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Participatory systems: moving beyond 20th century institutions.

If the 20th century was the era of the global institution--the United Nations, the World Health Organization, the multinational corporation--then the 21st century will be the era of the participatory system.


The big global challenges of our time demand mass participation. Finding solutions to climate change, managing demographic shifts, preventing and managing chronic disease, providing safe water supplies, and maintaining food security will require the pooling of diverse types of knowledge and resources and harnessing the motivation of billions of individuals and their communities.

The issue of climate change illustrates this need. Governments can commission unclear power stations, but they cannot force change in behavior--they cannot convince citizens to turn down their thermostats or fly less frequently. Solutions cannot be pushed down at people from above; they need to be pulled up from below. Our existing institutional architecture is fundamentally not up to the task. We need new, distributed, and highly participatory systems if change is to happen at scale.

Bottom-up problem solving has been around for a long time, but it has operated at the margins. No longer. As we move into the second decade of the 21st century, two factors collide that will make participatory systems central to problem solving in the decades to come. Firstly, as I have already alluded to above, the scale of the problems creates the need to harness the widest possible set of resources to problem solve. Secondly, the technology has matured and has become pervasive enough to enable such problem solving in an unprecedented way. In a Web 2.0 world it is possible to design simple, low cost, and highly adaptive participatory systems.

At a very simplistic, market level, big corporations have realized that mass participations is key to their brand value, innovation, and hence bottom line. Crowd sourcing, for example, allows consumers to choose, say, the next flavor of potato chips or design for a T-shirt and is increasingly a key way brands ensure their products remain relevant and retain market share. Charles Leadbeater's 2008 book We Think powerfully illustrates the ways in which mass collaboration through distributed networks has been able to innovate new products and solve a whole range of issues from mapping the genome to coordinating a campaign to end world debt.

So what are participatory systems? How can we design and scale them? How can they play a major role in bringing about the massive social change on which this century will rely? I argue that participatory systems will, by the middle of this century, seem as "normal" as global bureaucracies or corporations seem today.

First, I will look at the origins of these ideas. I will then look closely at the British welfare state--an out-of-date institution--and at how participatory systems are beginning to transform it. Finally, I look more closely at the characteristics of the systems, What they can offer, the mechanisms through which they can be designed, and the contexts that might prove most fertile for supporting them.

Historical Roots

Ideas of participation and mass bottom-up problem solving have been around for a long time, often emerging in places perceived by the Western-dominated global institutions to be marginal. Paolo Freire, the Brazilian revolutionary educationalist, and Ivan Illich, an iconoclastic Catholic priest, originally born in Vienna who made his home in Mexico, were two ardent proponents of the participatory system. Both were before their time in many ways.

Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed was first published in English in 1970. Rooted in his experience of teaching literacy to adults and children in Brazil, the text has, despite its obtuse style, remained current amongst educators in Latin America. In recent years Freire has also gained iconic status in US teacher-training programs.

Freire's methods champion both real life knowledge (the bare foot expert as key to problem solving) and the value of participation. Throughout his writing and his work he put an emphasis on community building, social problem solving, and ultimately changing the world through circles of participation which would focus on everyday change as opposed to political activism and speeches. Freire's methods inform community activists and participative methodologies worldwide.

Illich, too, was interested in education. In De Schooling Society (1971), Illich set out what he saw as the limitations of formal schooling. Schools and teachers, he argued, despite their best intentions, create the debilitating impression within individuals that the only knowledge which counts is that gained within formal educational systems. Throughout the 1970s, from his base in Mexico, Illich documented these and other failings of modern social institutions: schools, medicine, water systems, and the church.

At the heart of Illich's argument was a critique of the over-dominance of professional power. Professionals, he argued, whether doctors, teachers, or water engineers, define what people need and in the process limit the confidence and motivation of communities to act for themselves. Illich argued that the more resource we pour into 20th century institutions, the more ill effects they create.

Illich's work, like Freire's, raises fundamental questions about how we problem solve and how we could tackle big social challenges through participation as opposed to either market models of consumption or the top-down, target-driven culture of big bureaucracies. Illich's work presents a set of design principles that looked naive in 1970 and had fallen out of fashion by 1980. But in 2010, they look very different.


The UK's Welfare State: An Outdated Institution

If we turn to the British welfare state, the canvas of my own work, the ways in which Illich's predictions have come true are striking. Consider the field of health, where we see clearly an example of how simply investing in more professionals and buildings does not pay dividends. UK health spending has doubled since 1997. New hospitals have been opened, doctors' pay has gone up, and patient waiting lists have gone down. And yet British society is not, on any indicator, healthier.

Such outcomes had ironically already been foreseen by William Beveridge, a 20th century giant and the author of the British welfare state. The Beveridge Report published in 1942 gave birth to a set of fiscal and institutional arrangements, including national insurance schemes and universal public provision of health and education, which were designed to tackle inequality and large social issues head on. These arrangements have since been exported globally.

These institutions have been remarkably successful at transforming British society. In the decades after World War II, Britain experienced significant improvements in levels of education, health outcomes, life expectancy, social mobility, employment opportunities, and prosperity. Internationally, institutions such as the National Health Service were widely admired and copied.

Despite these initial successes, however, Beveridge was less than certain. As he watched the development of his vision in practice, he became increasingly convinced that the system of institutions was encouraging citizens to be passive welfare consumers. He wrote a final, third report, concluding that his original reforms were encouraging individuals to focus on their needs at the expense of active contribution. The postwar welfare architecture, he argued, had both missed and limited the potential power and engagement of the citizen.

Of course, reform has altered the postwar model over the last 20 years, but it increasingly seems that these efforts have been fundamentally misplaced. The emphasis has been on the reform of outmoded institutions, rather than a much needed new approach to the often new problems. For example, training more health staff and building more hospitals, an extension of a 19th century model based on infectious disease, has been favored over designing systems which would support people themselves combatting preventative, chronic diseases (now 45 percent of the disease burden in the United Kingdom and United States) in their homes, communities, and workplaces.

Beveridge's third report is the starting point for the work of Participle, an organization I co-founded three years ago, which has a mission statement called Beveridge 4.0. Our work is about building a new welfare state in practice--developing the thinking, the services, and the business models in a highly participatory manner. Our approach is about motivating deep participation to rethink big social issues. The results provide some practical examples of participatory systems.

Participative Systems in Practice

Consider aging. The so-called demographic time bomb is a global challenge, which the IMF predicts will dwarf the current financial crisis. By 2050 one in three people in the developed world will be over 60 (one in five globally). In the United Kingdom, this demographic shift is viewed almost universally as a source of panic because our 20th century welfare systems were not designed for a world where 60 percent of the population would be over 60. Indeed, the fiscal and social strains on our welfare institutions are already showing.

The policy dialogue has focused almost entirely on currently offered services and how to limit access through targets, gatekeeping, and so on--all of which are further sponges of limited resources.

What is striking about the UK over-60 population, however, is their wealth. They own over 80 percent of the United Kingdom's financial assets and are a huge well of talent, time, skills, and knowledge. At Participle we asked what would happen if we built a system, with older people, which could pool this vast resource and support participants to live a rich third age. The result is Circle, a membership organization that is alive in London and from 2010 will be scaling nationally.

Circle is a concrete example of a participatory system and so warrants closer examination. Designed initially with 250 older people and their families, Circle is part social network and part concierge service. The system has a wide network of paid and voluntary helpers that help take care of members' needs, from climbing a ladder to changing a light bulb, to accompanying someone on a hospital visit, to sorting someone's paper work. Members also take part in a wide range of social activities.

Nothing is too small, too large, or too outlandish for the Circle team. Circle team members do not see themselves as running a traditional service but rather supporting a wide participatory network whose members range in age from their 50s to their 90s and who come from across the socioeconomic spectrum. Members do not sit on boards; they actively collaborate to shape Circle and its activities in real time.

A low basic membership fee encourages wide membership, while wealthier members have the option to pay more for additional support. This generates a surplus, which is then ploughed back into the network, whose legal framework includes an asset lock. At a time of financial crisis, Circle is actually multiplying the resources available on one shared platform, both monetary and non-monetary such as time and skills.


Emerging participative systems, like Circle, can be found across the globe. Successful participative systems are marked by development of a sustainable business model and combination of different types of knowledge and resources to provide a service or social solution. Examples include mobile farmer networks in Africa that combine world-leading science, economics, and local knowledge to extend farming techniques and achieve better market prices. Further, Pune University in India is radically extending the concept of a university to harness the participation of villages in developing both new ways of learning and communities of action. Interestingly, many of their efforts are targeted on climate change.

The Aravind Eye Care System, also based in India, is a different sort of participatory system from Circle, but one that also illustrates an alternative response to the 1950s institutional model. Started in 1976, Aravind is now the most productive eye care facility in the world, treating 6,000 patients a day, mostly in their own villages. Taking inspiration from McDonalds' franchising (standard high quality product available to all) and a value system based on a spiritual consciousness that ensures both patient-oriented care and a highly motivated workforce, Aravind mobilizes the community as a partner to ensure that as many as possible are treated in their villages. Sixty percent of patients are treated for free, yet Aravind last year had a healthy margin on a US$20 million business. When comparable services are evaluated, Aravind costs 1 percent of the British National Health Service.

Aravind, like Circle, is an example of what Ivan Illich described as a good institution: "[They] encourage self assembly, re-use, and repair. They do not just serve people but create capabilities in them, and support initiative, rather than supplanting it." Aravind's manufacturing capability, started in a basement and based on re-use, is now a core and widely emulated part of the business.

The ways in which participatory systems, such as Aravind and Circle, can collate and generate knowledge are a key aspect of their transformative potential. Solving complex problems relies on rich knowledge networks. Circle combines the knowledge of international experts, professionals, and older people themselves. For the members, a rich third age means access to knowledge that is hyper-local and global: where is the most congenial place for a coffee and who has the latest thinking on Alzheimer's. Modern participative systems are at once bottom-up and top-down.

They are also lateral and encourage surprising and fluid connections. Increasingly we are also coming to acknowledge that problem solving needs to combine not just different levels of knowledge, but different disciplinary perspectives. Recent decades have seen the startling global institutional dominance of the field of economics. The limitations of this disciplinary perspective are being recognized by economists themselves; consider, for example, recent interest in the field of behavioral science.


Since the birth of the 20th century global institution, there have been remarkable new intellectual developments in fields ranging from sociology and neuroscience, to the "psy" disciplines. But traditional institutions such as the welfare state and the policy paradigms within which they operate at best ignore and more often negate the potential of these insights into human emotions, despite the widespread understanding that emotions govern our motivations, provide insight into human relationships, and are the wellspring of our creativity. Aravind's emphasis on spiritual compassion is interesting in this context.

Tim Brown, design thinker as well as advocate and creator of participatory systems, makes a simple but powerful argument about the importance of collecting knowledge together in these participatory ways.

Brown argues that the 20th century was all about convergent thinking--making choices through rational economic models, institutional funnelling through hierarchies, and dialogue through conferences. The 21st century will be about divergent thinking, creating new choices, developing new solutions through integrative thinking, and balancing opposites. His point is that we do not have the solutions to many of the big challenges we face this century. We need to go about creating them and we cannot do that if we play on the same canvas with the same tools. We need new ways of pooling diverse knowledge and tools that are simple to use and draw people in.

Design and Scale

So how can we design these participatory systems? Experience shows we need a human starting point, simple tools that draw participants in, rapid cycles of testing, and system improvement, with thought given to the frameworks within which the systems operate.

Participatory systems start from a human perspective--from the standpoint of people, their relationships and connectivity, desires, and culture. This perspective is in stark contrast to 20th century approaches that start within institutional frameworks, concentrate on infrastructure and technology, and then look out toward atomized individuals. Of course technology is key: it is pervasive, distributed, and highly interactive technologies which make possible today's participatory systems at scale. But technology serves a collaborative, human-centered process--technology itself is not the starting point.

Tools that make participation easy are vital. Participle's philosophy is that motivation is the new medicine, meaning participation must be simple and alluring, pulling in participants. In the case of some early work on chronic disease systems, facilitated by the Participle team, tools included a simple pack of playing cards that served at once as an invitation to participate and a diagnostic tool. Participants would choose cards to represent the areas of their life or condition that they would most like to address or that they deemed to be most urgent. A support system--Me2--then provided access to peers, professionals, group activities, personal metrics, and a group reward system, reinforcing the collective sense of participation and belonging.

Effective tools blur the traditional boundaries between consumer and producer. In the Me2 system, a participant might at once be seeking support in one area--diet for example--while mentoring a peer on another area such as exercise. At Circle, members can also be helpers, and much of the content and activity is user-generated. Aravind harnesses communities to provide locations for mobile clinics and a local, volunteer workforce. These same communities are also the recruiting ground for training skilled operatives, resulting in a highly motivated and productive work force.

Looking Forward

Circle was designed through a process of rapid prototyping, that is, learning through making. After spending time with older people, their family, and friends--in their living rooms, going shopping, visiting friends--and getting an idea as to what was required, we rapidly built an early mock up of the system. It enabled us to generate immediate use, engagement, and feedback in a manner that no report, blueprint, or document could have done. In other words, the system of design is itself highly participatory and iterative. In the context of social problem solving, this participatory procedure is a new way of thinking about growth and scale. In the world of design or film, such a process is standard. Many ideas are explored in parallel through cheap visual models.

All of this is not to imply that participatory systems are fully spontaneous or independent of wider frameworks. Users of participatory systems will become rapidly disillusioned unless money and resources support the decisions made and solutions created. While these systems can be self-organizing, leadership is required, such as the charismatic founding father of Aravind, Dr. Govindappa Venkataswamy, who created the norms and systems for replication and adaptation. Committed political leadership is also required to create the macro conditions in which such systems flourish if the desirable is to become inevitable.

Participatory systems harness new technology for 21st century challenges. They encourage us to ask not what is wrong with our current institutions and how to reform them, but rather the extent of our collective capabilities and knowledge and how we can harness the two. Participatory systems shift the emphasis from infrastructure and professionals to emphasis from infrastructure and professionals to relationships and knowledge. As participatory systems attract mass enthusiasm and harness mass collaboration at lower cost, their time is now.

HILARY COTTAM is the founder and principal partner of participle, a public service organization based in the United Kingdom. She also served as Director of the Design Council and as the founder of School Works Ltd

RELATED ARTICLE: Spotlight on Hilary Cottam

Hilary Cottam is the founder and a principal partner of Participle. Participle creates new types of public service that address the big social challenges of our century. Current work includes a new social business to provide social care, a service to combat loneliness, and the design of a relationship-based youth service.

Prior to Participle, Cottam was a Director of the Design Council where she led the pioneering RED unit, developing "transformation design" methods and new thinking on public services. Cottam is also the founding Director of the Do Tank Ltd and School Works Ltd, ranked in 2004 within Britain's top 100 creative companies. Before these projects Cottam spent eight years working internationally as an urban poverty specialist at the World Bank, based in Washington, DC.

In 2006 Hilary was designated a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum and in 2005 she was recognized as the UK Designer of the Year for her inspiring approach to public service innovation.

What attracted you to your field? What do you enjoy most about it?

The possibility of making a real difference.

What has been the most challenging part of your career thus far?

Bringing about systemic change involves persistent and persuasive dialogue with bureaucracy and entrenched ways of doing business--this never ceases to be a challenge but is critical to implementation at scale.

What moment stands out to you as particularly memorable since embarking on your professional career?

My first job upon graduating was with the humanitarian wing of a guerrilla army--this gave me unique insight into both the potential and pitfalls of participatory systems and a visceral understanding of the consequences of institutional failure.


What projects are you seeking to pursue next?

In 2010 I will focus on employment--we need to re-think the systems and structures that support the young, the low-skilled, and the long-term unemployed into work and ensure those in work can continue to move up the skills curve. Current approaches see both work and the unemployed in very crude transactional terms that support neither individuals nor employers. These approaches are expensive and, even during a decade of economic growth, left whole communities behind. Radically different forms of organization could unlock new, low-cost but effective solutions that better support post-industrial economies and society.

Of whom would you like to be considered the intellectual heir? Who has influenced your thinking most profoundly?

Many people. Amongst them: Gramsci, Foucault, the men and women of the Dominican barrio I have lived and worked in for eight years, Julia Kristeva, Teresa de Lauretis, Luce Irigaray, Toni Morrison, bell hooks, Taussig ...

What advice can you offer current students looking to pursue careers in your field?

Be T-shaped: develop depth in one discipline and knowledge and understanding in at least one other. Follow your heart and practice.
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Title Annotation:FEATURES
Author:Cottam, Hilary
Publication:Harvard International Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2010
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