Participatory Systems: Moving beyond 20th Century Institutions

By Cottam, Hilary | Harvard International Review, Winter 2010 | Go to article overview

Participatory Systems: Moving beyond 20th Century Institutions


Cottam, Hilary, Harvard International Review


If the 20th century was the era of the global institution--the United Nations, the World Health Organization, the multinational corporation--then the 21st century will be the era of the participatory system.

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The big global challenges of our time demand mass participation. Finding solutions to climate change, managing demographic shifts, preventing and managing chronic disease, providing safe water supplies, and maintaining food security will require the pooling of diverse types of knowledge and resources and harnessing the motivation of billions of individuals and their communities.

The issue of climate change illustrates this need. Governments can commission unclear power stations, but they cannot force change in behavior--they cannot convince citizens to turn down their thermostats or fly less frequently. Solutions cannot be pushed down at people from above; they need to be pulled up from below. Our existing institutional architecture is fundamentally not up to the task. We need new, distributed, and highly participatory systems if change is to happen at scale.

Bottom-up problem solving has been around for a long time, but it has operated at the margins. No longer. As we move into the second decade of the 21st century, two factors collide that will make participatory systems central to problem solving in the decades to come. Firstly, as I have already alluded to above, the scale of the problems creates the need to harness the widest possible set of resources to problem solve. Secondly, the technology has matured and has become pervasive enough to enable such problem solving in an unprecedented way. In a Web 2.0 world it is possible to design simple, low cost, and highly adaptive participatory systems.

At a very simplistic, market level, big corporations have realized that mass participations is key to their brand value, innovation, and hence bottom line. Crowd sourcing, for example, allows consumers to choose, say, the next flavor of potato chips or design for a T-shirt and is increasingly a key way brands ensure their products remain relevant and retain market share. Charles Leadbeater's 2008 book We Think powerfully illustrates the ways in which mass collaboration through distributed networks has been able to innovate new products and solve a whole range of issues from mapping the genome to coordinating a campaign to end world debt.

So what are participatory systems? How can we design and scale them? How can they play a major role in bringing about the massive social change on which this century will rely? I argue that participatory systems will, by the middle of this century, seem as "normal" as global bureaucracies or corporations seem today.

First, I will look at the origins of these ideas. I will then look closely at the British welfare state--an out-of-date institution--and at how participatory systems are beginning to transform it. Finally, I look more closely at the characteristics of the systems, What they can offer, the mechanisms through which they can be designed, and the contexts that might prove most fertile for supporting them.

Historical Roots

Ideas of participation and mass bottom-up problem solving have been around for a long time, often emerging in places perceived by the Western-dominated global institutions to be marginal. Paolo Freire, the Brazilian revolutionary educationalist, and Ivan Illich, an iconoclastic Catholic priest, originally born in Vienna who made his home in Mexico, were two ardent proponents of the participatory system. Both were before their time in many ways.

Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed was first published in English in 1970. Rooted in his experience of teaching literacy to adults and children in Brazil, the text has, despite its obtuse style, remained current amongst educators in Latin America. In recent years Freire has also gained iconic status in US teacher-training programs. …

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