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October 22, 2014

Potential power of platform thinking

Every so often you look at a familiar object and see it completely differently – as if for the first time. An interesting article from Joost Beunderman at Civic Systems Lab suggesting that we might reconsider places (or organisations) as platforms for civic collaboration. He argues that platform thinking is already changing the way we do things right across society. He suggests, for instance, that development trusts could be much more powerful if they started to think of themselves as platforms for action by others.



Joost Beunderman, co-founder of Civic Systems Lab, October 9, 2014

Over the past few years, we have come to an increasing understanding of how of a new type of organisational logic is changing the way we can do things right across society.

Platform thinking is changing everything. While many are now familiar with smartphones as a platform for apps or with online crowdfunding platforms, the potential of platform thinking goes much further – for example, into the heart what we used to call ‘regeneration.’

What characterises a lot of successful new initiatives (some of which we documented a few years in our Compendium for the Civic Economy) is how they manage to invite wide and open-ended participation, leading to often unpredictable multiple outcomes.

This is a fundamental shift from the current discourse on co-production or volunteering. It transcends them, making people true collaborators and supporting them in contributing what they want, rather than just executing tasks set by others.

To understand this shift, just look at that winter, a few years back now, of the suddenly abundant snowfall. Rather than sending their own teams in to clear the snow, many councils handed out snow shovels so that ‘citizens’ could ‘co-produce’ this outcome. Nothing wrong with that, but let’s acknowledge that it’s a rather limited perspective: people were not really addressed as citizens with all their talents, creativity and drive, but really just as spare (and free) hands to clear up a mess.

Contrast that with the Open Works in Lambeth. Rather than getting people involved in a pre-defined outcome, it is a open platform that invites, inspires, connects and practically supports local people’s initiatives to change the area. It does not ask them to produce a (Neighbourhood) Plan or to hit certain targets – instead addressing and unlocking their very unpredictable creativity on the assumption that trusting citizens to create new social value projects will ultimately change a local area for good.

It does so by connecting people to existing resources and each other, and also challenging people perhaps to think beyond their original idea to come up with projects that are even closer to people’s dreams of how they’d love to live. And in doing so it is miles removed from the traditional policy assumption that we know exactly what the problem is and that we just have to execute the solution we identified to resolve it.

As Sangeet Paul Choudary wrote earlier this year: there are three broad approaches that innovators tend to take to solve problems. Firstly, ‘The “stuff” approach: How can we create more stuff whenever a problem crops up?’ Clearly this has been the traditional welfare state and market approach.

Then: ‘The “optimisation” approach: How can we better distribute the stuff already created to minimise waste?’ Smarter, but still limited because it assumes that a lack of ‘stuff’ available (think hospital beds, or electricity, or care workers, or library funding) is the essential issue. Lots of people working in councils these days tell us they are stuck in this approach as they struggle to maintain the availability of the same amount of ‘stuff’ in the face of cutbacks, leading to efficiency drives that don’t tackle the source of need or unlock new ways of thinking.

Then, finally: ‘The “platform” approach: How can we redefine stuff and find new ways of solving the same problem?’ This is of course where things become more interesting. Many local energy co-operatives are redefining ‘stuff’ by focusing on energy reduction and decentralised generation as alternative to us all staying hooked on coal fired powered stations.

Rather than campaigning for more playgrounds, Rotterdam’s ‘Singeldingen’ project created a kiosk in a park as a base from which locals could organize an endless range of activities. Incredible Edible Todmorden started as open invitation to anyone to grow food anywhere in public spaces and has become an unexpected economic revitalisation engine which has already seen shop vacancies go down and more young people stay in town. And another Rotterdam project called Nieuwe Ateliers Charlois redefined the eternal affordable art studio question by recycling income into a seed fund for participants’ new projects, thus increasing their income rather than just offering cheaper rent. And so forth.

Whether commercial or civic, platform organisations recognise and trust that unpredictable inputs from a wide range of people strengthen the whole. Apple relies on people creating apps, renewable co-ops need people to give them ingenious ideas for energy savings as well as money, and crowdfunding platforms get their traction not just from how much people invest but more importantly from what crazy-seeming ideas launch beautiful campaigns to rally people around their ideas. As long as contributors stick to a series of basic formats or protocols or purpose, the combinations and outcomes can be endless and the platform gains momentum with every new original contribution.

Could development trusts be more powerful if they saw themselves as platforms? Could embattled council library services run with this logic? Could outcomes-based commissioning be further revolutionised with this approach? Based on our growing experience we’d say yes.

As always, this requires culture change as well as a shift in investment. To maximise the energy of platforms, we need to change expectations and behaviours. If traditional services and products are about selling and allocating, marketing and managing, platform approaches depend on inviting, enabling people to ‘plug in’, setting the right culture and curating diverse inputs. Needless to say, there’s huge skill and sensitivity required behind these simple words.

For a simple analogy of how this can go wrong, take public space. When they work well, a thriving market or vibrant square or street are the ultimate platform: a shared infrastructure and fairly basic set of common rules and positive culture enables an unpredictable set of encounters, behaviours, ideas, moments. But the past two decades of heavy investment in public space have seen simplistic interpretations that generated the space but not the spirit of a public domain. Instead of sharing, we got commercially dominated areas beset with rules and tightly policed or unwelcoming to people to make it their own. Endless publications have been written about this – and the task to generate truly inviting platforms for participation in other domains is no less complex.

It’s important we get this right because, as Victor Pestoff at Stockholm’s Institute for Civil Society Studies noted: ‘We find traces of a “glass ceiling” for citizen participation in public services that limits citizens to playing a more passive role as service users.’

It is this glass ceiling that the current generation of civic entrepreneurs are already breaking through. But like always in the shift towards a more civic economy, their success depends on collaboration across the existing public, private and third sector too.