How might we design a participatory system?

May 2, 2009

This is the fifth, and last, of a series of pieces originally posted at Fast Company.

Those who have stuck with me all week, know that I believe that participation is key to the next big wave of innovation in business and society. Whether it is in the fundamentals of how we think about wealth or the economy, how we parse the minutiae of individual transactions, or how we evolve our most important social systems such as health care, I believe that the interconnectedness of our information society makes this shift inevitable and highly desirable.

The question that I inevitably ask as a designer is how we design these kinds of participatory systems?

The first and most obvious response to this question is that it really is all about we, not I. In other words, corporations and their designers cannot presume to conceive of, design and engineer complete systems and role them out to the enthusiastic applause of the masses. The best examples of current participatory systems included a significant amount of "user" participation in the design process itself. Whether it is Facebook or Apple, the richness and variety of their offerings are created by untold developers, not employed by the host brand, who have created solutions never imagined by the original architects of the platform.

But there are other design principles that must be considered here. First, and foremost, these systems need to be human-centered. Nobody will participate in a system that does not serve his or her needs, and hence those involved in design, whether inside or outside conventional organizations, must master the skills of human centered design thinking.

Additionally, these systems should be fractal. By this I mean they must work at both the small and large scale. Industrial production and consumerism relied on mass scale to operate. Millions of products were made at a low cost and distributed to millions of consumers; in those systems, individuals and small organizations typically could not compete with large-scale industrial corporations. Participative systems must be as relevant to a market of one as to a market of millions. Digital technology offers the flexibility to operate at very different scales. Any participatory offering must make effective use of the Internet.

As I discussed earlier in my post, "Why We Need Economic Dashboards", we have to design interactions that are profitable for all participants. And that profit must be measurable on one or more of the dimensions of the participation economy, even if they have associated costs on other dimensions. This way every interaction becomes a productive investment, not an act of consumption. This means we must design in the information feedback loops that make measurement of the various forms of participatory value easy. Robert Wright proposed a related idea in his book Non-Zero. My interpretation of his thesis is that good participatory systems will not rely on zero-sum trading of finite resources but will instead allow everyone to make a profit.

Earlier, I also mentioned information transparency. Figuring out how to make information transparent, and understandable, will unlock unanticipated forms of value and help create the "multiplier effects" recently explained by President Obama in his defense of the bank bailout.

It's likely that the best ideas that emerge from our networks will not be those decreed from on high by senior executives or government officials. Hence we also need to design processes that allow us to spot new patterns, encourage the evolution of new ideas, and help new ideas scale to the point where they have impact. This is a different approach to innovation and management than the one we have been reliant upon for the last hundred years. It will take some getting used to. Gary Hamel has lots to say about this in his book The Future of Management.

Rapid prototyping and "learning by making" is already an accepted strategy for effective innovation. For participatory systems, this is even more important because the complexity of the interactions cannot possibly be anticipated by even the smartest of plans. The reality is that these prototypes cannot live in the lab; they have to be let out into the wild. So, we need to start getting comfortable with letting others participate in our innovation activities. Of course this means that many of our accepted notions of IP and trade secrets go out of the window. This is very scary for the lawyers.

Over the coming months I am hoping to build a clearer and more precise set of design principles for participatory systems and I would welcome your ideas for new principles. I'd also appreciate your thoughts on whether this thesis makes any sense at all!