Author and journalist Charles Leadbeater is a leading authority on innovation and creativity in organisations. He speaks to Oliver Lindberg about his new book, We‑Think, and its vision of the collaborative future
.net: What will the future be like as predicted by We-Think?
Charles Leadbeater: One in which more people than ever can be participants, in contributing their knowledge and ideas to larger collaborative projects. Culture, commerce and politics will be increasingly inflected by a growing culture of participation and collaboration.
.net: The internet has driven collaborative culture for years, Web 2.0 has been around for ages – why is it still revolutionary?
CL: It may have been around for ages for you and perhaps me, but for most people it’s still quite new. The really interesting thing, I think, is the way that people are experimenting with something more than just networking online. We’re experimenting with creating new ways to organise ourselves, often without top down, hierarchical organisations of all. What is new is not the technology but what we’re learning to achieve with our forms of social organisation.
.net: How can businesses survive in this new world? How can you successfully combine open and collaborative approaches with closed, traditional ones?
CL: Well it will be tricky, which is why within so many businesses there’s a kind of civil war going on between those who want to defend old but declining models and those who want to explore new, more open but untried models of organisation. You can see this civil war in almost all organisations that centre of the organisation of information and knowledge, from Microsoft to the British Library and the BBC. The interesting space will be in the middle, the ground the computer games companies operate in. Purely voluntary activity cannot sustain itself in the long run at scale without providing a way for people to earn a living and pay for the groceries. So I predict we will see open source and wiki style organisations seeking ways to sustain themselves economically. At the same time older, closed organisations are having to learn how to open up to collaboration: the BBC and the British Library are good examples.
.net: Your book predicts the growth of open source design. What kind of implications will this have for copyright?
CL: The implication is that copyright will have to adjust and become more sophisticated but it will not go away. Open source projects are not against intellectual property. They rely on a very different notion of intellectual property and manage it very delicately. When more people are collaborating to create ideas it becomes much more difficult to disentangle who had which idea. Either we’ll need collaborative revenue sharing and business models or more sophisticated ways to recognise each person’s contribution.
.net: The Guardian thought both you and Clay Shirky, author of Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations, seem “nave about the desirable social changes being unleashed in new media”. Are you a bit too idealistic?
CL: Well, there are plenty of people around being pragmatic and managerial. I think the way that the web changes how people can participate and organise themselves is potentially very radical and on balance could be good for democracy, equality and liberty. That’s why I’m hopeful. But as I argue in the book, it won’t come without downsides. I’m hopeful on balance. It all depends what we make of the opportunities the web creates.
.net: What’s the danger of extreme openness and decentralisation?
CL: The danger is that any recipe taken too far will backfire. Decentralisation works when there are lots of independent producers who can work and innovate together at low cost. It doesn’t work when there are heavy fixed costs or big risks – ie decentralised chemical plants. Openness is great but it brings risks of loss of privacy and security. The biggest danger, I think, is that openness and sharing will backfire, people will lose trust in it, and that will license a re-regulation of the web and top down control, witness what the government is suggesting ISPs do to regulate file sharing.
.net: You still have to have some control in place to avoid complete anarchy and chaos, don’t you? How do you strike a healthy balance?
CL: We-Think communities are not a free-for-all. They’re not pure anarchy and they’re not egalitarian. There’s often a social and work hierarchy within these communities – otherwise they wouldn’t take decisions. There still need to be some rules and yardsticks. The difference is that these tend to come from within the community: governance tends to be more democratic and much more transparent. All bottom-up doesn’t work. The trick is to design a few top-down rules of thumb that allow a mass of bottom-up engagement in which people can start to coordinate and self-organise.
.net: How did you write the book? It’s a collaborative effort itself, isn’t it?
CL: Yes, partly. I put much of the first draft online for people to comment on. I got about 257 responses. Most of those were messages of encouragement, which was great, but about 30 were really detailed comments and critiques, many of which changed the way I wrote the book. It was a mixture of old-style writing at my desk and editing by my publisher and new-style openness. I’ve released the first three chapters on my site for free download and there’s a YouTube video, which so far has had about 40,000 hits and scores of comments.
.net: How did you advise Tony Blair’s government on the internet? Didn’t they realise its opportunities themselves?
CL: No, not really. The UK is well behind other places in adapting the internet for public good and politics. In the US, part of the excitement about Obama is about his use of the net to draw in young people. Estonia and the Philippines in their different ways are well ahead of us.
.net: What effect could this new collaborative world have on our democracy if really welcomed and supported by politicians?
CL: I think it should be good for democracy. More people will have more voice. The influence of big money should be reduced. There should be greater diversity of issues debated. The mainstream television media doesn’t do a good job of debating politics: the web can do better. The web is a great tool for mobilising people at low cost. So I think it should help to mobilise people and re-energise them in established democracies, but most importantly it will be vital to the spread of democracy in the developing world.
.net: You were on the advisory board of the Social Innovation Camp, held in London in April. Its aim was to find ways that easy-to-build Web 2.0 tools can be used to develop solutions to social challenges. Can you tell us a bit about the outcome?
CL: It’s just an early sign of the huge potential for the web to be used for social good by connecting people together to share resources in new ways that should particularly benefit the least well off. We are just at the very beginnings of understanding how to use the web for social good.