The future belongs to crowds

Mao II, a novel by the American author Don Delillo, opens at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, New York. The scene he describes is perhaps the most surreal event to have ever taken place there — the mass wedding of the so-called Moonies. Picture it: hundreds of brides and grooms, identically dressed on the playing field, being called up to a stage to be married off at random by the founder of the Unification Church Sun Myung Moon. Their quickly taken vows on the platform are witnessed by an assembled mass, friends, family and the curious, spread throughout the stands.

Delillo masterfully distils our collective life — we start with religious fervour and religious scepticism, the suggested relationship between sports fanaticism and fanaticism of other kinds, and we move to higher categories: the constant interplay between anonymity and individualism, between belonging and otherness.

The chapter ends with a bold pronouncement: “The future belongs to crowds”

Crowding-in — drivers of increased public participation

15 years later and Delillo’s assertion seems prescient, more compelling than ever. The crowds of stadia and street protests have spilled over into digital sphere. They clamour and swarm, disperse and connect in interminably recombinant patterns, marshalled by new social and crowd-based platforms. Everywhere — it can seem — organisations are inviting participation on mass scale.

While you may dispute the premise I think there are quite a few good reasons to trust that crowds will continue to play a major role in our future, a future that I characterise as being marked by increased participation and input across most domains of human activity

The first — to nobody’s surprise, I’m sure — is technological. Digital infrastructure has afforded those who are able to access it, unprecedented communication capabilities, further eroding primacy of place and allowing individuals to form communities of interest that span all manner of geographies.

Digital communication, through clever software, also leads to greater opportunities for collaboration — between individuals and individuals, individuals and organisations and organisations between themselves. Whether for project management, team communication, collective decision-making, financing or distributed forms of production, software has allowed more people to work with different people in new and exciting ways.

This leads to an insight from economics. Ronald Coase was a British economist who won a Nobel prize in 1991. One of his most significant contributions to the field was his theory on the transactional nature of the firm. Effectively he posited that firms exist to minimise transaction costs — the costs that it takes to do business between different entities. These include search and information costs, costs to protect trade secrets, bargaining costs and so on. Technology and the associated openness of information, the availability of collaborative software, templates for establishing businesses, a decline on the fees set by government for incorporation, low-cost means of finding financing and producing work — these have all pushed transaction costs down. The mega corporation of the 19th and 20th centuries is under assault from a growing number of smaller outfits, self-employed entrepreneurs and freelancers and alliances and cooperatives that can transact within the marketplace or organise for a particular goal with much lower barriers to entry.

Economist Ronald Coase

This point can be overplayed — there are still many, many behemoths that dominate our economies profiting from economies of scale as well as regulatory advantages but even larger corporations are becoming more fluid and inviting — often tenuously and ineffectively — more participation across all aspects of their business. This too is linked to communication technologies. On the one hand they give individuals and communities of interest — again, those who can access technology — a voice which is public and powerful and liable to grow. In this way — however imperfectly — it makes it necessary for powerful incumbents to pay more attention to their constituents and to engage with, and often struggle with, new forms of accountability. It also, I believe, raises expectations of the types of interactions that are possible. We have become used to being able to participate in many aspects of digital life and we’ve begun to expect the same degree of participation in other aspects of life as well.

Many newer businesses have responded and the power and success of their models — Airbnb, Uber, Wikipedia, even Google and Facebook whose power ultimately derives from the user-generated strength of their algorithms and the size of the networks they command — has served to galvanise start-ups and juggernauts alike.

These new modes of opening up are summarised pithily by a diagram created by Jeremy Heimans at Purpose.

Refugees on the coast of Greece

The last big trend driving an increase in participation and crowd-like behaviour is the depth and scale of the challenges we face around the world. This might sound like a reason to come together and collaborate and it is, but it also makes collaboration necessary. From climate change to anti-biotic resistance to the future of artificial intelligence to the current refugee crisis in Europe we are increasingly grappling with exceptionally complex environmental and social challenges that straddle borders, that show up differently in different locations, that cannot be solved simply by organisations and institutions acting alone. Not that there aren’t counter-narratives here but in reality the practical benefits of isolationism and atomisation tend towards zero in the face of such problems. These are not challenges that you can shut yourself off from. They are mobile. They are existential. They demand coordination.

But if you accept the premise that the world will be more crowd-like in the future, it is natural to ask, is that a good thing? Because when we talk about crowds, heads is collective intelligence, tails is the mob.

The sages of the digital revolution espouse a view where technologies that increase our capacity for communication lead inexorably to a more connected, more frictionless society. But the essence of technology is in its application, not in intention of those who develop it or in the marketing speak of its promoters.

There are lots examples where inviting participation and opening up to the crowd has been counter-productive.

Sometimes this can be hilarious:

Sometimes it can be obscenely cruel:

Sometimes it can be exceptionally dangerous as in the case of the Pentagon’s ill-fated experiment with prediction markets — using collective intelligence to get a better sense of where the next terrorist attack was likely to take place until they realised that this system could actually be profitably gamed by terrorists themselves.

The Pentagon

Stock exchanges are arguably the most significant example of collective intelligence that we have and as we all know that intelligence can fail in spectacular ways.

And if many traditional transaction costs are declining, collective participation and collaboration require and magnify other forms of transaction costs — call them coordination costs — to be successful.

How can we harness the power of crowds? How can we invite participation in a meaningful and positive way?

At Swarm, all the work we do is predicated on leveraging collective intelligence to build broader partnerships that solve social and environmental problems — sometimes through commercial means, sometimes through charitable ones, sometimes as a mix of the two. Our work concentrates at the early stage of the process — what we call Start Out — helping establish the right ideas, principles and structures to help organisations move into Start-Up mode.

What follows is a range of insights around how to start, develop and support productive collaborations and how to invite participation in a productive and equitable way. It focuses mainly on particular projects and collaborations between organisations but I hope that you’ll find a lot of the thinking also applies to collaborations and participative interactions — whether online or otherwise — of all sorts and sizes.

Inviting diversity into teams
“We encounter here the old problem: what happens to democracy when the majority is inclined to vote for racist and sexist laws? … People quite often do not know what they want, or do not want what they know, or they simply want the wrong thing.” Slavoj Zizek

This, for me, raises interesting questions. Zizek is talking about democracy but you can just as easily ask the question of all sorts of collaborations. Can we work with people who we disagree with? How much do we have to disagree with them before we know that working together is bad idea? On what grounds do we need to agree or disagree with them? If the problem is systemic, then almost by definition, it is necessary to seek some points of agreement with organisations and individuals with different views. And while not easy, marking out common ground can help accelerate solutions, where more antagonistic approaches risk cultivating entrenchment of divergent positions, making it necessary to either overpower the opposition or — more likely — to create an enduring stand off. Zizek’s Leninist tendencies make him open to such approaches but, while it’s the choice of all collaborators to set their own boundaries and determine what is acceptable or not, being able to compromise and work together in shaping an approach can often get initiatives further, faster.

Collaborations benefit from diverse casting in other ways as well. An article from professors Brian Uzzi and Jarret Spiro published in 2005 looked at team structure in relation to the success of Broadway Musicals. It found that when the team gathered had little experience of working with one another, productions usually flopped. Where teams were filled with people who had a great deal of experience of working with one another… they flopped too. The secret was in finding a mix of close collaborators and new blood. This insight goes beyond Broadway: creating networks of small worlds is useful not just in accessing new ideas but in socialising them — making them acceptable to wider groups.

Managing for positive outcomes: framing

At the outset of any initiative, Swarm looks to define it. Through this process we can build an understanding of not only what the project is, but of how different actors view it and what they’re prepared to give. We call this process framing and we use a range of tools and techniques to help get us there.

We look to surface issues quickly in order to understand the motivations and values of collaborators. We like to ask a few different questions — what are the hopes and fears for the project? What are the perceived opportunities? What are the perceived barriers? We do this initial temperature gauging work through surveys and face to face interactions. We take time on it because it is important in figuring out what problems need to be solved in order to solve the whole problem. That is to say that individuals and organisations come with baggage: personal and organisational motivations and incentives that are going to play a role in informing the shape of the project , whether you like it or not. Better to understand them early on as this will help to determine whether there is real common ground and whether and how parties can work together.

This process can work within close collaborations and broader collaborations too — digital communities can benefit from articulating concerns and participating in creating the ground rules and standards of conduct that they commit to playing by, rather than simply having those expectations and rules imposed by a community moderator.

The beautiful campus of Bromley By Bow Centre

We like to test collaborations on the ground. One of the best ways to do this is to take potential collaborators into a new space and get them to interact with individuals and organisations already addressing a similar challenge to the one that is proposed. We call these scouts and we ran one recently with a large UK consumer health company at the Bromley By Bow Centre in East London. The team of senior executives spent the whole day being exposed to a radically different way of delivering community health and learning from practitioners and participants who have been evolving an innovative and deeply local approach to community health over the past 30 years.

This process works on a number of levels. It helps to challenge the conventional wisdom built up like so many grains of wheat shovelled into silos across big organisations. By hearing from real practitioners it brings credibility to approaches that are very different to the ones honed in the company. By taking people out of their usual spaces it also helps to remove some of the organisational baggage that comes with any company, freeing people up to think in new ways. It’s also a much more personal way to interact and get people to know each other than spending a few hours in a corporate boardroom. This is crucial, because not only are you trying to understand the new approach, you’re trying to understand each other and to lay the foundation for the new culture that is required to effectively activate a collaboration.

If exercises like surfacing and scouting help to shape the vision of a project, articulating that vision is another simple but crucial step in moving forward. While the apotheosis of this articulation is usually a pithy one-liner — and it doesn’t get much better than the Greyston Bakery’s “We don’t hire people to bake brownies, we bake brownies to hire people.” — it’s crucial to elaborate on the articulation, flesh it out at various times, so that it is clear in both expanded and reduced forms. Going to the one or two sentence version too soon means that there is too much room for interpretation and when you are trying to land something across a wider partnership and collaboration, where some and indeed most participants weren’t in the room when the articulation was developed, then communicating — clearly, concisely and creatively — what this is, is key in building up wider interest and buy-in.

From user focused design to community centred design

But collaborations can and should extend much further than the teams that create them. As we’ve seen, crowds — customers, stakeholders, citizens — want to participate and are being invited to participate. How can this be made in a meaningful way?

I mentioned Uber earlier. Everyone by now is fairly well versed on their rise to fame and coming world domination. Leaving aside, for a moment, its success comes down to their relentless focus on customer experience and product. Simply put, they vanquish the competition on all metrics that matter to customers: price, speed, convenience, customer service. But if their focus on the user has been exemplary — they have neglected other elements of the service.

Uber, Uber, Everywhere

In a recent piece by Sam Knight in the Guardian an Uber driver was quoted as saying the following: “I guarantee you one thing, Uber don’t see drivers as humans. I don’t care what they tell you.” The story paints a compelling picture of a company obsessed with using drivers as inputs, of out-competing in order to establish a market position where they can capture as much value as possible from the transaction. Drivers are managed algorithmically, the technology behind the platform allocating jobs on the basis of strict rules. In disputes, they will often side with riders against drivers — they have enough of the latter on their platform.

Whether or not this will be the undoing of Uber or whether or not they will have to shift tactics is hard to say. But it does raise fundamental questions about the ethics of design. Design thinking has shifted from user-centred design, to human centred design as popularised by Ideo but even human centred design is insufficient when it doesn’t account for the wider system in which the human finds itself — and it makes itself vulnerable where it doesn’t engage with the needs of every stakeholder.

There is much to like about Ideo’s design thinking approach — the way it starts with the needs of the people that are being “designed for” but we think that it’s possible to build on this approach — call it community-centred design or just swarming. The approach is more inclusive and systemic. We start with the needs of key actors within the system — end users, beneficiaries, service providers, governments, funders — and create a process that puts these actors in a room together with creatives, designers, developers who can start to bring things to life. These sessions can be used from the beginning — to first of all identify the right questions and then to define the needs and create the vision — as well as when it comes to building out solutions — to prototype products and services and to build an operating and funding framework around it.

A Scriberia-penned scribe for the Capital C project with MacMillan

This scribe details some of the work we did with MacMillan Cancer Care in London. Working initially over several sessions with individuals going through cancer treatment and cancer survivors as well as MacMillan staff, we explored the current support infrastructure available in London and co-created prototypes of services that could help fill the gaps. This was the starting point for wider conversations around collaboration that we hope to use to pull in more service providers and relevant groups to start testing some of these prototypes with communities.

One of the clearest insights delivered by this process is the need to create a safe space for beneficiaries — in this case cancer patients and survivors — to participate. Too often we tend to design for people — we take a few insights and then set about funnelling them down the channels that we think are right, channels that often privilege our voice and our approach. In the world of social impact, the beneficiaries of projects are often those who have the softest voice. They are excluded in other domains and are too easily excluded by processes and lexicons that do little to give them the opportunity to contribute. As designers, it is essential to open up the process and to do things differently. This might mean having more sessions that you would otherwise in order to help surface voice. It might mean making sure that as the designer or project leader, that you are massively outnumbered in these initial sessions to allow them to dictate the conversation. It might also mean giving members of the beneficiary community the ability and skills to undertake the initial needs assessments — in an immersive or more traditional way. In my experience this will help you get to the right questions. And you will also start to build the confidence of beneficiaries to become more active participants, to unlock their creativity in a way that can ultimately build stronger, more sustainable solutions.

Lovely little summary from the digital collective, Made By Many

But even with all of these insights and tools, the process is a messy one. You can get the right people, frame everything up and bring cutting edge expertise to bear and things can still end up moving in directions that you never anticipated. The challenge is in realising that this is actually a good thing. Complex interactions between many different people will give rise to an array of emergent possibilities. Allowing for and being alive to those possibilities is fundamental. Otherwise, all of the work done up front is effectively a chimera: a way of paying lip-service to collaboration and crowd participation while simply reconfirming incoming biases. At Swarm we frame up our collaborative doing and making sessions — our swarms — by introducing key challenges and supplementing them with background and evidence. Then we let people go wild: self-organising around the areas they want to participate in and working to progress ideas forward. And the process is iterative. At its best, it is continually developing and refining propositions through crowd input.

Funding, ownership and non-financial support

I want to talk about ownership in the context of funding and commercial interest. Wherever there is cash, there is an ownership issue, How you divide up the spoils of any collaboration is a legitimate challenge that needs to be explored and solved. This is even more of an issue when participants and crowds are driving business models, when it is their use that strengthens the algorithm or when they’re content is used to build the network.

Traditionally, we’ve seen the founders of start-up businesses, social enterprises and charities go cap in hand to whoever might help them. In the commercial world, friends, families and other dupes might be supplanted by venture capitalists. In the charitable world, the funders tend to be foundations, trusts and the public, who are returned to on a rotating basis ad infinitum.

The problem with this model has always been that, as you seek more and more money, you, as an entrepreneur or project leader tend to become less and less aligned with your funders. This might sound counter-intuitive and of course, funders and investors want their investments to succeed but they will also, invariably, have different timelines, expectations and motivations. Organisations and businesses have to make compromises and — while I’m generalising — the systems tend to reward those with capital, because capital is a scarce resource relative to start-ups clamouring for investment. And while the constraints put on organisations as well as the support offered by investors can be useful, it still tends to privilege the moneyed side of the equation.

The trouble is even more acute in the commercial world, where VCs have an avowed interest in maximising their take and have settled on a model that is mainly based around placing bets — hoping that 1 in 10 of their businesses come off, while accepting that five of them will probably be failures. And while they offer traditional support and guidance, they often demonstrate a lack of creativity in thinking about more creative means of support.

The good news is that financing and funding structures are already starting to be transformed. Crowd-funding is already a significant factor in the funding landscape and it can be used in several different ways — from validating ideas and raising working capital for limited first runs of production through sites like Kick-starter to selling equity stakes directly through sites like Crowdcube. These sites help to reduce costs of capital for entrepreneurs and help raise their profile and negotiating position vis a vis larger financiers.

Financial innovation is also helping to develop new — or repurpose and popularise — old methods of ownership. Quasi-equity is a blanket terms that covers financing that falls somewhere between debt and equity. Revenue participation products entitle the holder to a share of revenue generated by an organisation, usually above a hurdle rate. These products can be used in relation to commercial ventures but also social enterprises and charities that engage in trading.

You can also create quasi-equity (or equity) products with capped returns, which means that your contract (and your claim to profit, revenue share, etc.) expires after you’ve taken a certain amount of wealth from the company. This, as Joshua Vial, of Enspiral points out — seems more appropriate for early stage funders. Not wishing to denigrate the work they do to help new initiatives get off the ground, it does seem right to question whether they should be — through holding preferential shares or similar instruments — entitled to a share of profit ad infinitum, especially when companies grow to a size where their input is no longer required or where they’ve ceased to offer much support to the company at all.

For organisations just starting out and even for organisations that are well established, it is also possible to look beyond strictly financial support. Too often we think that this is the only means by which organisations can take the next step but there are exciting developments in non-financial means of support emerging as well. One of our projects, Good For Nothing, is a community of almost 4,000 individuals in 13 countries around the world that come together to support socially-purposed organisations working to create impact. As the name suggests, the support is strictly non-financial — even the spaces that are used and the food that is consumed, is donated.

Another great example of non-traditional exchange is the Economy of Hours scheme or ECHO. Based in East London, it allows small businesses, sole traders and start-ups to pledge a certain amount of hours of support to other businesses in the network, skill-swapping for growth and development on their own terms and building resilience in the process.

Scaling for impact vs. scaling for scale

Crowds and collaborations seem inherently to imply scale and it’s a truism that, whether you’re out to make some money, create social change or do both, growing your organisation is fundamental. But scale is problematic: it is too often confused with other words like viability and success, which anyone who has a favourite mom and pop diner or local pub will know not to be true. Moreover, it is often interpreted in the bluntest way possible — rolling out a standardised product or service from market to market.

We know instinctively and through experience, however, that the same problems — whether commercial, social or environmental — require different solutions in different places. We know that products, services, pieces of technology interact with prevailing cultural conditions, local economic circumstances, indigenous rituals and ways of getting things done that need to be accounted for. The history of expansion — whether political, commercial, developmental — is littered with metaphorical shipwrecks, driven down by hubris. Whether it’s the fish processing plant built on lake Turkana that failed to attract any local workers because they don’t eat fish or MTV’s initial launch into Europe which involved broadcasting American content in a single language or even Twitter’s failure to design a platform that effectively curbs trolling from a small but outsized group of people, getting to scale in a sustainable way requires active and ongoing engagement.

At Swarm we have a saying — solve for it locally and network for the rest. Solutions need to work at a local level but to solve a systemic problem, they also need to work — or to interact with other solutions providers — at regional, national and international levels. Sometimes, this will mean scaling a product or service as is but more often than not, it will involve significant tweaking and/or coordination with other groups.

Back in East London Bromley by Bow Centre started off as a church-based community initiative. pioneering some of the cleverest and most holistic community health initiatives in the UK. Bromley by Bow has not scaled in a conventional sense. Rob Trimble, their CEO talks about translation — working closely with community providers in other locations to help them learn actively from their experience and build health services that respond to their needs.

There are other approaches: joint ventures with locally connected partners, franchise models that are owned and operated by local participants, open-source scaling that allows local communities to adapt the original initiative in a way that works for them. While all of these involve various degrees of risk and of letting go, they can often be much more effective in accomplishing a goal, especially if it’s for social and environmental impact and change. They can be more effective in inviting true participation from local communities — in part by being paired with new approaches to ownership and support, community-centred design and other more inclusive tools — and therefore have a better chance of embedding themselves in those communities, being taken up by them, being used, tweaked and improved.

If approached in the right way, they also offer a greater chance for learning, where distributed networks communicate what they’ve learned to the benefit of others experimenting with similar approaches. Companies have often been extremely poor at this, building up silos within silos and failing to put in the right infrastructure and incentives to share and learn. Again, digital technology makes this theoretically easier but needs to be framed in the right way to ensure participation.

From the participation scale to participation patchwork

Crowds and mass participation, therefore, can be marshalled and directed by different strategies using different tools — from framing and surfacing to using design thinking, from in-person collective working to web-based platforms, from inviting people into the process of shaping, making, supporting and owning things.

At the beginning of this talk I highlighted Jeremy Heimans participation scale but perhaps a better way to look at it is a suite of participation options — a patchwork — where different versions can be configured and remixed accordingly. It’s also worth noting the inter-relationship between these tools and approaches, the fact that inviting participation in one area can and will open up questions about participation — and compensation for value creation — in others. From that perspective, it is not about casting a toe into the waters of collective working but developing a coherent strategy that proceeds from an assessment of wider, systemic issues and needs and is agile enough to adapt to complex and changing conditions.

This world is emerging. It is a ramshackle collection of innovative experiments and initiatives and new narratives which buck up against and intersect with older versions of how we should act, work and live. At Swarm, we like to say that we are in between stories. As creative people — designers, developers, entrepreneurs, artists — it is our responsibility to write the new stories that we want told, to communicate across the gulfs of time, space and outlook that can divide us and to invent the interfaces, tools, products and services that can help us get there.

Crowd participation is a fundamental part of the new story. It isn’t going away but the fact of crowd participation is not an a priori panacea. It needs to be shaped and managed and experimented with but in a way that is more open, more distributed and more focused on trust than has been conventional in the past. When done right — and there will be lots of bumps along the way — it gives us the chance to all be more creative and to participate more meaningfully in the world that surrounds us.


This is an amended version of a talk I gave to Mass Assembly in Dundee, Scotland which was wonderfully hosted by Creative Dundee and Creative Edinburgh. Many thanks to Steven Drost, whose insightful comments around community design, which I’ve liberally sprinkled over that section.

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