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I'm hoping you can help.

A number of projects that I am currently working on, or in the process of developing, all seem to be begging the same fundamental question. Some initial answers come from things I'm already familiar with. But I want your help finding some from further afield.

The question is this:

What are the best examples of public services, employers, institutions, businesses and technologies that combine radical personal autonomy with an intense focus on responsibility and common purpose?

Take the recent political fiasco that prompted the US Government shutdown, and very nearly triggered a default. It has prompted superficial recrimination but also deeper reflection on the structures and conventions of the US political system that enabled it to happen.

As for the recrimination, much (okay most) of the blame and vitriol, some of it very funny, is aimed at the wackier members of the Republican caucus in Congress.

But the deeper soul searching (see for example George Packer in the latest Prospect magazine) identifies a range of underlying causes. These comprise a toxic brew of gerrymandered Congressional seats with highly partisan constituencies,  open primaries and unfettered access to private campaign fundraising, within a context of social and demographic change that is turning the US from red to blue. The result, in Congress at least, is a new breed of Republican politicians who when it comes to considering the wider consequences of their actions frankly, don't give a damn. They have near total autonomy, deeply entrenched antipathy to the other side, but little, if any sense of responsibility beyond their core vote.

It wasn't supposed to be this way. The much vaunted system of checks and balances designed by the founding fathers was supposed to ensure that dialogue and compromise would be the watchwords of US governance, rather than histrionics and grandstanding.

So is it the design that's now at fault, or the actors operating within it? Structure or agency? What role can conscious design play in overcoming this classic tension? How can we design environments or contexts in which agency is maximised, but pro-social structures are reinforced?

This question is central to many of the live projects I am working on, or about to get started. Take the following questions for example:

  • how can we create an environment that unlocks the social enterprise potential of the nation's sub-post offices?
  • how can businesses free workers from the burden of hierarchy, dependence and centralised control, whilst generating better overall performance?
  • how could a major UK supermarket retailer free its stores and local staff to generate local social and commercial benefits in whatever way they see fit?
  • how could we design better assistive technologies to help disabled people live fuller, more independent lives?
  • I have come across some fascinating and inspiring examples where dependency and collective inertia has been replaced with initiative and entrepreneurial behaviour.

    For example, when it comes to employers, there are the radical work organisations, of the kind described in the fascinating organisational design manifesto of MattBlack Systems, a manufacturing firm in SW England. Written by the 'system designer' (he would no longer describe himself as a CEO) Julian Wilson - an RSA Fellow I first met a long while ago, it describes how the firm has done away with many of the organisational structures and processes that constrain people's talent, initiative, motivation and ability. It is a 'habitat' designed and cultivated with minimal parameters and structures, but maximum environmental resources and feedback, to encourage what Julian calls 'responsible autonomy'. The result has been a transformation in the way people work and the success of the business.

    Another  example comes from the world of assistive technology.  There are a range of combined technical and social innovations that seem to couple freedom with personal responsibility. For example, in the case of Blue Assist/Cloudina, a group from Belgium who I met last month, it seems that this is even possible in cases where the individuals in question have historically been assumed to be highly dependent for everything they do. Watch the video to find out how.

    Blue Assist/Cloudina

    Of course the world of social enterprise is full of people and organisations striving to combine radical autonomy and collective purpose. But what are the examples from other domains? More importantly, what are the design principles that animate these systems? Can they be translated to other contexts? There is a lot to be learnt from systems and complexity thinking, but why have these approaches still not permeated most mainstream organisations and institutions?

    Design principles are both explicit and implicit in the examples above. One such principle is the importance of immediate and unmediated feedback from the external environment. Then there are a range of ways in which relationships, roles and responsibilities are fundamentally reframed. For example the video shows how Ithaka social care workers became coaches, not providers or carers; the MattBlack factory floor workers became interdependent micro-entrepreneurs.

    I'd be interested to hear your examples, and what you think the design features of such self-directed, but responsible and purposeful systems are. Who knows, maybe someone in Washington might be desperate enough to listen.


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