.

The emergence of new organizational forms coincides with discoveries in neuroscience, biology, quantum physics, and increased ability to model and understand interactions in complex systems. This latest scientific knowledge will usher in new frameworks for how to organize people to get things done.

Scientific management of the 20th century was a brainchild of Frederick Taylor, mechanical engineer and efficiency expert. New gurus of organizational management and design may well be people like Frans De Waal, a primatologist studying empathy and cooperative behavior in groups.

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