Participatory systems, moving beyond 20th Century institutions

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, argues Participle‘s Hillary Cottam in the Winter 2010 (Vol.XXXI. No 4) edition of the Harvard International Review.

“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.”

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