Peer Progressives: Is open collaboration the solution to our problems?


Today I thought I’d write about something that isn’t directly related to my work, but something I’ve recently read about which really intrigued me and made me feel very optimistic for the future.  Peer networks and Peer Progressives.

Let’s start with peer networks. They aren’t new.  Think academic research. Leading edge thinkers present their work to peers for review and for the opportunity to analyze and possibly improve on the work.  That’s a peer network in action.

The internet is making peer networks larger and much more efficient.  Think Wikipedia. Think Kickstarter. Never heard of Kickstarter?  It’s a website for artists, entrepreneurs or anyone with a creative idea to make a pitch for funding to anyone, anywhere in the world.  They give a target amount of money to raise and do a video pitch to ask people to donate.  If they get enough pledges to meet the amount they targeted, they get the money.  So we’re clear, these are donations, not investments.  Think it’ll never work? Last year Kickstarter distributed more money to creative projects in the US than the National Endowment for the Arts.

Peer networks and the idea that they can be used to improve the world are the topic of author Steven Johnson‘s book, Future Perfect.  It’s a fascinating read on peer networks in the past and the ways the internet could allow them to change the world in the future.  One of his main points is that diversity in thinking is more powerful at problem solving than pure ability.  That normally intelligent groups with completely different backgrounds come up with better solutions to complex problems than groups of extremely intelligent people who come from the same background. The internet is an incredibly efficient way to leverage this diversity to solve our problems.

Johnson provides several examples of how politics, government, and education could be enhanced through networked thinking.   Historically, these have all relied on top-down hierarchies that work well to distribute money and create laws based on the average for the entire population, but are very weak at meeting the differing needs at the local level.  In Johnson’s view, and he sites several real examples, peer networks could change that.

Johnson’s concept of Peer Progressives challenges the notion that the most effective form of government is to elect a group of like-minded people to govern and solve the nations problems.  Personally, I hate the way our party system pigeon-holes the electorate.  If you are a Conservative you must be a big business loving libertarian and if you are a Liberal, you must be a big government loving socialist.  There seems to be no room for a government that responds to the nuanced views of the electorate.  As Johnson explains on his website, his concept of Peer Progressives, who believe in non-market forms of open collaboration through peer networks, allows for more nuanced views.   “It’s simply a question of emphasis. Liberals can still believe in the power and utility of markets, even if they tend to emphasize big government solutions; all but the most radical libertarians think that there are some important roles for government in our lives.” Closer to home, among many possible benefits of peer networks, I can’t help but think they could lead to a game-changing improvement to how health care dollars in Canada are allocated.

How often do you think that our current form of government is broken and that there has to be a better way.  Maybe the peer network is at the core of this better way.  I encourage you to read Future Perfect and see what you think.

The following link is to a review of the book from the Scientific American blog “Cross Check” which has some interesting thoughts as well.

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