Roadmap or compass?

Gathering of Open Science Hardware (GOSH) 2017

A different event

The Open Science Hardware (OSH) community gathered in Switzerland in 2016 to draw their Manifesto, and met again in Chile last March to come up with a Roadmap.

I was truly enchanted by this GOSH crowd (quite literally), by its diversity, commitment, passion, and activism. But also by the way meanings and values were discussed and decisions were taken; it felt most attendees -if not everyone- actually had a voice and that’s pretty uncommon. It was not just any gathering, it had the purpose of building a movement for change, “to reduce barriers between diverse creators and users of scientific tools to support the pursuit and growth of knowledge” (Manifesto). And one key goal is to make open hardware ubiquitous by 2025.

But one thing kept nagging at me, sort of breaking the spell, and that was the word ‘roadmap’. Somehow it felt inadequate. Here some clues why.

Roadmaps’ inadequacy for strategy making

Roadmaps work well when we face simple or complicated problems, but they fail when we deal with complex tasks, and more so when dealing with complex systems while having the goal of changing a deeply entrenched status quo (here an explanation of the difference between complicated and complex). And the movement for open science hardware is precisely aimed at that: change the white-coat-elite-only-science-quo. Could a ‘compass’ instead of a roadmap help the movement carry out a better strategy? What is a compass anyways?

Matt Andrews uses a metaphor that can help us grasp the point. (I’ve changed the names of locations, watch the original exercise here):

Imagine you are in the centre of Chile in 2017, in its city Concepción. You’ve got a map and distance information. How would you get from there to Ushuaia, Argentina? What roads would you use? You are in a car with 4 people. What would you need? How long would it take? What are the assumptions you make along the way?

Think about it.

Photo by gustavo.p.i

Now think about the year 1550. You are in Concepción, Chile, which is the southernmost city at the time, but people know there is more towards the southeast. How would you find the southeast coast? You don’t really know where it is; there is no Ushuaia yet. How would you construct the journey? Would you travel in one big leap? Who would you take as support? How would you send messages back? How would you return once you get there?

Both cases would require very different strategies. In 2017 you can take one or two routes along well-known roads. You can assume roads and gas stations are where the map says. It is easy. All we need to do is to think about the solution others have given us and execute it.

Photo by gustavo.p.i

But going to the south-east coast in 1550 is way different. You don’t know where you are going so you don’t know how to communicate the expected results, you don’t know how long it is going to take, or what’s between you and there. You wouldn’t have known about the countless rainforests, rivers, or encounters with Mapuche people. What you would have to do is to take small steps or journeys of a couple of days, then see what you have learned, map out the territory so you can go backwards, engage with locals (we are totally taking the colonization conflict out of the example here), and hopefully find local guides that tell you how you can cross that area. It’d be unlikely to find a guide that takes you from Concepción to the coast meaning you have to change your guides, change your team, which would include people who can cook, navigate fiords and rivers, traverse rainforests, make rifles and maps, etc. This is a complex task, full of unknowns and you need a strategy that helps you address its complexity.

Compass for nonlinear challenges

So, going back to our actual case, the OSH Roadmap is supposed to take us from here to the 2025 goal. But thinking of the open hardware movement’s strategy in this way can easily make us recreate the fallacy of assuming linearity when dealing with complex issues. We all know creating or furthering a movement, even more if it includes tricky and contested issues like ‘access’, ‘justice’ and ‘democratization’, isn’t an easy or linear task. And neither it is making such big change (ubiquitous by 2025) happen.

By following a roadmap, there is also the danger of having the movement’s theory of change (meaning our assumptions of how change will happen) be “based on a moment of clear perspective in which ‘context’ is understood just enough to enact a grand design for a programme” (Valters, 2015), or in this case a ‘grand design for a strategy’. Therefore, more useful than a ‘roadmap’ might then be ‘compass’, one that can help us “find our way through the fog of complex systems, discovering a path as we go along” (Green, 2015).

And finding our way through requires constant iteration and learning (which require feedback), like the one needed for you to make it back from the southeast coast. A compass-strategy would help activists keep in mind that “plans often reflect best guesses about the future (and about the past too)” and that they “will likely shift over time” (Valters, 2015), allowing for such conscious iteration and learning. A learning-focused strategy could guide movement makers into better adapting to changing and unpredictable conditions, and therefore stay enthusiastic and optimistic.

But what else differentiates a roadmap from a compass? As mentioned, in a compass-type strategy context awareness would be emphasised. The ‘complex dynamics’ involved in spreading OSH should be much more studied, as their positive or negative impacts cannot “be anticipated and addressed without extensive empirical research” (Roadmap draft) (anticipation as different from prediction). The compass-strategy making could include articulating multiple theories of how change will happen, which could help us avoid the ‘grand design’ mistake. Scenario planning processes might be one tool to identify these assumptions.

If we have a roadmap we don’t have much to learn; our assumptions won’t probably change much. We just follow a known road. A compass lets us navigate unknown terrains. And I don’t know you, but I see a lot of unknowns in the how to do it when thinking of the Manifesto and the giant wall of strategic ideas built by the GOSH crowd at the Gathering in March.

How can movement makers ensure adequate learning, iteration and context awareness when there is so much diversity within the movement? What else should a compass-strategy include?