A collective mind — Part One

File 03-06-15 16 03 55 1 The collective mind challenge 

An attractive side of our (Knowledge Federation’s) Tesla and the Nature of Creativity 2015 project is that it has allowed us to develop and propose a solution to an intriguing long-standing scientific open problem – whose practical relevance cannot be overstated!

Vannevar Bush called attention to this problem in 1945, in his article “As We May Think”. Having, as the US Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, supervised some 6000 leading scientists in the World War 2 effort to stay ahead of the enemy, Bush wrote this article to alert the scientists that, with war being over, there was still one strategically central open problem that they needed to focus on and tackle:

“Professionally our methods of transmitting and reviewing the results of research are generations old and by now are totally inadequate for their purpose. […] The difficulty seems to be, not so much that we publish unduly in view of the extent and variety of present-day interests, but rather that publication has been extended far beyond our present ability to make real use of the record. The summation of human experience is being expanded at a prodigious rate, and the means we use for threading through the consequent maze to the momentarily important item is the same as was used in the days of square-rigged ships.”

Bush urged the scientists to develop suitable technology that would enable us to collaboratively interconnect documents and ideas into patterns of meaning – as a single mind would when thinking.  And he pointed to microfilm as a candidate technology.

In 1948, in the last chapter of his seminal “Cybernetics”, Norbert Wiener  pointed to the practical importance of Bush’s call. A cybernetic view of the world might be to look at the whole of our civilization as a system, and ask what should communication or feedback in that system be like to afford us control over this system’s effects on its environment – or for our civilization to be sustainable, as we might say this today. Wiener quoted Bush’s article in an argument that our conventional communication is not fulfilling this role. In this argument, he further showed that our communication tends to leave some of the vitally important insights emanating from the sciences invisible to policy makers and  public. Cybernetics itself was his attempt to provide a reference system in which this large anomaly in our communication could be seen and taken care of.

In 1951 Bush’s article inspired Doug Engelbart to envision a world where digital computers, equipped with interactive video terminals and connected into a global network, enabled us contemporary people to co-create solutions to increasingly complex and urgent problems we would be facing:

“Many years ago, I dreamed that digital technology could greatly augment our collective human capabilities for dealing with complex, urgent problems”, Doug recalled in a 1995 interview. “Computers, high-speed communications, displays, interfaces — it’s as if suddenly, in an evolutionary sense, we’re getting a super new nervous system to upgrade our collective social organisms. I dreamed that people were talking seriously about the potential of harnessing that technological and social nervous system to improve the collective IQ of our various organizations. Then I dreamed that we got strategic and began to form cooperative alliances of organizations, employing advanced networked computer tools and methods to develop and apply new collective knowledge.”

To pursue this vision, Engelbart later created a research lab where the technology that ultimately marked the personal computer revolution was  developed  (see the Web documentary Invisible Revolution).

I am using the collective mind metaphor to point to a larger vision that these three thinkers shared. Each of them, namely, saw the production and sharing of knowledge (which I will be calling knowledge work) as a system within a larger system; each of them realised that substantial or more accurately dramatic improvements could be reached by developing knowledge work, and corresponding technology, as they may best suit their various roles within that system — just as a nervous system or more generally a mind would naturally evolve to provide certain specific vital functions in an organism. Each of those three visionary thinkers  focused on a specific role:

  • Bush emphasized the role of organizing information to bring  the momentarily important item to the forefront  (as a well-functioning mind would focus the organism’s awareness on, say, the fact that it is walking toward a wall)
  • Wiener was focusing on the control or guidance function (similar to the mind’s role in controlling the organism’s muscles)
  • Engelbart’s focus was on the higher (“IQ”) functions such as problem solving

(I should note in passing that this collective mind vision was of course shared by other visionary thinkers and doers as well. It inspired, for instance, systems  scientist Stafford Beer to develop a collective mind-like IT-powered system linking the economy and the governance in Allende’s Chile. While the 1973 military coup prevented this valuable socio-technical experiment from revealing its value in long-term use, it did provide a way to demonstrate that the collective mind approach can contribute to a resilient economy, which can function even in times of disruption – a valuable insight, in the context of the kind of challenges we might be facing in the future.  The collective mind was also what Buckminster Fuller had in mind when he created his World Game, and proposed it to the US government (see the beginning of my blog post Holoscope for the Buckminster Fuller Challenge). Fuller claimed that the collective mind evolution was what was needed in order to move from the competitive  international politics and policy to a co-creative one – and in that way make a systemic basis for a global culture of abundance, which had been promised, and, he claimed, was also in principle enabled, by science and technology.)

It is clear that this collective mind-style evolution is not what’s been going on. We have recently seen a prodigious growth in information technology, but this growth has not been matched by corresponding evolution in human knowledge-work systems and institutions.  In the academia, we largely still do our job as we used to – by writing, peer-reviewing and publishing conventional articles. And the media informing professionals still publish the same kind of news as before – by using their conventional workflows and media. While the desktop, filing cabinet, and mailbox are now conveniently re-created in the digital medium of our personal computers, the computing revolution has failed to revolutionize workflows and processes  in the new technology.

We have not yet responded to Bush’s already 70-years old admonition – to complement the conventional publishing of documents with knowledge curation.  A result is that “we are drowning in information”, as Neil Postman famously observed.

Still more important, however, is the way our society and culture have been changing under the influence of new media. Historically, the academia had a central role in our society – the role of custodianship of reliable, well-founded and high-quality knowledge; and beyond that, the custodianship of good art, good culture, good values, good professional know-how… We have, however, not yet found a way to implement this role in the new media, or even seriously tried to do that – lacking the collective mind self-identity, which is the subject of this essay.

A result of this lack of evolutionary guidance in our ‘official’ or sanctioned knowledge work is that the power of the new media technology to shape our ethics, aesthetics and worldview has been co-opted by commercial and trivial interests. And that the new knowledge media may have diminished the cultural role of the experts and the time-tested quality standards,  as Andrew Keen claims.

2 A difference to be made

I said that the practical relevance of this problem cannot be overstated. What does this mean? How can a scientific problem ever be so practically relevant that we cannot emphasise its relevance strongly enough?

We have over the years developed a collection of vignettes (short real-life stories with poignant messages) and arguments to help reveal and communicate this centrally important guiding insight.

One of the approaches we have worked with was to imagine the global knowledge work not as a mind but as a mechanism or algorithm; and to ask the audience to make a thought experiment – to think about the possibility of improving its efficiency and effectiveness by, say 5%; and then to think of that as a contribution to human knowledge. How large would it be? Obviously, this sort of contribution would vastly overshadow anything we could do by simply contributing knowledge – because we would be augmenting the effects of all existing and future contributions to knowledge by 5%! In the first 7 minutes of this recording our 2009 evangelizing talk “What is Knowledge Federation” at Trinity College Dublin, we showed – by taking recourse in a suitable vignette – that the range of possible improvements is much larger than 5%. In the vignette we traced the development of post-war sociology as example, and showed that  Pierre Bourdieu’s key strategic insight – that the largest contribution to knowledge in sociology would not result from adding more knowledge, but from improving the way knowledge work is socially organised – holds even more  strongly when extended to our knowledge work and our society at large.

Another approach was to look at our contemporary condition – that we urgently need reliable information to align our awareness and coordinate our action. And that the way knowledge work or specifically public informing is organised – as broadcasting of contradicting opinions – leaves us disoriented and confused. A visit of two high-profile scientists contradicting one another on the subject of the climate change gave us an opportunity to frame this argument as a vignette – see Knowledge Work Has a Flat Tire vignette. With this vignette we introduced the  Knowledge Federation to the Silicon Valley, at our 2011 workshop at Triple Helix IX conference at Stanford University (see below). We gave our vignette this title to highlight that trying to take care of our problems by producing more knowledge of whatever kind is quite like pressing the gas pedal in a car that has a flat tire; the nature of our situation is such that we must first take care of a structural or systemic defect.

In “Thrivability Strategy”, the book manuscript I am now working on (for which the introduction is brief an already fairly readable), I show that a suitable collective mind is what can now make a difference between our present non-sustainable global trends, and global thriving. At the “Visions of Possible Worlds” conference in Milan in 2003, I offered this very concise explanation why developing suitable communication could be the natural strategy for making a desirable  world also possible.

It is not difficult to see why the collective mind-style re-evolution in knowledge work (where we co-evolve and co-specialize to give our collective organisms the right kind of awareness, control, and other core capabilities) might now yield the kind of improvements in efficiency and effectiveness, in knowledge work and even of our work in general, that is suggested by our metaphor. Why it could give our society similar advantages as a well-developed mind would to an organism, compared to an organism whose neurons are only broadcasting information, and competing for the limited bandwidth of the conscious mind by simply broadcasting more. By working in this new way, we – as the sciences, or as the academia – might now be able to dramatically augment or improve all functions of our ‘collective organism’ – just as a real living organism would benefit from being coordinated by a well-functioning nervous system or mind.

I am not going to do that here, but you might now easily imagine how the issue we are talking about could be dramatised to any desired degree – by talking, for instance, about the possibility to radically improve the impact of our scientific and other sources of knowledge on our collective awareness; or about the future of our civilisation, and how our future prospects might be dramatically improved by dramatically improving communication.

3 An intriguing scientific problem

You might now grant me that the issue I am talking about is relevant. But you might still wonder why I am framing it as  “an intriguing scientific problem”? To begin with, this is obviously not a problem in physics, or biology, or chemistry or any of the conventional sciences. And then it is also not formulated as a problem – i.e. as something to which we might offer a clear-cut solution.

The reasons why I called this “an intriguing scientific problem” are related, so let’s talk about all of them together.

One of the reasons why I feel justified in calling this problem ‘scientific’ is that it’s a problem that the scientists will need to solve. The proverbial ‘hackers in a garage’ may have been able to re-create the way an encyclopedia is written, and even the social life on the planet – but I still find it inconceivable that a disruptively new systemic solution for academic co-creation, organisation and communication of knowledge might be developed and ‘sold’ to the scientists in a similar way. And if we furthermore consider ‘science’ to be not just ‘what the scientists are doing’, but the activity whose goal is to provide a certain kind of knowledge to the society, then organising scientific work to better serve this purpose must also be considered as part of the job.

The issue I am talking about is intriguing because there is no institution, and no procedure or way of working in the existing academic scheme of things, which might be suitable for tackling it.  To see what this means, pick any conventional academic research unit, let’s  say a biology lab to be concrete. Imagine everyone in it being busy with experiments, articles, courses and exams… Try to imagine these people deciding that they would re-organize their work in the collective mind manner —  that they would co-create their knowledge differently, combine it with the knowledge of other research groups and with results in other fields, and communicate it to the world in entirely new ways, by using new technology.  In no time this thought experiment will lead you to the conclusion that a typical academic environment is just as little likely to change the way its corner of the collective mind operates, as a crew of a passenger jet is to restructure their aircraft while it’s still in the air and full of people.

Nobody can have the mandate to re-create the way biology operates, or any other scientific field – the field experts will have to do this themselves. And furthermore, the new way cannot just be created out of the blue, it would have to evolve through use. And finally, consider also that the most interesting and impactful result of this evolution might need to be so radically different from our present status quo, as a light bulb is from a candle.  I challenge you to try to make a successful thought experiment of this kind – to imagine a scenario where the collective mind re-evolution actually does happen.

Our issue is especially intriguing because it is circular: A meaningful solution cannot be reached by doing conventional academic work in a conventional academic way. Nothing that we might figure out and write up and publish as a research article, i.e. no answer to our question, can be a solution – and it might, in the real sense, only add to the problem! Not only do we lack a discipline whose job would be to restructure or re-evolve our academic and other knowledge work;  but indeed any attempt to encapsulate this type of work within a discipline would again only be likely to add one more academic ‘silo’ to the existing manifold – which would  then also need to be woven into the collective mind tissues and connected with the rest!

And so our challenge can now be formulated as a question or a problem – How can we even begin the collective mind-style evolution in knowledge work, in a way that might scale and have a real impact?

4 A collective mind prototype

In what follows I will outline and discuss a solution to our problem that has been developed, and as we shall see also embodied, by our Tesla and the Nature of Creativity project, and by Knowledge Federation. This solution is course not a written idea (which could only add to the problem…)  but a living system or more precisely a prototype of a living system, already functioning in reality. We shall see how this prototype is also acting upon our institutional and social reality, aiming to transform it. And learning and self-organising and adapting to that role.

Within our Tesla and the Nature of Creativity 2015 project, we (Knowledge Federation) created and demonstrated a small functioning prototype of exactly that part of the collective mind that Vannevar Bush was urging us to develop – an instance of collective mind-style scientific communication.

We developed our prototype  around a research article of a Serbian researcher, Professor Dejan Raković. In this article, Raković proposed a model that explains the well-documented phenomenology of Nikola Tesla’s perplexing creative process, by combining insights and results from quantum physics and quantum-informational medicine. I will come back to the meaning of this result in A collective mind – Part Two; but for now, consider it simply as a research result that has a high potential to impact other fields and our society, if it could be communicated and understood.

The solution we demonstrated had three phases.

Tesla and the Nature of Creativity 2015 Multimedia Module

The first was a communication design phase, performed by a multidisciplinary team that included an expert designer, Fredrik Eive Refsli, and the author. The most vital and impactful ideas from Professor Raković’s article were in effect “lifted up” from the specialised academic language in which the article was written, and rendered in the language of metaphorical images backed by recorded explanatory interviews with the author. In that way, the main ideas from the article were made accessible to non-expert audiences.  In this first phase, Raković’s traditional article was transformed into a multimedia document – whereby we then also pointed to a general way in which new media technology can be applied within a collective mind approach to research and development. You are encouraged to download this multimedia document and experiment with it (the loudspeaker icons, which enable you to hear recorded interview segments with the author, will not work in a browser). Like everything else here, this multimedia document must be understood as a prototype subject to continued improvement through experimenting and change – and we invite you to imagine various other possibilities that can be developed within this approach.

The purpose of the second phase of this project – the physical dialog in Belgrade – was to draw public attention to the results of the first phase,  and to initiate a social process that can lead to the understanding, verification and dissemination of those results. To achieve that, we staged a one-day workshop within a larger international congress, Nikola Tesla – The History of the Future, which was organised in Sava Centre Belgrade.

Media use in the physical dialog in Belgrade. Photo by Zdenko Stromar.

In the physical dialog, a spectrum of media and communication techniques were applied in collective mind-style academic communication, specifically (1) live international video streaming, (2) simultaneous translation, (3) conventional media (TV), (4) Skype (for international panelists) and (5) an adaptation of David Bohm’s dialog among the panelists  and the general audience in the room.

The panelists (detail). Photo by Biljana Rakočević.

A panel of invited experts and community opinion leaders was given the specific role to discuss the dialog themes (this will be elaborated on in Part Two).

The panelists and the audience (detail). Photo by Biljana Rakočević.

The audience too was given an active role in the dialog.

Initial structure of the online part of our collective mind – on DebateGraph

In the third phase, which is on-going, an online collective sensemaking tool called DebateGraph is being used to collaboratively and publicly comment and verify the results of the first and the second phase; to link and inter-relate Professor Raković’s creativity model with related documents and ideas; and to then create still higher-level insights, and make them available to the media professionals, specific communities of interest that might need them and benefit from them, and to general public. In effect, this third phase is where the collective thinking, as enabled by this collective mind prototype, practically happens. This third phase was initiated in an online ‘barn raising event’, where DebateGraph and this way of working was introduced to the participants by David Price, DebateGraph’s co-founder. David used the GoToMeeting online meeting platform, and screen sharing, to put ideas on the map, as we began to discuss them, and to instruct us how to do that.

5 Collective mind in action 

Imagine a collective mind in action: What would it be like? How would it operate? What would it be thinking about? Well, you don’t need to imagine it – a collective mind prototype is now available, and you may visit it and explore it, and even join it, and contribute to its thinking!

DebateGraph Later
Our DebateGraph collective mind after one week of collective thinking (detail)

As I said, we are using DebateGraph as platform or tool kit to enable us to think together online. You may imagine DebateGraph as a result of extending Wikipedia to include not only co-creation of factual knowledge, but also linking and relating documents and ideas with each other, and discussing or debating them. DebateGraph  has a number of collective mind capabilities already built in. In the online ‘barn raising’ meeting to begin the third phase of the TNC 2015 project, we introduced DebateGraph  as follows:

“As I mentioned, we’ll be using DebateGraph, a premier collective sense-making platform, whose user community includes the CNN, the White House, the UK Prime Minister’s Office, The Independent, the Foreign Office, and millions of people worldwide. We are fortunate to have with us Dr. David Price, FRSA, who is one of the two founders of DebateGraph. By sharing his screen with us, David will be showing us how to update DebateGraph, so that we may subsequently continue to think together and co-create on our own.”

As shown in the above image, a week after this third phase was initiated in an online ‘barn raising’ event, it was already possible to see the results of our collective mind in action — as links to relevant resources, ideas, questions… were being added. We encourage you to visit and explore this map, and to observe the evolution and operation of this collective mind through time.

But what is this collective mind thinking about?

In the online ‘barn raising’ event,  the three themes of this dialog were introduced as follows:

The first theme, the nature of creativity, and in particular of Nikola Tesla’s creativity, is already in the title of the event. Is there indeed an entirely different kind of creativity, which we called  “direct creativity”, which is so different that when we try to be creative in the conventional indirect way, we inhibit our direct creativity and vice-versa? Tesla dropped out of university and underwent a deep personal crisis before his capability to be directly creative would open up. Are we inhibiting direct creativity in our schools and universities, and in our academic culture? Could we be producing Tesla-like creatives in far larger numbers than we do? Imagine what difference this would make to our civilization in peril!

And yet – as important as it might be, our interest in direct creativity may be seen as only a tactical element, as a Trojan horse — in a strategy to make progress on the other two themes, which are potentially still much larger. The second theme is the collective mind. As I already said, we are talking about the possibility of enhancing our capability of better understanding not only DR’s creativity-related research, but indeed all research! And to make better use of all other knowledge resources.

But this is not all. Our collective mind has another key property that we must now emphasize: It is capable of self-reflecting; and of self-organizing, improving, evolving… And this is what we’ll be doing here, in this dialog. The purpose of the second theme is to create an online discussion about our collective mind prototype itself, so that people with suitableexpertise, and also all other people, may have a say about how the collective mind is constructed, and how it may be improved.

The third theme is to envision an emerging culture. Can an improved collective mind enable us to think new thoughts, and envision completely new possibilities? Here we’ll be linking the creativity-related insights with analogous or related ones, making generalisations, creating ever more general and more impactful new insights.

Notice that the third theme – co-creation of a larger vision, by linking the specific result (on the nature of direct creativity) with other results, finding generalisations and consequences and making them known to specific communities and the media, is where our collective mind is properly speaking thinking. We shall elaborate on this important function of our prototype in A collective mind – Part Two. The reason is that there is a yet another  long-standing scientific open problem, no less intriguing and practically relevant, that will be discussed there. In Part Two we shall revisit the prototype described here, and show how it provides answers also to this other open problem.

6  Innovating entrepreneurship 

Siniša and Saša Rudan. Photo by Biljana Rakočević.

Fine, I imagine you say – here’s another academic attempt to change the world. But this won’t make a notch in the way how things really happen in reality. Isn’t the core of our problem that – while the academia is watching – the world is really being changed by the entrepreneurs?

The collective mind approach offers a better alternative to this now conventional way of evolving socio-technical systems. This alternative is an implementation of another key Doug Engelbart’s idea, namely that the tool systems and the human systems should co-evolve together, or be co-designed.

This approach enables the best insights owned by academic and other experts  to directly influence social- systemic change – which has obvious advantages to the present practice where the technologists are changing the world, and the humanists are discussing the effects.

In our prototype, this alternative is modeled by Saša and Siniša Rudan,  and by the CollaboScience module they are creating. Saša is a Ph.D. student at the University of Oslo; Siniša is an IT entrepreneur in Belgrade. Privately they are twin brothers, accustomed to working and thinking together.

The CollaboScience module was shown and used during the physical dialog in Belgrade, by mapping the events taking place in the room. CollaboScience is developed through collaboration of Rudan brothers with and within the Knowledge Federation community, which continues to test, use and discuss their design.

You may get an idea of CollaboScience in action by watching this short video, which the brothers created on demand from the Serbian National Television, for a science TV show about our project.

In the video, you can see how the events that are taking place in the room, such as Alexander Laszlo and Ramon Sangüesa, our online speakers, presenting their ideas, are being placed on the map in real time. And how the ideas they introduced are mapped and related to other ideas. While we used DebateGraph (which has been develop for debating issues) for our online federation as more stable and reliable, CollaboScience will, we hope, in the long run provide us with functionality that is tuned to the specific  processes and interaction we’ll choose to implement in federating research.

(The music in the video is a piece called Tesla’s Lightening, by Dragica Kopjar and Ljerka končar, which was performed at the opening of the Tesla 2015 international congress.)

In the above video recording of a TV interview (in Serbian), Mr. Drew Giblin, the Cultural Attache of the US Embassy in Belgrade, began by highlighting the importance of using Tesla’s example to inspire the young people to be daringly or disruptively creative in any field, and the US Embassy’s readiness to support such efforts. The opportunity was then opened up for  Siniša Rudan to talk about collective creativity, CollaboScience, our event in Sava Centre, and Knowledge Federation. “So you may be creating a collective genius!” concluded the interviewer.

The mapping module is intended to be only one of the many components of CollaboScience, which is envisioned as a growing collection of interoperable modules, enabling quick and easy construction of innovative systemic solutions for  any situation or field in knowledge work. The idea is to provide Lego blocks-type objects, which can be assembled and re-assembled through collaboration of field workers and experts with knowledge media experts and other stakeholders, to enable systemic prototypes to emerge and evolve freely and creatively.

One of the conversations that are now active in Knowledge Federation is how to  organise a conference. The physical meeting has (we agreed) a vital purpose also in knowledge work that is augmented by contemporary media; but this purpose may be rather different than it used to be! The various purposes that people historically aimed to achieve by coming together physically  may, however, be served far better by an event that is designed as a three-stage media-enabled set of processes (before, during and after).  We are now discussing what processes might serve best; and what tools might enable them. The idea is to create a flexible and versatile conference co-creation tool kit.

The CollaboScience module in the TNC prototype shows how the ideas that result from systemic innovation research can be federated into entrepreneurial projects.

The added value of the tool system – human system co-evolution strategy to the collective mind approach to IT R&D is that:

  • we may not yet have all the technology that is needed to support the processes we may choose to implement
  • the change of the human system may naturally open up a large market for new technology

To highlight the scale of business and R&D opportunities that may result from the collective mind approach to knowledge work and IT development, while evangelising Knowledge Federation, we sometimes point to Henry Ford’s historical disruptive systemic innovation,  in the transportation system. By making the automobile production cheep and the automobile widely accessible, Ford also made it possible to make a fortune in not only automobile production, but also in oil drilling, gas stations, automobile insurance, road construction… And vice-versa – the disruptive innovation in transportation required a variety of new businesses and technologies.

7 Collective mind prototype as scientific result

A scientific reader might now object that what I’ve just described is not really a scientific result at all; it is merely an event! Even if we admit that we might be talking about a new paradigm, and that in a new paradigm results are allowed to be different than we are accustomed to, there are still two criteria  that any reasonable  notion of ‘scientific result’ will need to satisfy:

  • generality –  a result must be in some sense reproducible, applicable in a variety situations
  • validity – a result must  be in some sense verifiable  or ‘falsifiable’

There is, furthermore, another line of critique, which is specific to collective mind. To see it,  imagine that a completely new information technology has been developed, which makes our prototype for federating a research result obsolete.  How can our prototype federate this result? How can it change its structure? Notice that our conventional knowledge-work and other systems do not have this capability; and that this capability is the key aspect of the challenge we’ve been talking about. (In Knowledge Federation we call the system design that provides the capability to federate knowledge by changing the system’s structure open design.)

The essence of our solution, as implemented in our Tesla and the Nature of Creativity 2015 prototype,  is captured by two keywords: prototype and transdiscipline. You may now imagine that the prototype that’s just been described is enclosed or encapsulated within – and continuously designed by –  a transdiscipline. transdiscipline is typically a small to medium-sized interdisciplinary community, organised to

  • enable the inflow of knowledge from participating disciplines, professions and areas of interest – as represented by its members
  • provide the combination of expertise and skills that are needed to create  a state-of-the-art prototype and to keep it up to date with relevant developments
  • enable the outflow, back into the participating disciplines, of information and insights, and in particular of the disciplinary challenges that have emerged in the work with the prototype

The prototype and the transdiscipline are instruments for federating knowledge into a systemic structure (see the explanation below); for making systemic structures capable of adapting and evolving, or metaphorically – alive. We offer this intuitive notion (of making our society ‘alive’) as a further evolved alternative to ‘sustainability’.

The construction of first phase in the Tesla and the Nature of Creativity 2015 federation prototype, the communication design module, demonstrates this principle. This part of our prototype been created by a team that included  a reputed Norwegian academic communication designer, Fredrik Eive Refsli. Fredrik brings us the skills and tools that are now largely used  for another purpose – marketing products, and increasing consumption – and he applies them to the centrally important task of making insights that emanate from research understandable and palpable to a general audience. And so by taking this role in our collective mind prototype, Fredrik is also designing a new role for communication design! And he, quite naturally, passes on this role to his design students. Fredrik’s message to the design community is that ‘sustainable design’ (a keyword that defines the design study program he is developing) has to do with not only the concerns like recycling paper and using energy-saving light bulbs; but also, and indeed primarily, with evolving the systemic role of design in a sustainable economy and society.

You will now easily notice that the second module in the online dialog – the one where we reflect on our collective mind itself – is what provides us, when combined with a suitable transdiscipline, the feedback-control mechanism that can allow us to continue to update the collective mind prototype indefinitely. 
As the above prototype might illustrate, every prototype embodies both a certain abstract principle of operation and idiosyncratic details that make it work (or not work) in a specific time and place. Regarding the former, you will notice that our present construction of the collective mind has three phases that follow logically from the challenge – they enable us to: (1) extract key ideas from the specialized scientific language; represent them in accessible, visual format; make them available within a multimedia object with interviews with the author etc.; (2) make the results publicly known; seed the online communication, by sharing the result, and generating interest, in a physical dialog, and through conventional media; (3) collectively think about the provided material, weave it into collective awareness, assimilate it with existing materials, draw conclusions… through technology-enabled online deliberation.

In the research methodology we are developing, prototypes have a similar role as theories and experiments do in conventional research. A prototype is

  • a model, embodying certain ideas, including a principle of operation
  • embedded in reality
  • acting upon reality, with the intention of transforming it
  • collecting information, including what works and what doesn’t
  • open to continuous and deliberate improvement, as we learn more
  • ready to be adapted and replicated

Coming back to the question of this prototype as solution to our problem – it is clear that this ‘solution’ is still ‘scientific’ or ‘academic’ – in the sense that we are still largely contributing ideas, and not yet physically changing the world (which is a much bigger job, which needs to involve many people and sources of power and action beyond the academia). A difference that makes a difference, however, is that these ideas are rendered as prototypes – which are designed to grow or ‘scale’, and become real systemic solutions in the world. As long as the ideas are held captive in academic articles, they cannot instigate solutions or be solutions.

A complete solution, however, must also include the Knowledge Federation prototype, as ‘the chicken that hatched the egg’  (the prototype institution that created the Tesla and the Nature of Creativity 2015 prototype) – as I will discuss next. 

8 Institutionalising systemic innovation

We have now come to an answer to our core, institutional challenge – the sort of organisational structure that might be capable of creating collective mind prototypes, and innovating on the scale of basic socio-technical systems.  And the way in which such an institution might originate.

Knowledge Federation – our prototype answer to this challenge, has been initiated by a small group of knowledge media researchers and developers, who gathered at Knowledge Federation’s first international workshop organised at the Inter University Centre Dubrovnik in 2008. The idea to form a community, however, emerged a year earlier, at the Topic Maps Research and Development conference in Leipzig, Germany where Jack Park – a Silicon Valley researcher, developer and networker, and a prominent member of the Topic Maps community – brought several of us together, who were working not so much on Topic Maps technology, but rather on applications of this and other similar technologies to create socio-technical systems that federate knowledge (this transcript of my five-minute idea presentation in Leipzig, Knowledge = Mountain, is an early rendition of my personal view of this direction).  “Knowledge Federation” emerged as a natural name for our group. While preparing for our first meeting in Dubrovnik, we invited several other colleagues that were not present in Bremen to join us. Googling “knowledge federation” readily led to Professor Yuzuru Tanaka,  a pioneer of knowledge media in Japan, who had used this name already in an Asian conference he’d organised. And so he too joined us in Dubrovnik, and has remained with us ever since. Jack invited Simon Buckingham Shum, who was at the time at Open University, and who earlier that same year co-founded a similar community called Global Sensemaking. The members of Global Sensemaking included some of the leading researchers and developers of collective mind-style technology and processes.

At our workshop in Dubrovnik it became obvious to us that the technology and the corresponding patterns of knowledge organization and co-creation that we and our colleagues were developing could revolutionize knowledge work – provided that we had a way to enable the changes in institutionalised patterns of work and communication, which have evolved through the centuries of use of the old technology, the lecture hall and the printed paper.  But in order to work on that  challenge, we needed to organise ourselves differently, and work in an entirely new way.

Our second biennial workshop in Dubrovnik brought together a larger transdisciplinary group (see this sample). The name we gave to this workshop was “Self-Organizing Collective Mind”. We invited the participants to think of themselves not as pursuing a career in a conventional profession,  but as cells in a collective mind – and to begin to self-organize as it might best serve this new identity. The keynote speakers were chosen to ‘put the ball in play’:

  •  Paddy Coulter  (formerly the Director of Reuters School of Journalism at the Oxford University, and  at the time the Director of Oxford Global Media Institute and Professor or ‘Fellow’ at Oxford Green College)  told us about the crisis in journalism; and about the need, and the opportunity, to re-create it thoroughly
  • John Wilbanks (at the time  the Director of Science Commons, and Deputy Director for Science of Creative Commons) told us about the global efforts to make scientific knowledge available online and free of copyrights – a global scientific knowledge bank, ready to be federated

The self-organization that followed led to the development of the way of working or method I’ve described above – where we organize a transdiscipline around a specific design prototype to create it and to update it continuously. Knowledge Federation developed this way of working by applying it to its own immediate design challenge – of developing Knowledge Federation itself.

This technique – whose technical name is bootstrapping – dissolves the inherent circularity of our design challenge: Knowledge Federation, or more generally the transdiscipline, is both the proverbial chicken and the egg. Bootstrapping resolves the key difficulty that is inherent in socio-technical system design: While a programmer or a team of programmers can easily create, test and develop a computer program, nobody can ‘program’ busy academic people to do their work differently. But we can overcome this difficulty by including the field workers and other experts and stakeholders in the transdiscipline, to both create and also be the prototype! Bootstrapping was developed and used by Doug Engelbart and his media design lab in the 1960s.

Our next workshop – which was organized within the Triple Helix IX Conference at Stanford University in 2011,  gave us a timely opportunity to share the results of our co-creative process, and the challenges on the collective mind frontier, with the Silicon Valley (IT world) on the one side, and the International Triple Helix community (cross-sectoral collaboration) on the other.  We didn’t use the collective mind metaphor then but a technical synonym – systemic innovation in knowledge work, whose meaning I’ll come back to in a moment. At our workshop we were able to announce

  • systemic innovation in knowledge work and beyond as an  emerging creative frontier  for IT R&D
  • (the way of working developed and modelled by) Knowledge Federation as “an enabler of systemic innovation

At Triple Helix  IX, I gave the talk “Knowledge Federation – An Enabler of Systemic Innovation” twice (see the article): Once at our workshop, and once in the Innovation Journalism section of the conference. On this latter occasion I introduced Knowledge Federation by telling this story:

Imagine you were a journalist; and that one day you wake up thinking: “It really makes no sense to be a journalist while the things are as they are. It is not clear that journalism still has a sustainable business model (in a world with abundant free information). And it is not clear that journalism can still fulfill its societal role (inform people in an increasingly complex world).” What would you do?

The problem seems overwhelming. You decide to take a stroll down town. You are looking at a store that makes tailor-made suits and you think: “Wouldn’t it be nice if there were a shop where I could have my profession tailor made? To suit not only me, but also the society it needs to serve. “

Only a few months later, we had an opportunity to implement and test these ideas in practice. Knowledge Federation Workshop Barcelona 2011 was a meeting of two communities: Knowledge media / collective intelligence, and journalism. The title of this event was “Co-creating an Innovation Ecosystem for Good Journalism”. Two milestones were reached:

  • we created an ideal prototype for journalism
  • we created a real-life prototype of a transdiscipline innovating journalism

The journalism prototype that resulted (see the description in the its DebateGraph map) had a number of design patterns that distinguished it as ‘public informing for the 21st century’, because it

  • has a transdiscipline associated to it, to re-create it continually
  • gives a direct voice to the public  (this citizenship journalism module, called Wikidiario, had already been developed by some of the participating journalists from Barcelona)
  • has the capability to reveal systemic causes of people’s concerns  – and to identify suitable strategic / systemic remedies
  • gives the journalists the role of  curating news material created by an ecosystem that includes the public,  policy makers, and academic and other experts and stakeholders
  • allows the academic experts and expertise to directly influence both the way public informing operates, and the information that is created

The capability of the public informing prototype developed in our Barcelona 2011 workshop to foster systemic insights – and in that way empower the people to truly understand and handle the issues that threaten or bother them – might be worth highlighting. Will this prove to be ‘democracy for the 21st century’ (see my five-minute videotaped talk Democracy for the 21st Century, recorded for Community Boost_r Camp, Sarajevo 2013, where I introduced systemic innovation or systemic re-evolution as a necessary element of the 21st century democracy; and Knowledge Federation’s work on developing ways to empower the people to “take part directly and authentically in the design of the systems in which they live and work”. ). We also showed in this way how a collective mind-style public informing might empower the larger systemic innovation agenda.

Our Barcelona 2011 workshop gave us an opportunity to work through some of the details of the challenge of re-thinking and re-creating a profession. By inviting Paddy Coulter to be the Chair of the workshop, we gave the control over the co-creative process to the field experts. The co-creation, which followed a period of sharing and brainstorming, was organised by using the World Cafe technique.

The prototype we created in Barcelona, considered as an experiment, revealed to us a difficulty that is inherent in its line of work: After the workshop our journalist colleagues returned to their editorial desks and busy schedules. And it turned out to be impossible to focus sufficient energy, time and attention to actually  implement our  prototype in real life, as we had planned.

This experience, however, subsequently led to the creation of a sequence of prototypes that I will here only mention:

  • The Game-Changing Game, as a general or generic method for systemic innovation was created at our workshop in Palo Alto in 2012, and shown at the Bay Area Future Salon (see the announcement, brief interview and the article The Game-Changing Game – a practical way to craft the future describing this prototype, published in European Academy of Design proceedings); a key idea was that the systemic ‘elders’ (Z-players) ‘play The Game-Changing Game’ (engage in systemic change) by empowering the younger A-players to develop their careers in a ‘game-changing way’ (by re-evolving their professions or ‘systems’ in which they life and work, instead of adapting to them)
  • ZIG project, developed in collaboration with Zagreb Creativity Centre, as an attempt to apply The Game-Changing Game to create a real-life good journalism prototype
  • The Club of Zagreb – a re-design of The Club of Rome, whose mission is to re-direct the efforts to respond to the contemporary problematique more effectively, by focusing on systemic innovation and systemic change, through  The Game-Changing Game

We opened The Club of Zagreb as a prelude to our 2012 biennial workshop in Dubrovnik.  Yuzuru Tanaka flew into Zagreb from Japan, Mei Lin Fung and Jack Park from California, David Price joined us from England, Alf Martin Johansen from Oslo, Siniša and Saša Rudan from Belgrade… Of the local participants I will here mention only Professors Nenad Prelog  of University of Zagreb Journalism, and Mislav Omazić of University of Zagreb Economics (who co-created the Zagreb Creativity Centre, and earlier the eSTUDENT excellence hub) — as key co-players in the ZIG project.

I will interrupt this telling of the Knowledge Federation history, and postpone the two themes that we have been developing subsequently, and which mark our current activities, to be presented later in dedicated blog posts:

  • the development of an internationally federated educational project, whose goal is to (1) consolidate the body of knowledge relevant to our task (2) federate it to international creatives (A-players) and (3) create a state-of-the-art knowledge federation – based transformative systemic prototype in education
  • development of a knowledge federation prototype with and for an academic community – concretely the International Society for the Systems Sciences (which naturally extends and complements the Tesla and the Nature of Creativity prototype for federating a single research result, which has been introduced here) 

9 Can a civilisation change its mind?

A growing number of researchers and thinkers who looked at our contemporary condition concluded that our civilization must change its mind, that it really has no other choice.

And in “A collective mind – Part Two”, we will be able to reach the same conclusion in another way, by looking at the foundations on which our knowledge work has been developed, and the subsequent changes in those foundations (for now, see my blog post Return to Reason).

But is such a change possible?

We learn from history that civilisations  do occasionally change their minds. An example is the Enlightenment, when a sweeping awareness shift happened in our civilisation. Science – as a new approach to social creation of truth and meaning – was brought to prominence by this wave of change.

And so it is of course conceivable that the ’21st Century Enlightenment’ might also call forth a new approach to social creation of truth and meaning. While the nature of this new approach is of course an interesting theme for speculation and research (and the theme of his blog), in “A collective mind – Part Two” I will take advantage of this specific example, the Tesla and the Nature of Creativity dialog,  to illustrate how a new approach might be different.

10 Our vision

In the physical dialog in Belgrade, we asked each of the panelists to present two two-minute commentaries, on selected two themes. In my role as a panelist, I decided to give two versions of the same commentary, a shorter and a longer one. And so I showed the following three slides two times. I will do the same here. What follows is the brief version. In Part Two, where suitable context will be introduced, I will share the longer one.

TNC 215 - D.vision.002

This theme continues to fascinate me: That we have been focused on improving gadgets, and ignored the possibility to improve our institutions and other socio-technical systems, on which the efficiency and efficacy of our daily work depend in a much larger degree – and which have proven so capable of organizing our work and our living in ways that will ultimately harm us!


The above photo was taken as I was pointing to the contrast between the unbelievable dexterity we have manifested when creating small gadgets like the one I was holding in my hand – and our even more unbelievable neglect of those incomparably larger and incomparably more important ‘socio-technical gadgets’.

TNC 215 - D.vision.003

It therefore seems safe to predict that the innovations or inventions that will mark this century’s greatest improvements of the human condition will be on the socio-technical scale – we will ‘discover’ new ways of doing education, public informing, science, finance, governance, religion… Just as during the last century we discovered that we could fly, talk at a distance, automate computation, and have our clothes washed by a machine.

This systemic innovation, as we are calling it, will dramatically augment our capability to create a better future, and our better selves.   In my short speech I made it clear that I expected the benefits, the improvements of our condition, to be at least as large as the ones that have been achieved during the recent phase of our societal evolution –  the Industrial and Scientific revolution. But I believe they will be larger.

TNC 215 - D.vision.004

In this last slide I was referring to a detail that was shared during the first day of the “Nikola Tesla: The History of the Future” conference – namely that in a turn-of-the-millennium poll of experts by an academic engineering journal, “electrification” was identified as “the most influential innovation of the 20th century”, because it enabled so many other discoveries and innovations.  (This was quoted to highlight the importance of Tesla’s contributions to electrification.) By analogy, the systemic innovation in knowledge work may be expected to have a similarly impactful role in this century – by exemplifying, illuminating, explaining, organizing, developing suitable ‘organizational nervous systems’ for, and ultimately enabling the systemic innovation in general.

But the emergence of systemic innovation in knowledge work too will need to be enabled by a suitable way of working and institution. It is to that end that the Knowledge Federation prototype has been developed.

Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: