How might we open source cultural technology?

Open Source is about more than just Code

Back on 16 & 17 April, I went to the most fascinating conference I have ever attended — Open Source // Open Society — which brought together some of the leading thinkers & doers from around the world in Wellington, New Zealand to explore how the evolution of Open Source in the tech space, relates to creating a more open society.

Props to Open Source // Open Society for beaut design!

OS//OS was a hive of bright minds from New Zealand, the States, Australia and beyond.

My friends & colleagues at Enspiral (a social innovation collective) put on a show alongside our new friends at Github (the world’s largest host for code), and the team at Loomio (open source, online decision making tool). There was people from the Government sector, Business, Civil Society, Social Enterprise and more in the room — a truly amazing melting pot, wrapped up in an experience designed to bridge worlds, spur new conversations, and move people to action. At least the reviews here and here suggest so.

Full disclosure: I’ve been an Enspiral Member since the early days, but wasn’t involved in organising the OS//OS Conference.

Open Source…. Everything?

Open-source software is software whose source code is published and made available to the public, enabling anyone to copy, modify and redistribute the source code without paying royalties or fees. — Wikipedia

Much of OS//OS focused on expanding the philosophy of ‘open source’ beyond code, and into new and exciting realms.

Some sessions which blew my mind included Indigenous perspectives, similarities and differences to open source communities, the potential for ‘Open Design’, open sourcing Government Policy creation & amendment processes, and a few others.

I was delighted to be asked to co-run a session at the conference (with my good pal & conspirator at Lifehack, Chelsea) called a ‘World Cafe’ — an event format which walks groups of people through several stages of questions and dialogue, which builds a shared collective intelligence as ideas and insights are layered on top of one another. We used World Cafe specifically because it was an example of an open source ‘Cultural Technology’ — a process which any one can pick up and use, build on, tweak and change. It’s common for facilitators to build, craft and improve these sorts of processes over time — much as coding communities would improve code bases, however these cultural technologies are often harder to share as they’re not “common” in format.

This gave me an idea:

Our hastily put together ‘Open Space’ invitation at OS//OS to get the conversation started

One of the conference features was ‘Open Space’ — another accessible cultural technology which is generally used to bubble up and give a platform for the ideas and questions that inevitably emerge during experiences like OS//OS. We jumped on the chance to explore what it would take to open source more of the work we do to develop new and improve existing cultural technologies.

Our work ranges from small ‘cultural hacks’ such as daily personal check ins & check outs (I first encountered these at Enspiral), to adapting and changing a process called Proaction Cafe into a project called Collaboration Cafe, and now we’re spinning out more and more cultural technology through the likes of Loomio, Lifehack & Enspiral.

Our open space slot arrived, and I’d arranged to meet 2 people to have a yarn. About 10 people ended up coming for the conversation from a wide range of backgrounds, skill sets and experiences. The conversation roamed through some interesting topics, and I frantically tried to harvest the gems as they emerged. Here’s a visual run down:

Where we began… the provocation for the korero if you will

We quickly found that we needed to gain some shared language about what we meant by “cultural technology”. We talked a little about how certain processes can be used by an individual or group to intentionally have conversations, create feelings, or spark experiences. Often they underpin most of our world subconsciously — such as formal & informal greetings, but sometimes they’re much more overt — such as an official welcome by a dignitary, or a pōwhiri (a Māori welcome). Often we string many of these processes/technologies together to create longer experiences — such as events, conferences, hackathons, bootcamps and more.

Well who is it for? A good place to start

As we gained clarity on the language, we also needed to gain clarity on who this cultural tech would actually be used by. We realised there are several groups who are already users, and potential first movers, such as:

  • facilitators
  • consultants
  • event designers & managers
  • community champions
  • service & UX designers

These people may mingle from time to time, but rarely talk about how their work reinforces one another, and that more time spent sharing amongst this community of practice would rapidly advance our understanding of design, innovation and collaboration.

The Barriers

Recognising that not only do these people not often meet, there’s also some other curve balls we’d have to get past to open source cultural technology, such as:

“Process Is Power”

Some people who do this work commercially may be possessive about their process & techniques, rather than the unique blend of how they deliver it, what works at what time etc. They think they’ve developed the “secret sauce”, and they’re going to protect it.

(Editors Answer) Get over yourself. You probably beg, borrow and steal from people all the time. Recognise it’s an art, not a science — you’ll get hired on the quality of your outcomes and relationships, not your “secret sauce”.

Lack of Shared Language

Developers have HTML & CSS, Musicians have notation, Cooks have recipes & instructions, Electricians have visual symbols…

We recognise that there is very little ‘shared language’ — written or visual — for the users of cultural technology.

(Editors Answer) Let’s start developing shared visual & written language asap!

Explaining The Nuance

As many other art forms, there’s so many nuances and details which go into creating amazing experiences, how could we ever possibly convey the nuance?

(Editors Answer) We don’t have to convey the nuance — we need to convey the “recipe”, the “ingredients” & the “method” — cooks can’t define the taste of something, but they still share their approach.

Understanding The Lineage

In some cases, simply seeing or knowing about a particular cultural technology is not enough. Without the context of where it came from, what philosophy it comes from, how, where and why it would be used — it’s essentially useless.

(Editors Answer) Let’s build this into our way of sharing the elements which make up the cultural technology — name the top 3 other processes/philosophy that this draws on. Perhaps use a similar ‘change tracking’ and ‘forking’ annotations that Github uses.

So the conversation moved to the practicalities of what an open source repository may look like and need to do — the next few post it notes relate to these functions:

Being able to search the database of cultural technology by the Outcome it was intended to create was a fascinating idea. So for example; enable a group to gain a shared sense of vision and purpose, might be something you can find several approaches for.

We also decided that words alone were probably inadequate for explaining a process or experience; there’s now an opportunity to use multiple media types to bring the process to life through pictures, videos, songs and anything else people may use. Everything from videos of a group going through a process, to an infographic, a journey map or otherwise, were envisioned as useful. We might need some formats to help people explain things, such as this one created for modular graphic design — Patternlab.io

Through all of our experiences, we all resonated with the idea that you can’t take the ‘Social’ out of ‘Social Process’ (another term for Cultural Technology), so a listing or communication function was needed for people who had experience with this technology. This was also backed up in one of the plenary sessions where the open source code community mentioned that they still heavily rely on people to interpret and pair on some of the code to help make it fully make sense.

Our final thoughts from the session…

We were left with an overwhelming feeling that Github in its current form wouldn’t work for hosting and open sourcing cultural technologies, but that creating something similar would be an important step in building a global community of practitioners who were creating, collaborating and improving these technologies.

We feel that whilst this is the nascency of our discussion, it is one which was had before which gave life to the Art of Hosting community and resources (read the story here). If you followed any of my links to resources throughout this blog, you may well have found them to be text heavy, or full of .doc files and .pdf’s.

One of the messages hammered home at OS//OS was that…

PDF files are where information goes to die

… they’re just about the least collaborative document format we have available to us, and they’re woeful at being able to copy, paste and improve — in general. We have amazing tools these days (a huge leap on from 2007 when many of the Art of Hosting resources were developed), and we live in the age of Google Docs, Murally, InVision and other collaborative design and documentation tools.

Creating an open source repository for cultural technology is not beyond our bounds, but it’s going to need people to design, build and develop it much like any software project does.

We don’t have all the answers, so please jump in if anything here has sparked your interest — we (Enspiral & friends) are committed to sharing our knowledge and building tools to make it easier to collaborate. We rely on cultural technology as virtually all organisations around the world do, and we know there’s some amazing people who could help us move things forward — so get in touch and help us open source cultural technology.

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