Building coherent systems co-operatively

Recently (2017-02-16&17) I was at the Open 2017 conference in London. It was an inspiring event with a greatly positive sense, and with much too much choice to go to everything. I went to a working session on designing an open app ecosystem – one of the relatively few sessions where people actually got to talk a lot in small groups, but missed a related session by one of the Open Co-op‘s founders, Oliver Sylvester-Bradley because I was at another place where people worked in small groups (on the “platform design toolkit”).

And this has led me to reflect on the psychological and social dynamics of an open app ecosystem, in the light of my long experience of working on technical interoperability standards in various contexts.

As a society, we seem to know how to build coherent systems top-down. Think Apple, think Ikea (article by John Thackara, who was at the conference). It seems we are not yet confident about how to build coherent systems co-operatively. Even Linux – at the kernel end, fine, because there is centralised authority; but the distros, the software, the version control …

The goal of building a coherent open system is close to my heart, as it is to many other attendees. The way to go about this is not clear to me. It’s obviously not to invite all of us conceptual system builders (possibly INTJs – I admit, it’s a weakness of mine as well as a strength) to have a beauty contest of our brilliant ideas. Even though they are all brilliant and beautiful, and, wouldn’t it be so much easier if everyone else adoped mine? 😉 But how, then?

Maybe I’d start with something useful from my own experience. If two people are open enough, in the right frame of mind, detailed long conversation between two conceptual system builders can go a very long way. Every time I’ve done this, I’ve come away with fresh insights; with a deeper understanding of how my own master vision had missed out something, perhaps something vital. And of how the other person’s point of view is really fascinatingly different from mine.

And then I’d continue in a small peer group setting. I find this setting essential to my being able to hear things that perhaps I don’t want to hear – maybe that one of my favourite pet ideas just doesn’t work for other people. While in a one-to-one, I can come out with the hope that the other person will still see the light one day, in contrast, in a group setting (at least one where there is trust, honesty, openness and warmth) I can be supported enough to let go of my own obsession and go with the greater wisdom of the connected group. (That’s quite different from groupthink.)

To do what we are trying to do technically, the psychological and social aspects – the open, co-operative “culture”, if you like – is absolutely vital. It’s not an optional extra. I don’t believe that technical solutions by themselves ever work in the long run, without a proper attention to culture.

At Open 2017, near the start, there was a reflection on gender balance. It wasn’t anywhere near balanced. I’m wondering whether more focus on the cultural, social, psychological dimensions of what we are trying to do would naturally bring in more of the feminine sensibility? I know many others would welcome a better gender balance as well, and I wonder if we can explore our feelings as well as getting our heads together, to being more co-operative in building coherent systems?