Friday, January 8, 2010

Avatar, Open Source and Humanity 2.0

Beginning today, the OSBR will publish a weekly columm written by open source experts, in addition to the monthly magazine. The first column is by Stephen Huddart of the J. W. McConnell Family Foundation. Stephen writes:

"In the face of rapidly changing technology, there is a deeper obligation still, to reconceive not only citizenship and political commitment, but human nature itself." Mark Kingwell, The World We Want: Restoring Citizenship in a Fractured Age

First, a word of introduction. It is an honour to be asked to contribute a regular column to the OSBR. Thanks to Dru Lavigne and Tony Bailetti, who invited and guided my submissions to past issues; and to the community of OSBR writers and readers who contribute to my thinking, as well as to a growing sense of a movement linking technology and social change.

My columns are going to be broadly about social innovation and open source methodologies. As we move from the machine era to the information age, social structures and institutions are evolving to afford us the capacity to grapple with managing ourselves and the planet for the long term. At least, that’s my hope. My hunch is that Kingwell is right - our very nature is changing, or has to, in order to complete the process.

(Spoiler alert: skip this paragraph if you haven’t seen the movie Avatar yet). In addition to displaying some remarkable technical achievements, the movie Avatar relates a parable for our times: to solve an energy crisis on Earth, humanity must resort to destroying the pristine and beautiful planet Pandora, and the primitive civilization that lives there. The hero - a disabled war veteran who is initially part of this conquest - falls in love, has a conversion experience and discovers spiritual, human and environmental values that transform and heal him.

While we certainly know how to make blockbusters today, it’s unlikely that we’ll be watching them in either a future Armageddon or the primeval Eden that director James Cameron points to in his film. Watching Avatar against a backdrop of the failed negotiations in Copenhagen and the recent financial crisis, we’re left with a growing sense that our leaders, our institutions and our political processes are incapable of bringing about deep-rooted changes to economic and social structures that are fundamentally unsustainable. Our problems are complex, pervasive and persistent, and so far, our approaches piecemeal and short-sighted when they should be transformational and long term.

What’s missing from the movie, and from public discourse, is a vision of what we want our world to look like, and a process for transitioning from where we are and seem to be heading, to where and who we’d like to be. Without this sense of purpose meeting opportunity, we’ll continue to let crises like those of the past year go to waste.

Carleton University professor James Meadowcroft outlines how the transition approach works in a briefing note published last month by the Government of Canada’s Policy Research Initiative. It should be on every change agent’s reading list. “By experimenting with new technologies, new products and processes, and business models and social innovations,” writes Meadowcroft, “it is possible to explore pathways to a better future.” He adds, “The emphasis here is on cooperation among all types of societal actors (from business, civil society, universities, government, and so on) to develop partnerships to trial innovations”.

He also makes the point that while scenario planning is helpful in tracing current trends, visions go further to include values and aspirations. They’re important because they influence how we act today to align our efforts with larger purpose. This isn’t about shoe horning everyone into one ‘world is flat’ utopia but about formulating and exploring diverse options.

A team of writers and researchers at the UK-based New Economics Foundation has recently developed one such vision in a paper appropriately entitled The Great Transition. It is remarkably detailed, and recognizably not so different from today’s world as to be beyond possibility.

In his seminal work The Nature of Technology, W. Brian Arthur points out that the machine age led to notions of ideal societies organized around the means of production and the bureaucratic state. The engineered and controlled structures of communist, socialist and fascist states reflect failed efforts to take such notions to their logical conclusion. Liberal democracies cannot rest on their laurels, either. Institutional rigidity and hierarchy are part of their legacy too, and corporatism is alive and well in the world at large.

By contrast, open source is inclusive, messy and vital. Structurally it reflects the diverse, organic nature of life itself. As an extension of human thought and capability, it opens up new horizons for turning our problems into processes of continuous learning and innovation. We can literally co-create the world we want. So, is the open source world ready to take on the visioning and transitioning process? Will governments support it? Does the community sector recognize the opportunity this presents? Can we afford not to be investing in our capacity to do this work together?

In Canada, open source practitioners are beginning to show the way. David Eaves is helping governments see that opening up their data to a new generation of open source programmers can accelerate service innovation and lower costs; Mark Kuznicki is using open space techniques in ChangeCamps that convene citizens and policy makers around things like transit systems, with breakthrough results. Michael Lewkowitz of ChangeMedium is introducing open source tool builders to social activists, and Peter Deitz is aggregating social actions across the Web at Social Actions.

Linking citizens with one another, and with their governments, to create new and better possibilities for the future...when do we get to see this movie?

Happy New Year!

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