Given enough minds...: Bridging the ingenuity gap
First Monday

Given enough minds...: Bridging the ingenuity gap by Hassan Masum and Mark Tovey

Peak oil. Climate change. Air pollution and top soil depletion. Water shortages and intractable conflicts. Disease, poverty, hunger, terrorism, natural disasters, and anomie ... the world is full of tough problems. What would a sustainable open infrastructure dedicated to finding solutions look like?

For many of the toughest problems, it will have to lower financial, disciplinary, and bureaucratic boundaries to make more use of non–specialists — interested citizens who are willing to share their knowledge, expertise, connections, and commitment to confront common challenges. This implies that the investment required per citizen to get involved must be relatively low, whether measured in money, time, or technical expertise. Our goal in this paper is to demonstrate how to start building an effective open system to support such sharing today.

Many of the tools exist already, both technical and social. Many of the requisite technical tools exist as inexpensive or free software, e.g. for information sharing, discussions, audio conferencing, small–scale video conferencing, and simultaneous editing. Social tools are often more difficult to master than technical ones. They include filtering contributions and contributors to separate the wheat from the chaff, building a sense of community and shared goals, motivating contributors to stay involved, making the link from smaller to larger efforts, and keeping the whole process fun and productive. Different “collaboration modes” can be identified, each with characteristic interaction topologies and scale of people involved.

We look at two case studies that we have been involved with: developing strategies for dealing with peak oil scenarios, and contributing to the online magazine WorldChanging (at For us and for many others who were and are involved in such open initiatives, a big part of the motivation to spend so much time and effort solving problems is enjoyment of "productive fun". After all, nobody has to worry about making bars or coffee shops “sustainable”. Our challenge is to make a problem–solving infrastructure so much fun that it becomes a natural, widely accepted custom — a combination of widely available software, open science, and open content that leads to open participation in building our common future.


Case studies and a look ahead



Case studies and a look ahead

We start with sharing two examples of open collaboration efforts from our own lives. These could be multiplied a thousandfold — the point is to think concretely about what’s involved in scaling up open collaboration. Getting involved in almost any such endeavor suggests ideas for making better use of tools, modes of interaction, motivational strategies, and overall problem–solving methods to rapidly accelerate what we can do together.

For us, and for many others involved in such initiatives, a big part of the motivation to spend so much time and effort solving problems is enjoyment of “productive fun” (akin to what Csikszentmihalyi [1993] calls “flow”, with productive output). We posit that doing something rather than nothing about the tough problems out there is natural for most people, given the right opportunities. Our goal in the rest of this paper is to provide a framework to help make these opportunities widely available, interesting, productive, and effective.

The first step is to understand the tools available, as these underlie the accelerative gain possible from open collaboration. A home PC is now capable of supporting distributed small–group collaboration in a variety of ways. With a little organized support, such efforts can be facilitated, coordinated, and interlinked into larger networks of collaboration to produce sizeable outcomes (Benkler, 2006).

Next, we talk about “modes”, or design patterns for productive collaboration. Just as we are used to the idea of a debate or a lecture, we will become used to many more interpersonal idioms, each with different functionality, “feel”, and requirements. Contributing to Wikipedia, engaging in massively parallel brainstorming, or taking part in a multi–site video seminar with backchannel dialogue are qualitatively new ways of being productive together, and each of these modes holds the promise of radically increased effectiveness for particular tasks.

But collaboration only happens with motivation. We therefore look at some “motivation gaps” for open sustainable collaboration. Our main focus is the “fun factor” — we believe that making collaborative activities more fun is an easy and high–impact step to take, and that this low–hanging fruit is therefore ripe for plucking.

But collaboration only happens with motivation.

Tools, modes, and motivations come together in the search for practical solutions, to help bridge the “ingenuity gaps” our civilization faces (Homer–Dixon, 2000). Our closing section looks at what advantages a problem–solving infrastructure might deliver, at levels ranging from making one’s own habits more effective to tackling planetary emergencies. While the consequences of failure sometimes keep us awake at night, the hope that positive–sum interactions could be launched to the next level on a global basis are a constant source of inspiration.

Peak oil

We will reach a point in the relatively near future (less than 10 years, perhaps) where the rate at which we pump oil out of the ground will reach a peak (Goodstein, 2005). Although we won’t run out of oil for a long time, a peak in oil supply combined with increasing demand implies that the price of oil will rise dramatically. That’s bad, because much of our essential infrastructure is made from or maintained by petrochemicals, including fertilizers, medicines, industrial and farm machinery, as well as a large part of the transportation sector. Some economists argue that as oil prices rise, substitutes for oil will be found through market mechanisms, but it’s not clear what those substitutes would look like, how much oil it would take to create them, or what degree of disruption would take place in the crossover period.

Another worry is that we might not have enough easily extractable oil to create the infrastructure to run civilization on non–hydrocarbon fuel sources. We need oil to build the pebble bed reactors, carbon–sequestration facilities, off–shore wind turbines, and photovoltaic arrays that would be needed in massive numbers to replace the energy the world now gets from oil. Since rates of transition to new energy sources may be relatively slow, we’ll have to think of clever ways to downsize our energy needs, like moving transportation to rail and growing food locally. And using coal as an oil substitute would have to be carefully thought about and managed, since burning hydrocarbons is a significant factor in climate change.

Given the massive reliance of modern civilization on petroleum and the relatively short time scale to find alternatives, managing the transition to a post–petroleum economy will requires vast amounts of ingenuity, making it an appropriate case study for large–scale problem solving. Many citizen–led efforts are already underway, such as the excellent Energy Bulletin, at (“designed to be a clearinghouse for current information regarding the peak in global energy supply”) and Global Public Media, at (“formed to help existing public service information organizations ... give a broader, deeper and more interactive public information service”).

A small but scalable piece of the answer: Crude Awakening

How do you start tackling a problem of this magnitude in your own neighborhood? Just start. Mark Tovey, one of the co–authors of this paper, was instrumental in initiating “Crude Awakening” — a process spawned by the Environmental Advisory Committee for the City of Ottawa, Canada (see It seeks to develop solutions to impacts of peak oil at a local level, and to encourage other municipalities to start similar processes of their own.

The public forum process was simple but effective. Two local mayors and a city councilor spoke at the event, underlining the message that the search for solutions was a joint effort in generating policy ideas by politicians and concerned citizens alike. The morning was then spent in professionally facilitated breakout groups of 10 to 12 people, each discussing likely regional impacts of peak oil.

Over lunch, while participants mingled and learned from each other and various organizations, their responses were analyzed to identify ten categories of impact. In the afternoon, ten more breakout groups worked on developing solutions in these ten impact areas. The results of this one–day process were written up, and made available to City Council and the public at large.

From this one–day event, ten topical committees were formed (based on each of the topic areas) that meet on an ongoing basis to study sub–problems in more depth. The goal is to collectively produce a comprehensive public report. A parallel process lets participants develop solutions online, mainly to encourage contributions from people who are too busy to participate in person. At present there are two modes of participation for each topic: a public discussion forum, and an open source idea generation facility which allows the community at large to contribute ideas and solutions.

Along with identifying solutions for Ottawa, a meta–goal was to provide a replicable process which other cities could use. Given that there are many thousands of municipalities with the human resources to tackle these issues, having even a few cities or towns running parallel processes — and sharing best practices and outcomes with each other — will help scale this solution process up to the level required to tackle the peak oil problem as a whole.


Crude Awakening is just one initiative, and though it looks promising, its impact remains to be seen. Nevertheless, one can use it (or other successful examples of deliberative democracy) to illustrate concrete morals that will be useful for scaling up collaboration:

The results need to be actionable — the difference between “here’s a neat idea” and “here’s how this idea could be implemented”.

a) You can use a distributed process to decompose large problems into smaller ones.

b) Moderation or facilitation (or some structure that keeps people’s contributions constructive) is crucial: the goal is to keep the discussion moving in a way which produces ever more results.

c) To keep people motivated and happy, let them self–select their participation and contribution.

d) Approaching large problems in stages is useful — get a basic handle on what’s going, and then scale up. Picture an “information pipeline”: a process of inquiry, a process of generation, a process of filtering, and a process of action (iterated as necessary).

e) Offering multiple modes of interaction (in person, electronic forum, open source idea generation) allows people to choose a mode which is most appropriate to the kind of collaborative activity they have in mind. Having only one mode is like bringing a hammer as your only tool in trying to solve a problem you don’t understand.

f) The results need to be actionable — the difference between “here’s a neat idea” and “here’s how this idea could be implemented”.

g) Informal social time is important: for food, for bonding, and for serendipitous interactions.

WorldChanging works from a simple premise: that the tools, models and ideas for building a better future lie all around us. That plenty of people are working on tools for change, but the fields in which they work remain unconnected. That the motive, means and opportunity for profound positive change are already present. That another world is not just possible, it’s here. We only need to put the pieces together.
— from WorldChanging’s “about us” page at

WorldChanging is an online blog/magazine which seeks to bring the most useful tools, ideas, and inspiration to a mass audience, thus helping to tackle the really tough problems. It has won several awards and has a readership numbering in the hundreds of thousands, with a paid editorial staff of only three. Voluntary contributors (including co–author Hassan Masum of this article) number roughly two dozen, from North America, Europe, and India.

Any organization which styles itself as “worldchanging” has lofty goals to live up to, and every member of the core team is aware of that. There have been a lot of successes and well–received articles published on the site: interviews with nanotechnology ethicists and ecological economists, pointers to effective tools and innovative organizations, reports on organic LEDs and open source in the developing world. What are some of the challenges to doing even better?

Challenges and opportunities

WorldChanging faces challenges to open collaboration within its core team:

Design as if time is a scarce resource — Aside from two of the editors, contributions are done on a voluntary basis, intermittently between full–time careers. But interesting people also tend to be busy people — finding time to write substantive, original articles is difficult, and all the more so when interviews or research are required.

Support group intelligence and memory — Motivating contributors, sharing ideas about editorial and content direction, collaborating, and having fun together is tough since contributors are located in many different cities across three continents. While the core editorial staff is together most days, others have to rely on tools to keep in touch — mailing lists, BaseCamp, conference calls, and an annual in–person retreat. There is an ongoing exploration for better tools that would be useful yet easy, like chats, back–end databases, videoconferences, or collaborative editing. The barrier to making use of them is not so much money, as time for setup and participation.

Work hard at finding the right people — Bringing in a greater diversity of contributors, especially from the developing world and different demographics, is an ongoing challenge. Finding contributors who are talented in their own field of expertise, able to write well and originally, willing to contribute for free, and motivated to tackle tough problems is not easy, especially for voluntary efforts where trust is crucial.

Every group needs to eat — Many online collaborative efforts seem relatively costless initially. But once they scale past a certain size, expenses are inevitable, for both technical and human resources. Most magazines and newspapers derive a majority of their revenue from advertising, which WorldChanging has so far avoided. Like many other online ventures, it’s a challenge to find a sustainable model for financing a resource valued by thousands but available online for free.

WorldChanging also faces challenges relevant to other large online collaborations:

Push the tool boundaries — For example, navigating the huge back catalog of many thousands of posts is a key usability constraint — there’s just so much there, and keyword/category search is not quite enough. Collaborative filtering is another possibility — instead of relying on the reader to recall relevant posts, use filtering or tagging systems to highlight options the community has recommended.

Connect people and opportunities — From server stats, the vast majority of visitors read but do not make comments — but from the many comments that are received both on– and off–site, it’s clear that some very talented people are reading and enjoying the site. Effectively networking them with communities of shared interests and high–quality projects can’t help but spark innovations. How can this be done using few volunteer minutes, in a way that encourages productive collaborations?

Channel spare hours and minutes — Similarly, adding social components to WorldChanging could fulfill the need for social activity and play, while also producing useful “collaborative byproducts”. People enjoy their leisure activities, especially the ones that allow an experience of down–time — open source collaboration is competing with television, video games, science fiction, and a myriad of other not–to–be–underestimated competitors for time. What kinds of fun processes could realistically channel a talented reader’s “spare minutes”?

Move from talking to doing? — Information about good options, while useful and practical, is only partway to making those options a reality. To get a WorldChanging idea like solar cooking or LED lighting into widespread usage — and we mean adopted by hundreds of millions of people — there is a whole innovation and production pipeline. At which points could a voluntary collaboration like WorldChanging help accelerate that process? The broader point is that having ideas is often easy, but doing them is hard. (Adding information technology and consumer products to developing nations is easy, but upgrading infrastructure and human or institutional capital is hard.) Is there a natural next step to take beyond putting ideas out into the infosphere, so that the accelerative process we’ve seen in generating information can be applied to implementing solutions?

Collaboration for the many

With these two case studies, our goal has been to demonstrate open collaboration via practical examples from our own lives. These collaborations are made possible by the amplifying effect of good tools, and the enjoyment of working in small networks of enthusiastic, talented volunteers.

Our goal is to suggest tools that are useful and usable by the average person with a PC.

These case studies come out of our experience as practitioners as well as academics. Our goal is to suggest tools that are useful and usable by the average person with a PC. No $1000–a–day consultants, no expensive equipment — just simple tools, a bit of training, and a few willing partners.

In the final section of this paper, we’ll consider a hypothetical scenario which uses some of the tools and modes we’ll talk about to scale up open collaboration to thousands or millions of people.




Let’s start off our discussion of enabling tools at a very concrete level: As two busy individuals coalescing a mass of thoughts, ideas, and experiences into a coherent paper. what tools did we (the authors) use? What would have made our job easier? What else is out there, and what kinds of tools could we make use of in the future?

Tools for two

Tools we used include:

  • Voice over IP (Skype): the two of us typically used Skype to collaborate since we were in different cities. Not having to worry about where the other party was made life easier, as did being able to easily do three– and four–person conversations. Skype’s ability to work without extra configuration through almost any firewall was a real asset — its technological and time barriers to entry are very low. A flat rate long distance plan for North America was also useful.

  • Collaborative Editing (SubEthaEdit): a collaborative editor allows two or more people to remotely view and edit the same document in real time, with all changes immediately visible to everyone. If all participants are good writers and on similar wavelengths, it can be an eerie feeling to watch a document being edited this way, as one has the feeling of watching a group intelligence able to focus on multiple areas at once. In combination with Skype, this was an extremely productive mode of long–distance interaction — sometimes better than being in the same room.

  • PC Videoconference (iChatAV, OhPhoneX): we sometimes talked via iChat, which gives quite acceptable quality for a one–on–one conversation. Though we found that video was not usually necessary for purposes of this paper, it can be useful for certain kinds of conversations, such as understanding interpersonal nuances or connecting with a new collaborator.

  • Audio Recorder and Transcriva: we regularly recorded our sessions so that we could capture ideas that might otherwise be lost. Transcriva is a simple but excellent piece of transcription software that allows easy indexing of your topics of conversation without having to transcribe the whole exchange verbatim.

  • JetClock, iCal: we regularly used tools that allowed for scheduling of events in different time zones.

  • Gmail: it’s useful to have an accessible–anywhere mail account where you can send large files without thinking about file sizes.

In general, we found the tools were there, but setup is often still not smooth. As a simple example, setting up SubEthaEdit (which we both enjoy using) required the following steps every time we used it:

  • Start SubEthaEdit on both ends.

  • On the server end, open appropriate ports in a firewall, set a wireless router to a different pre–saved configuration, tell the clients the appropriate IP address to use, and “announce” the working document as read/write.

  • On the client end, find the option to connect to a remote party, and connect to the IP address just received from the server end.

Although SubEthaEdit proved easy to use with practice, it was not obvious the first couple of times how to perform its most basic feature of connecting people together. Now it takes us only a minute or two to set up, but even these small time barriers can drop off collaboration — and the initial puzzlement involved in setting up tools the first time poses a significant barrier to entry.

Tools for a few

What more could we use at the small team level, with modest funds? Here are a few examples of “tools for a few”:

Co–browsing and screen sharing: Having a Web browser which can be “driven” by any collaborator allows people to very quickly draw new information into the conversation, look up half–forgotten references, and scan to “see what’s out there” on a new topic. More generally, screen sharing applications are useful for giving remote tutorials, and for sharing models and drawings to augment discussions. These applications often allow recording an animation of the mouse movements, so that you can play back what the person did on screen (and possibly even what they said). This can be very useful as documentation later — in some cases, the kind of “showhow” allowed by this process can be much more useful than linear paper documentation.

Offline video: Making short video messages to send via e–mail adds a very personal touch to a one–way communication, or to a group video blog. Using appropriate software and a fairly low resolution, one can get a minute into a megabyte or two, which is easy to handle for most people. You can also create extended “video letters” quite quickly, and burn them to DVD and mail them (or ftp). iMovie HD even allows the opportunity to do this in HD for a very immediate experience of the other person.

Meetings: For people living in the same city, publicized topical meetings around shared interests can be a very effective way to get to know key interested parties — to bring people together who would otherwise never interact. Local event calendars on the Internet are an unusually effective way of finding interesting opportunities outside one’s current social network.

Scaling up audio and video conferencing: Voice conferencing programs can be used with more people, though there are bandwidth, audio quality, and engagement issues as audioconference size gets larger. Similarly, iChat gives a high–quality video experience with up to four people. With access to a professional–level videoconference unit like a Polycom, small groups can easily talk, debate, discuss, and share experiences. Once the initial technical issues are ironed out, scheduling and maintaining positive multisite group dynamics become two of the main difficulties.

Coordination: If you have multiple collaborators in multiple cities around the world, each in different time zones, scheduling a time for a call where everyone will be awake is not as easy as it is with two people. It’s imperative that you have tools that address this difficulty. The WorldClock Meeting Planner (at makes finding a workable time much easier.

Similarly, multiple collaborators with busy schedules often find a lot of e–mail being sent or phone calls being made simply to establish a time to meet. Tools which automate the process of finding a time that works for everyone (like Google Calendar, at are a real boon to group collaboration.

Contacting: To maintain effective communications, it is useful to be able to easily and quickly contact individuals and groups through a range of modalities. Apple’s Address book, for instance, allows you to immediately e–mail, IM, audio or video conference people right from the address book; an appropriate plug–in will allow Skype and SkypeOut functionality. Group e–mail lists, especially where invitations can be automatically issued, responded to, and scheduled are also a boon. And storing hard–to–remember information about one’s extended social network makes intermittent collaborations more likely.

Where flash drives really come into their own as a collaborative tool is in simply having one always on you, and being able to ask someone for a particular file (say a PowerPoint presentation they just showed) in the moment (at a conference, say), or being able to give them a particular file in the moment. We’ve seen someone who no longer carries his laptop with him when he goes between home and office. He carries his iPod, and simply plugs it in to his box when he gets to either end, and works off of the iPod.

Recording audio: Recording directly to an efficiently compressed format is excellent for recording lectures, discussions, interviews — also great for recording meetings, so you can type up notes of what everyone had to say, and great for beating writer’s block. There’s something about moving to a different modality or explaining your ideas to another person that works surprisingly well. It’s also easy enough to record sound right in an e–mail application, or to use audio material for podcasting. A ready–to–hand audio recorder allows taking extended audio notes in the field, recording serendipitous conversations, or dictating letters to people whenever the mood takes you.

Good tools are accelerators for problem–solving, just as a compiler, IDE, editor, code library, CollabNet, TopCoder, etc. are for programming. We envision packaging all the tools in a collaborative toolkit, so you can simply say “I want to voice + SubEtha with XYZ in GMT–3 in the next two days”, and have a time that works for both automatically scheduled. At the scheduled time, a contact reminder pops up, and choosing to go ahead automatically loads all the tools, sets up appropriate firewall and hardware configurations, and so forth. The goal is that complex collaborative environments should be as easy as a local phone call to use.

Tools matrix

Here are some common collaborative tools circa early 2006, most usable by a small team with modest funds and technical expertise. “Cost” is a combination of money and time, and “scale” refers to the size of collaboration enabled by the tool.


ToolCostScaleVariants and Details
Tools you could set up and use in a Monday
Telephone low low one–to–one — long–distance — connects people together who would otherwise be unable to meet
Conference calling lowmedconference calling — free/cheap to use aside from long distance — tight structure and facilitation needed for larger groups
Shared visual space medlowwhiteboard–blackboard — big paper — shared visual models of the conversation
Rapid visual demosmedmedscreen capture a process as its own quick–to–create documentation — learning by seeing is far more rapid
E–maillowlowone–to–one — archiving — Swiss army knife of communication, catalyzing rapid processes
Group e–mail lowmed group accelerator — sync group, nothing falls through cracks — can form subgroups to reduce cognitive overhead of “paying attention to everything” and scaling up
Weblowinfinitedistillinginformation/collective wisdom — synergies from division of expertise/interest/labor — accelerates production, dissemination, and access to knowledge
Collaborative editinglowlowSubEthaEdit etc., real–time editing/discussion/rapid prototyping of same document — shared back–and–forth progress to look at things differently, move out of dead ends
Text chatlowmedrapid text conferencing capability — allows nearly instant responses, rapid sharing of references, photos, and files, and easy archiving/search
Blogslowhighindividual or group — allows people to capture and filter ideas that would otherwise remain uncaptured, unorganized, and unpublished.
VideoConference (PC low–bandwidth) lowlowYahoo/MSN, Skype, iChat — accelerates trust–building, forming working relationships, and making connections across cultural/geographical barriers
Visual capturelowlow fax machine, scanner, camera, webcam — sharing video e–mail or diagrams, passes the “Mom Test”
Tools that take “more than a Monday”
Intranet/shared content space med medcommon group space for discussions, restricted information, files, pictures, video, past projects, etc. — can see what rest of group is up to — access to most current thinking avoids redundancy, makes connections, accelerates research
Shared visual space across sitesmedlowscreen sharing/co–browsing apps — SubEthaEdit — if support is more rapid, solutions are more rapid too — demonstrate remotely instead of having to go there, not possible in that time frame in physical space
Real–time feedbackmedmedexcitement meter — 2–5 options, wireless, cheap, one per person — auto–collect real–time polls and do quizzes — rapidly capture the “wisdom of crowds” for a large group
Video bloglowmedproduce video blog or program — “a picture is worth a thousand words”
Professional blog/sitemedhighdesign time can be huge ... but large amounts of precisely filtered, content–rich information can be made available from a single source. “one stop shopping”
Reputation systemmedmedpreferentially shows you good stuff, filters out bad stuff (like CiteULike, CouchSurfing, eBay, Amazon, etc.) — benefiting from others’ experience saves you having to learn the hard way, and encourages better behavior in general
WikilowmedProjectForum, homebrew Wiki of relatively few pages — rapid distribution of labor and distributed correction
Open source idea generation toolsmedmedDifferent from a forum, an open source idea generation tool (like WhyNot) allows brainstorming, elaboration, and refinement of particular ideas by multiple people. Encourages invention rather than interpolation.
VideoConference (professional) highmedPolycom units, Halo room — be there without going there — allows groups to interact with a high degree of effectiveness, especially in visual modes and larger discussions
VideoConference (parallel modes) medmedallow multiple video streams simultaneously, for breakout groups, etc. — challenge is to set up and choreograph groups, provide visual channels, etc. — opportunity for parallel interactions between multiple sites
Video storage/streaminghighhighedited library of high–quality video ResearchChannel, Annenberg Media — what the Web was about 10 years ago for text, now bringing high–quality lectures, etc. to a mass audience — can watch world–class learning materials wherever you are
Slash/community softwaremedmedSlash, Plone, Drupal — “community in a box” provides a way of setting up shared working space easily, and community filtering/discussion
Analytical softwaremedmed by running “collaborative thought experiments” and sharing and analyzing models, we can test hypotheses and (hopefully) learn deep facts about the real world
“Social software”medhighSocialtext, LinkedIn — sophisticated social functions in easy–to–use package


On the leading edge: Tools to view

Better tools could further enable sustainable open collaboration. Given our experience and interest in the area (see Masum, et al., 2005), we’ll use video–based tools as an example.

Vlogging and sharing short segments: Video blogging and participatory video are rapidly growing in popularity. If there are no copyright issues or third–party permissions to worry about, then it’s easy to record, edit, and share a short video segment. For example, an iMac will do it out of the box with the built–in video camera and editing software. Given the past decade’s experience with the power of sharing text and images, easy and ubiquitous video can be expected to have interesting impacts.

Annotation and highlights: Storing video is now easy; finding time to watch it is hard. How could good clips be identified during an event? One could push a button to indicate “the past minute was interesting”, or ask participants to explicitly record short highlight statements. (This again illlustrates a simple rule of thumb: design as if time is a scarce resource.)

To annotate video, running an automatic speech–to–text system on the video (or allowing participants to type in a description) can approximately index what was said and when. Reputation systems and distributed voting could help pick out better segments after the event. Automatically compressing video by removing dead air and speeding up voice can be quite efficient: one of us regularly watches QuickTime lecture videos speeded up by a factor of 1.5 to 2, and actually finds it more interesting than real–time playback.

Group discussion: Of course, one needs the right equipment, good bandwidth, proper audio setup (especially with larger groups), easy video capture, and easy switching between different participants and video sources. Countdown timers (or traffic signals with yellow and red warning lights) can limit long speakers.

Shared cross–site whiteboards, separate ancillary text spaces, and multiple video connections can enable simultaneous subgroups to share in every modality they can make use of. Psychological effects of advances in display technology itself shouldn’t be underestimated: a life–size, high–resolution, fully fluid display of other parties feels very engaging, and these kinds of displays are on the horizon for small group use.

Organizing: Scheduling and automatic setup are humble but crucial practical hurdles for frequent group interaction — spending a couple of hours setting things up works if you videoconference a few times a year, but not a few times a week (or day). Similarly, a session or activity mapper would help to plan large complex interactions, such as those with multiple groups cross–connecting in configurations which change over time. Systems are needed to receive requests to use particular videos, ask permission from those who are in it, and automatically return their answer. Automatically handling distribution permissions for video will be a growing concern, as you might want some but not all working conversations with colleagues to be world–accessible.

Existing tools point the way to a group “collaborative infrastructure” — just as you assume that there is a road most places, in the same way you should be able to assume that there will be videoconferencing facilities most places as well. Just as you have office suites right now, you can envision collaboration suites, integrating collaboration services and a gradually developing supportive set of social tools and customs.

Imagine public collaboration–places set up in different cities — in public libraries or civic centers — hundreds, perhaps thousands of places like this. Given a few protocols for interaction, some volunteer facilitators, and tools that take a couple of minutes to set up, this public utility would introduce millions to peers in other cities and around the world. Instead of scrounging for places to meet and use videoconferencing, we could have a network of civic places for shared problem–solving, discussion, collaboration, and building bottom–up social capital.

The Tool Browser and Mode Mapper we introduce in the next section would be a natural context for effective group videoconferencing. By making the tools simple to use, suggesting new tool combinations, and storing a library of best practices and effective modes, our tool use will have a chance to bootstrap from experiences of the past.




“Modes” are recipes for interaction — design patterns for scaling–up collaboration. As a working definition, a mode is a replicable combination of tools, customs, and social intelligence that enhances some desirable aspect of group effectiveness. One could think of them as “social software”. Each mode encodes a set of interaction guidelines and problem–solving methods. And just like a word processor or spreadsheet, a particular mode can be applied in many different areas.

In the last section we talked about tools, but now comes a harder step: how to use the tools effectively. Our goals in this section are to identify a sample of useful modes for open source collaboration and idea generation, and to illustrate the idea of iteratively developing effective modes.

Why bother doing this? Don’t we get better at these kinds of social interaction by experience? Well, yes, but we would argue this holds true only up to a certain scale. Raw cleverness alone takes a beginning programmer only so far before becoming tangled up in spaghetti code; past that level, learning the hard–won lore of algorithm design and programming principles becomes necessary.

Our goal should be modes which are more adaptive, more effective, more scalable, and more affordable. Because “open collaboration” means not just open source ... it means an open meritocracy of contributions, like Wikipedia and many open source projects aim for. And it means open financially, to those who aren’t rich. Only when any educated citizen with something to offer can join in, without support, in their spare time, does truly massive collaboration take off.

Easy examples

Let’s start with some common modes which can be provided by collaboration with low–end tools and a bit of social know–how.

Doing source code walkthroughs: Using a collaborative editor like SubEthaEdit, move a cursor around or highlight sections on the screen while talking around them using iChat or Skype. This gives you the opportunity to clearly point out particular elements of programming code in a very natural way, where multiple people can interact with (or add comments to) the code. Often comments will occur to you that should have been added to the code, and you can add them right then and there based on your discussions, creating a permanent record in the most useful possible place. And since the code is in an editor, people on both ends should actually be able to run it.

Showing photos: This is very effective when you want to visually annotate a narrative of some experience you’ve had which is well documented with photographs; photos of art from an art gallery work very well. iPhoto allows you to drag photos directly into iChat. The photos appear immediately at the other end, right in the chat window, without any need to accept them. This makes it easy to send photos to the other person where the order you choose (and the things you choose to say about those photos) are ad hoc. The non–linearity of this method of communication seems to be key to its effectiveness, allowing a much richer story to be told to another person remotely than is possible with a simple slide show in a fixed order. The story can also be made sensitive to the flow of conversation, and to the other person’s comments and expressed interests.

Presumably this would be just as effective if you were showing design diagrams of various kinds, or drafts of artwork for a particular project. The experience of “showing photos”, code walkthroughs, and screen sharing applications is anchored by being able to point or refer to particular things. To have the person at the other end be able to immediately see which things are being referred to adds a surprising amount of value and richness to the communicative experience. Each of these experiences also offers the possibility of non–linearity: you don’t have to start at the beginning and head to the end, but can skip back and forth.

Writing an essay or paper together. As discussed in the previous section, we used a combination of voice chat and collaborative editing to write this paper while in different countries. Again, being able to talk about the thing you’re working on, and at the same time scan through and edit what you’re working on, is a surprisingly powerful working mode.

We look forward to trying this with a larger set of co–authors, and learning what, if any, customs need to arise to keep collaboration coherent when half a dozen keen authors are working on the same document. For instance, one custom we noticed evolving in two–way discussions was that as one person was talking, the other person would type the best elements of what they were saying, providing both capture and first–level filtering. One issue that will arise is handling conflicting edits and ideas about how a document should develop. It’s said that no great work of art was ever designed by committee, so it may be that a divide–and–conquer strategy becomes essential past some scale.

Small–group brainstorming. Brainstorming ideas works very well with two parties in different locations, e.g. via the collaborative editing + voice chat mode discussed previously. What is the upper limit to the number of people who can do this together at once? Some limits come from bandwidth and scheduling, but the more serious limitations are in filtering and figuring out how to subdivide the task so different subgroups can work productively on different parts.

This illustrates a simple multistage process: first brainstorm, then filter/cluster, then solve the identified subproblems, and then recombine. We could parallelize this process: massive numbers of people can brainstorm, then pass ideas on to dedicated “filterers”, who cluster and pick the best and pass those on. (This is very much like a simple parallel sort algorithm. See “Parallist” mode in Mode Matrix.)

Business meeting. Probably the most common kind of business meeting is a small team meeting, i.e. two to 12 people for a couple of hours. This happens all the time in business, government, larger NGOs, and academia, and having to travel to such meetings can be a real hassle. What would be required to let this happen remotely on a limited budget? How could having virtual tools make the meeting more effective?

A simple homebrew setup could be video via iChat AV or low–end Polycoms, audio via Skype or teleconference, and shared workspaces via collaborative editing or screen sharing (optionally projected on large screen). From our experience, the effective limit for number of people simultaneously looking at a 20" monitor is three or four. Expanding beyond that, one could have multiple machines at a site, or use a projector or larger screens so everyone can see what’s happening. Building highly functional, easy–to–use, economical setups of this sort could accelerate inter–site productivity, and help prepare for disasters, pandemics, and an expensive–travel world.

Keeping in touch with family. Expats, students, travelers, and immigrants will put up with tech hassles to keep in touch with loved ones. We have observed a number of immigrants keeping in touch with family back home via extensive use of commodity video chat software — ease of use and broad distribution is the main point, as long as sound and video is “good enough”.

Mode matrix

Here we suggest a partial set of useful modes. The point is to consider modes explicitly as objects of study and refinement, to develop best practices and tools for each mode, and to train in their effective use.


ModeDescription“Easy” O(1) exampleScaled–up O(N) example
BroadcastOne person does most or all talking, everybody else listens (teacher/professor giving lecture).classroomResearchChannel
Show and tellBroadcast, but with different people taking turns (broadcast–by–turns).Conference WebcastsMegaConference
DiscussionCohesive group working toward common goals (can disagree on a lot, as long as aligned on goals). Skype group chatHabitat jam?
DebateDistinct groups taking turns, with one representative speaking at a time.College debatesParliament/Congress
Town hallBroadcast or debate from pre–selected panel (optional), followed by Q&A where any audience member can ask a & students before examPeter Mansbridge Town Hall
CompetitionEach contestant competes in turn; best chosen by pre–selected experts or popular vote.Science fairX Prize
RepresentativesGroups each choose some representatives; all representatives meet, interact, and then return to their groupsStudent Council repsRepresentative democracy
AskAsk questions of a large group.Google Answers, FAQs“Wisdom Google”?
BreakoutLarge group splits into smaller groups. Each smaller group interacts. Groups then combine back into large group.Modular programming?
BipartiteLarge group splits into two half–groups, each of which in turn divides into multiple subgroups. Each subgroup meets in turn with all subgroups from the other half–group.Speed dating (or networking)??
Collaborative editingMany people edit a single document (or other information structure) while discussing it.SubEthaEdit–Skype combination?
FeedbackPublish proposed solution, get feedback, improve, iterate; alternatively, “active suggestion box.”RFCCitizen–driven iteratively designed city master plan
Jigsaw1) Specialists: Start with Breakout — each group focuses on separate aspect of problem.
2) Cross–discipline: Form new groups, each with one rep from each specialist group.
Classroom learning techniqueTransdisciplinary team formation?
SubscriptionMany groups working on aspect of problem, each of which publishes info–stream. Each individual chooses which info–streams to subscribe to.RSS?
BricksLarge meta–task with separable subtasks. Interaction is structured so that each contribution can be a “brick” in predefined format — any team works on its brick, but totality of bricks forms a cathedral.Anthology: “write a story around this title/theme.”Wikimedia(each brick easy to create, modifiable by many others)
Parallel competitionContest where everybody competes at once. Judging is by environment, automated process, or distributed ratings.Thousands of people running a marathon.Topcoder
Open SpaceSimple yet powerful bottom–up conference method (see Co–Intelligence (Owen, 1997). See OpenSpaceWorldWorldwide Open Space?
ParallistQuickly brainstorm in parallel way: break down huge topic into subsub ... subproblems, get ideas for solutions.Global Ideas Bank, WhyNot?Listible
Peer reviewEach group is assigned to give/receive feedback.Slashdot?Massively distributed contest judging?
Searchable Shared SpacePut your creations out into shared read–only space, for all to see.Intranet, PloneFlickr, Creative Commons, The Web as a whole.
Shared favoritesShared lists of favorites, which can be searched, aggregated, and filtered.Group bibliographyCiteULike,, LibraryThing
VoteAll vote on one or more preselected propositions.referendaDynamically distributed democracy
WishListSpontaneously suggest required tasks, mistakes, feedback, etc.ShouldExistGlobal Feature Request List
VRInteract through virtual world or simulation.Massively multiplayer online games?


Though we hope you see the value of learning and getting better at many different modes, a whole range of interesting questions exist. What value does each mode have? What does each teach? Where is each useful?

Parallel modes have to be sufficiently interlinked that activities can build together, yet sufficiently independent that few management problems exist. Coordination removes duplication of effort, and minimizes “overall constraint violation”. Since contributors’ skills are not interchangeable, an “architecture of interaction” which encourages productive division of labor helps maximize overall output (a principle familiar to economists for several centuries).

Modes also differ in other ways, such as:

  • Single–site vs multisite. (Many modes can be both, but require ingenuity and tool support for multisite use.)
  • Synchronous vs asynchronous.
  • Centralized vs distributed control/guidance. (Is one person directing the process? If not, participants can be more self–directed, but difficulties like loss of synchronization and conflicts may occur.)
  • Degree of tool/time requirements. (We’re focusing on cheap and easy tools as the likely building blocks for massive collaboration — in this case, it’s the time and coordination costs that are difficulties.)

A striking example of the power of a mode is Open Space Technology, which is essentially a simple set of rules for running a self–organizing conference. Harrison Owen (1997) has this to say about his development of Open Space:

My question was a simple one: Was it possible to combine the level of synergy and excitement present in a good coffee break with the substantive activity and results characteristic of a good meeting? ...

The line of inquiry I chose to follow took some interesting turns, but essentially it started with the notion that if I could identify certain basic mechanisms of meetings, or human gatherings, it might be possible to build them into an approach that would be so simple it could not fail and so elemental it might possess the natural power of a good coffee break.

To actually make use of all these modes, imagine a Tool and Mode Browser — as universal and easy as a Web Browser to use. It would have a growing set of tools and modes available for use, be able to set up hardware and software as necessary, be appropriately firewalled and robust to minimize security risks, and perhaps most importantly be linked to previous showhow and case studies on how to use itself effectively.

Breaking the ice

These are warm–ups to break the ice, get collaborations going, and get people using Modes effectively. In person, effective methods include:

  • Brainstorm ideas and solutions. (Optionally, group and evaluate them later.)
  • Polls or votes (as simple as thumbs up/sideways/down).
  • Round–the–room or “talking stick”: everybody gets a short time to give background, questions, or themes they care about.
  • Debate.
  • Talk to three random people in a group of strangers; each pair shares their point of view on the meeting’s topic. This is both an icebreaker and a random social connection generator.
  • Cross–group jigsaw: use the Jigsaw mode above with relatively quick changes between groups.

Putting a group of mutual strangers together, with no clues as to their background or status, is a good way to shake off old assumptions and level the playing field. Whether you’re a high–flying investment banker or a humble janitor, only performance should count, making voluntary citizen cooperation one of the places where democratic ideals are enacted in practice. One goal is to enable a transition from mere social process to a place where deep identities are shared and non–obvious criticism made.

For multisite collaboration, “breaking the ice” takes on an additional meaning: how do you get a productive collaboration started? How can the “frictionlessness of information transfer” be brought to collaboration formation? Clearly, the lower the cost to start a collaboration, the more chances it will happen — even just renting a room in physical space and convincing people to get to it is not trivial. Yet just having collaboration tools is the least of concerns; finding like–minded people to work with and coordinating productive working sessions is the tough part. Good multisite ice–breaker modes from the list above include broadcast, bricks, discussion, open space, and parallist.

Debate mode

Start with both sides posing questions. Have questions shown somewhere, for a bit of history. Also show a timer countdown for speakers, questions, and overall event.

Two general kinds of interaction are to give information and to influence. Typically debates are for influence, while information is secondary. But one could also ask each side to give the most balanced and solid summary of a particular issue, and judge sides based on their clarity, insight, and verifiability.

A typical trick is to have the opposing side explain your point of view until you are convinced that they understand it perfectly. Perhaps this could be part of a two–stage process for discussions between groups, where stage 1 is to understand, and stage 2 is to debate — or better yet, to find mutually–acceptable solutions.

Could this be scaled up to share views into peoples’ points of view more effectively? What if you could get a sense of what alternative points of view are, through visual mapping of similarities and minimal differences of each party’s point of view and background worldview?

What we’re often called on to do as academics is to begin papers and books with a literature survey, by presenting the state of a field with a fair and unbiased overview. It’s quite suggestive that Wikipedia’s “neutral point of view” rule also mandates presenting fair presentation of the state of thought and opinion on a topic — it is an important principle to have pros and cons laid out before moving forward. Old–style debating may be more fun, but not a source of the intellectual skills needed to scale up activities.

But if one does want to do a traditional debate, with two large groups, one heuristic is not to just have the few most articulate from each side be the spokespeople. Instead, involve all:

split large groups A and B into N teams each, {A_1, A_2, ... A_N} and similarly for B
for teamNum = 1 to N {
 pose Question(s)
 all teams think and internally discuss
 teams A_teamNum and B_teamNum debate, others observe
 short QA by other teams, maybe vote on how well each did?
 ding ding - next round!

... and end the debate with each side saying what they found interesting or what they agreed with from the other side. That way there’s some common ground built, and the event ends on a positive note (and is not just zero–sum).

Scaling Up Modes

A practical tool for scaling up modes is to understand modes well enough to create a “Mode–Mapper”. Given the kinds of things one wants to do and available resources and tools, the Mode–Mapper would suggest a relevant set or sequence of modes — along with past examples of the modes in operation, successful case studies from a mode–use–library, and so forth. As far as we know, there is not yet any effective advisory tool or library for scaling up high–performance interpersonal interaction, which is remarkable considering how much such interaction can achieve.

As more and more people use a mode, how can focus be maintained given the increasing number of conflicting points of view possible? Wikipedia and Open Space are two examples showing the ability to accommodate diverse points of view. We hypothesize that this is a necessary condition for scaling up voluntary modes.

There’s a contrasting principle as well, which suggests that one should design tools and modes to be operable with group sizes of up to half a dozen or a dozen — but interlinked. The larger groups get, the harder it is to convene and focus them, and the harder it is to have a really high–bandwidth development session with all members. And time and motivation are often limiting factors in getting projects off the ground — the more we can do in teams of a few colleagues, the more projects will move from “wouldn’t it be nice if they...” to implementation.

Accommodating diverse points of view is particularly important in dealing with big, seemingly intractable problems, where people may not agree on principles but may agree on solutions. Ways are needed of cooperating with people from all different political stripes, not just cozy communities sharing the same ideologies who can therefore get along — perhaps meta–strategies like Wikipedia’s “neutral point of view” principle, where people of radically differing opinions can nevertheless hope to agree on describing each other’s point of view.

Think about voting: as a computational process, it’s very simple, requiring only picking the option receiving approval from the most voters. Wikipedia shares some of this computational simplicity since each entry is relatively “separable”, i.e. can be improved with minimal reference to other entries. But Wikipedia also allows voices to be heard in a particular area, because the granularity is high enough — there is a division–of–expertise computational principle at work, where each person is more efficient and motivated at particular parts, and they can “approach” those parts easily.

This division of expertise and comparative advantage principle is fundamental in economics, as a justification for the benefits of trade. If you have 10,000 people whose energies are divided just so, and self–selectively, they’re actually working on 1,000 different things ... and if there is some incentive to work on the parts whose local solutions so far are relatively poor (analogous to the financial rewards for creating a new product niche), then this is a reasonable self–organized way to tackle many parts of an issue.

Consider for a moment scaling up modes and the problem–solving pipeline to mobilize and channel effort to solve “impossible” problems. Problems occur at different scales, and hence so do participation level requirements for solutions. Just as there are limits to what a single committed individual can accomplish on their own, there are also limits to what teams of three or 30 people can accomplish on their own. One person can launch and maintain a blog or FAQ, but it takes a diversified, motivated, well–trained team of thousands to launch a space shuttle — and some problems are far larger still.

With issues like peak oil, climate change, pandemics, and ending poverty, even the sophisticated appear stymied (though see Sachs [2005] and Brown [2006] for some ambitious and well–grounded plans on these perennial issues). Voluntary, scalable, bottom–up solutions seem to require individuals or small groups interacting in ways which are useful to them, but which also scale up and interlink into a larger effort. And the scale required may well be immense: dealing with the shift away from a hydrocarbon economy might well wind up being a five KWp problem (five kilo–Wikipedias, where one Wikipedia = 1Wp = amount of effort required to run Wikipedia well).

Could people have described a priori what Wikipedia would grow into? Nobody did. The tools and modes of today are the seeds for even better efforts of tomorrow.

We close with a conceptual tool of potential interest: the Wales–Behlendorf Scale for Collaboration, a logarithmic scale illustrating roughly what n people can accomplish with a concerted effort.


The Wales–Behlendorf Scale for Collaboration (alpha version)
Order of magnitude
(as power of 10)
0 = youmake your life more effective // write a book
1 = a small teamstartup venture // produce a play
2 = hundredsgoverning party in most democracies (tip of vast pyramid) // make a motion picture
3 = thousandsmajor Microsoft project // new particle accelerator // make Lord of the Rings movie
4 = tens of thousandsManhattan Project // Linux core contributors // major research university
5 = hundreds of thousandsOlympics // invading Iraq
6 = millionsWikipedia // rebuilding Iraq
7 = tens of millionsdeal with Peak Oil?
8 = hundreds of millionsdeal with climate change?
9 = billions = whole planetdeal with worst–case climate change?





The action gap: Why get involved?

People tend to put their best efforts into intellectual work that they feel will be rewarded. Empirically, some people are willing to put a great deal of work into open source programming projects. Why? Five classes of reward come to mind: reputation (for peers, potential employers and clients, and the public at large), consulting (the lead programmers have concretely demonstrated their expertise), learning (it’s been said that the best way to learn how to program is to read other people’s code and modify it), contributing to a cause, and fun.

Weber (2004) has identified some of the conditions under which open source projects are likely to work effectively, including:

  • Potential contributors can judge with relative ease the viability of the evolving product;
  • The agents have the information they need to make an informed bet that contributed efforts will actually generate a joint good, not simply be dissipated;
  • The agents are driven by motives beyond simple economic gain and have a “shadow of the future” for rewards (symbolic and otherwise) that is not extremely short; and,
  • The agents learn by doing and gain personally valuable knowledge in the process.

Can these forms of reward and conditions of workability can be translated into the domain of open source solutions from open source programming — and do they need to be? If someone contributes a great deal to an open source knowledge project, their identity is not necessarily known. It is hard to find a way to put the work you’ve contributed to a wiki on a CV, yet people still contribute, so employability and reputation are not necessary motivations. However, the need to feel that the project is viable and will generate a “joint good” are probably important in the social problem solving sphere.

Gaining reputation is another incentive — being a part of making something great, by yourself or with a team. Though reputation gets harder to assess and distribute as projects get larger, many open source projects have designated many pieces of the pie for which individuals can feel and claim credit. When your team’s work is exposed to the world with your name in the credits, you get motivated. When it’s part of a larger public good or context, it has meaning. Motivating and meaning lead to exceeding your own expectations.

Let’s self–referentially talk about writing this paper as an example. We don’t have any illusions that it will directly lead to a global collaborative infrastructure. So why did we bother? Partly to go to an interesting conference, partly for academic brownie points — but also because the ideas, principles, tools, and ways of thinking that we came up with are useful to us personally. And because the process of coming up with them was itself fun — a sort of extended conversation about a kind of activity that is deeply meaningful to both of us.

We also have in mind the possibility of scaling up this paper itself into an open source cookbook for collaborative endeavors, that would allow anyone to easily set up collaborative structures appropriate for their knowledge sharing and generation needs. Imagine a book with distilled case studies, tools, and modes. Of course, it would itself be written collaboratively using the tools it talks about, in an iteratively self-referential mode starting from seed material and keen contributors. These ideas are a stretch, but not beyond what we might hope to achieve, given time and a few good people.

People are motivated when contributing to a project which is important, which is larger than themselves, and which they feel needs their contributions to make a difference. They are especially motivated when the thing which is larger than oneself is a threat which no single individual can combat on their own — climate change, a flu pandemic, or peak oil, for example. Feeling that one is doing something rather than nothing about a daunting problem is a big psychological boost, and simply engaging in dialogue with other concerned individuals gives participants the feeling that they are not alone.

Substitute fun–and–useful for fun–but–useless. Make opportunities visible. Cut through the noise. Tap spare moments. And enable participation of informed passion.

People will not, however, work on a project just because they think it’s a good idea, or because they are concerned about it. In practice, in a busy world, doing things because you know you should only works some of the time. There is also enough fear and pain in the world to induce paralysis in the face of the seemingly insignificant contributions one can make. Yet there are ways of motivating people other than fear — it is the intangibles like interest in learning, commitment, and fun in doing which seem to motivate the majority of people.

Substitute fun–and–useful for fun–but–useless. Make opportunities visible. Cut through the noise. Tap spare moments. And enable participation of informed passion.

Fun: Getting and keeping people involved

Fun is a very interesting (and elusive!) form of motivation. It’s clear when it’s present, and it’s also clear when it’s not. Koster (2005) explains the rush we feel when we’re having fun mastering something new:

Fun is all about our brains feeling good — the release of endorphins into our system. The various cocktails of chemicals released in different way are basically all the same. Science has shown that the pleasurable chills that we get down the spine after exceptionally powerful music or a really great book are caused by the same sorts of chemicals we get when we have cocaine, an orgasm, or chocolate. Basically, our brains are on drugs pretty much all of the time. One of the subtlest releases of chemicals is at that moment of triumph when we learn something or master a task. This almost always causes us to break out into a smile. After all, it is important to the survival of the species that we learn — therefore our bodies reward us for it with moments of pleasure. There are many ways we find fun in games, and I will talk about the others. But this is the most important. Fun from games arises out of mastery. It arises out of comprehension. It is the act of solving puzzles that makes games fun. In other words, with games, learning is the drug. [1]

You need lots of time to have fun. If you’re always working, you’ll have no energy left over and no time to think about non–necessary issues. You also need connections: to tools, to information, to Mode–like ways of interacting, and to others willing to engage in “serious play”.

What are some things that are fun? Doing things you’ve never done before is fun, blowing soap bubbles is fun, pointing laser pointers into the sky is fun, looking at pond water under a microscope is fun, punning is fun, looking out from the top of a mountain is fun, making funny noises with kids is fun, waterslides are fun.

  • Lots of things are fun, and not all of them are fun just because we’re learning things. A good starting point is to think about what makes particular things fun:.

    • The thing that makes comic strips fun: small commitment, big payoff;
    • The thing that makes video games fun: lots of action, structured challenges where you don’t get stuck for too long — hard but not too hard;
    • The thing that makes reading novels fun: immersive experience, imagination regularly engaged, curiosity;
    • The thing that makes talking about your favorite author fun: providing an outlet for self–expression about something that’s really important to you;
    • The thing that makes hackysack fun: quick, physical, motions you don’t normally do, a bit (but not too) silly, immediate feedback and improvement — ball drops or not!
    • The thing that makes programming fun: make a change — run it — see what happens, doing something new, puzzle solving, social collaboration, practical skills while enjoying;
    • The thing that makes workshopping a play fun: write a play, run it after a day, see what flows and what doesn’t — see the guy in the back row laughing hard — direct experience due to physicality (different from reading on page) — need other people to do it, automatically social, access to resources you need a group for with no other way of doing it (like team sports);
    • The thing that makes parties fun: random conversations about interesting things, opportunity to cast off inhibitions, chance to meet your friends’ social networks, games, food;
    • The thing that makes school debates fun: rhetorical challenge, thinking on your feet, competition, pleasure of watching skilled word/idea play, demonstrating your skill and pushing yourself, insight into relevant issues;
    • The thing that makes group hiking fun: interact with people over extended time, have conversations which wouldn’t happen in the absence of the relaxation and scenery (you talk differently if know you’re with someone for five hours), see beautiful scenery, use your body;
    • The thing that makes Burning Man fun: an absolute blast, structured weirdness, artistic uses of technology, harsh environment, lack of boundaries;
    • The thing that makes keeping a FAQ fun: social interaction, feeling that you’re making a contribution, excuse to officially and with a clear conscience indulge your curiosity about something you really like and take it as far as you can go, to make up categories of things that nobody’s ever thought to investigate, posing yourself questions that you’d like the answers to and going out and finding the answers, nice feeling of being useful, a chance to meet the coolest people in your community of fellow enthusiasts (legitimizes the fun and pays back incredible dividends in enriching your experience of what you really love); and,
    • The thing that makes computer and art demos fun: creativity with minimal constraints, something new under the sun, because you could!

    Consider an environment for open source idea generation, e.g. many hobbyist, volunteer, and enthusiast groups that meet to share successes, knowledge, and projects. The conversation is along the lines of “I thought this ... I tried that ... this other thing didn’t work too well but it could be done that way next time ... .”

    Some examples of fun open collaboration: Wikipedia, LibraryThing, Listible. Having a videoconference with fun people from another country or culture. Cooperatively winning a multiplayer online game. Participating in an Open Space conference with a keen crowd.

    Why not a discipline of “idea development”?

    We talk of “software development” — why not a discipline of “idea development”? It’s fun to add new software features — you add the code, and as long as there’s enough RAM and CPU, creeping featurism is fun. Can we therefore approach problems with the standpoint not of “what is the right solution?” but from the standpoint of “creating new features?” By focusing on being as adaptive as possible, on understanding a problem space as well as possible, the focus shifts to something like Wikipedia’s “neutral point of view” rule: understand all the ways of looking at a problem as well as possible, and provide structures for moving forward in as many ways as you can.

    Part of the fun is simply generating new ideas. Thinking along lines people have never thought about before is a lot more fun than talking about old ideas and rehashing old debates — there’s the tantalizing possibility of sidestepping stale arguments and moving forward in new ways, which for “productive personalities” is a lot more fun than arguing your point of view. If you’re genuinely interested in collaborative problem–solving, you’ll probably seek environments where you can air your view and get people to interact with it constructively. This in turn produces a feeling of ratcheting forward the overall solution set in a particular problem space (not just spinning in circles with no forward movement happening).

    Programming, as with other real–world engineering, is disciplined by reality: working code equals rough consensus. If you go out and change your lawn into a vegetable garden successfully, it points the way for other people — and showing a working model of what you mean is a potent argument, better than words.

    Imagine a massively fun, massively educational, massively multiplayer online “serious game”, where doing well requires intellectual, social, and artistic collaboration within distributed high–performance teams. Imagine worldwide contests built around massive collaboration, where teams of arbitrary size compete to solve a challenge in a pressure cooker time frame. (Write a book or epic poem, code a video game or simulation, record a music album around a given theme, develop a practical municipal budget, draw a massive mural, or document a day in the life of a city ... in a weekend.)

    We’ve seen this work very effectively with small teams, and believe it could work well with large teams with the right enabling environment. We can’t think of a more practical yet fun testbed for trying out creative modes of massively parallel human problem–solving. The challenge is to make a problem–solving infrastructure so much fun that it becomes a natural, widely accepted custom — a combination of widely available software, open science, and open content that leads to open participation in building our common future.

    We’ll leave you with a few challenges:

    • What would it take to make a civic discussion as interesting as the best party you’ve ever been to?
    • When did you feel most involved in changing the world around you? How could those conditions be created more frequently?
    • What online collaboration site do you find most enjoyable? What makes it so much fun? Which of its features are generalizable to other contexts?
    • What are you most missing in your personal or professional life when it comes to productive collaborative opportunities: interest from others, time, thinking of topics, a way to channel your efforts into something worthwhile ...?
    • Whose job is it to deal with issues like climate change, species loss, pollution, peak oil, and disaster planning? Whose job was it 200 years ago? Whose job will it be 200 years from now?
    • How can open source collaborations provide an outlet for the deepest parts of ourselves that would otherwise remain unexpressed?
    • Can fun open collaboration be bootstrapped to create resources like websites, software, and books about how to effectively do fun open collaboration?




    Scenario — Building a green house

    How can the hard work of dealing with civic issues be shared equitably? Assuming that people act “atomistically” blocks democracy — if you set the ante to participate high in time and money, then only a few interested parties can participate.

    Let’s make the use of tools and modes very concrete by outlining a relatively straightforward open source social project. Both of us are interested in the question of how to get an off–the–grid house built, and it’s not hard to find other energy conservation enthusiasts in most cities. At present, building a house which does not need to be plugged into city utilities is not a turnkey affair — in fact, it may not be possible to build such a house in many cities, given the way current by–laws and housing codes are written.

    So, the first task an interested group might tackle could be to generate and then rank a list of all the possible obstacles to building an off–the–grid house within city limits, including applicable by–laws and red tape — using the Parallist or related mode, via a collaborative list–building resource like Listible (at That’s probably easier for a group of people to generate from their individual experiences than for a single person. People like to share their frustrations, so there’s an easy motivation for why people would contribute to such a list.

    Many lists spring to mind, and more could be added as they were thought of: a list of contractors in the city who could actually do the work, a list of local architects with the experience to design green homes, credit unions that would finance the construction, a list of desirable features in a neighborhood (walkable, on a bus route), and a list of possible home types to be ranked for their suitability to the climate. A very simple way to start, but as these lists start to get populated (and ranked), already you could assemble some very useful information. You would know who could design a house for you, where to hire a contractor to build it, the red tape you’d have to allow for, and how to get it financed. You’d also have, right away, some suggestions for the kind of home that would be appropriate. If that’s all the information you were looking for, you could stop right there.

    But let’s say you were planning a housing complex with a few other people, and you were looking for a few places you could site it — infill locations in the city. You could use a collaborative mapping program which allows a variety of people to point out locations on a map. Each location could be tagged, and have text indicating the advantages or disadvantages of the site.

    Let’s say you wanted to quickly assemble a list of resources on things that you might want to learn about building independently heated houses in a cold climate. In fact, you might want not just a list, but a comprehensive bibliography of books and Web sites. For that, you could employ one of the social bookmarking services like CiteULike (at, or use a blog or Wiki, or use a more targeted solution like RefWorks (at which is designed to operate as a collaborative annotated bibliography. One mode of collaboration, many possible implementations.

    Note that each of these processes can happen in parallel, which allows for scalability and efficiency. They provide access to information that people would have a hard time quickly assembling as individuals. There is no requirement at this stage to invent anything, or in many cases research anything. People can contribute what they already know, and because the format is clear and easy to manage, the payoff in satisfaction of contributing something useful is immediate.

    The devil is, of course, in the details. However there are engineers, just as there are programmers, who are willing to open source their designs (e.g. the hobbyist audiophile community’s free amplifier designs at RED Free Circuits Design at So maybe in your requests for information, you find an existing open source design for a solar heated house appropriate for your climate. In fact, we found one for Ottawa [2] as we were researching this article, at the site of a mutual acquaintance. What we found particularly interesting about this was that the author, David Delaney, an engineer who had worked out the efficiencies of the design in great detail, had himself based his (passive) design [3] on an earlier active solar heating design known as the Cliff House. A key benefit of open source is reuse — Delaney’s designs would be useful anywhere it gets cold, not just in Ottawa. “Think locally, propagate globally.”

    People working in small groups can accomplish very useful things at a local level. If they are able to build on each others’ efforts rather than duplicate them, they can be enormously more effective (Bornstein, 2004).

    Other modes can be useful for sharing locally won wisdom. Broadcasts of various kinds (blogs, vlogs, podcasts) allow for easy and free dissemination of how–to’s, and requests for comments and feedback. Moderated video discussions between groups of people in different cities with shared concerns can be used to rapidly exchange best practices and become aware of emerging ideas. Competitions can elicit the best ideas from people. On a small scale (using our green house example), this can look like Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation’s Healthy House Competition, a contest which chose from the best of a variety of designs for healthy, off–the–grid houses, and then built the winning entry.

    Imagine platforms for starting open source projects to tackle problems — big and small.

    Given indexing, organization, and metadata for projects, it should be possible to incorporate solutions or parts of solutions that others have already created, or conversely to contribute your solution as a building block to scale up a larger effort. A green house project could contain a project where people were looking at the best ways of insulating houses. A green community project could contain pointers to the green house project. A national policy initiative to encourage efficient housing could point to several off–the–grid house projects.

    Hopefully this is suggestive of the way different technologies and modes when brought together, can accelerate the process of solving a particular problem — one that an individual, acting alone, might find enormously difficult to complete (or never finish at all).

    Imagine platforms for starting open source projects to tackle problems — big and small. You might go into a “Green SourceForge” (a site with information and collaborative tools freely available for any to start an open source project), and, clicking on New Project, invite people to collaborate on:

    • Starting a wind coop.
    • How to run a common house for a neighborhood.
    • How to successfully finance, build, and manage a co–housing neighborhood.
    • How to effectively communicate with your neighborhood, or successfully run a community association.
    • How to retrofit your house to be more energy efficient.
    • How to use really simple cheap solutions like awnings and windows that open to get the “low hanging fruit” for energy efficiency.
    • Community babysitting/child–minding/child friend–making/study groups.
    • How to start and operate local entertainment options.
    • Building a guide to shopping locally for a particular municipality.
    • Dealing with more complex community–level issues, where no single person can donate enough time and energy to solve it all (e.g. smart development; how could you run a zero–waste city; what are the problems with taking an entire city off–the–grid; how could you operate, in detail, a just–in–time system for picking up and dropping off people; how can existing infrastructure that runs on oil be converted to run on biofuels; generating a comprehensive product–substitutes database for petroleum byproducts).

    Let’s consider just the last idea in more detail: No one has a firm figure for how many products contain significant amounts of petroleum, but estimates range in the thousands. Af oil prices rise, the price of all of those products rise — from eyeglasses, to asphalt, to catheters. In some cases, non-petroleum–based substitutes are readily available. In some cases, they are available but relatively unknown. In some cases, they are not known to exist. Building a comprehensive product–substitutes database for objects containing petroleum would be an apolitical, large–scale initiative which would be of benefit to all. Lots of people with lots of different specializations could contribute to such a database, and progress would be easy to demonstrate. It could scale massively, in a naturally parallel way. It has a chance at the same kind of mass appeal as the genome project. And where there are holes (no known substitutes), it could expose those areas for further research.

    We note that expensive transportation implies increasing pressure to collaborate remotely. And there are other reasons to develop the infrastructure for remote collaboration: quarantines and restricted transport from a pandemic, rapid reaction to massive disasters (Jones and Mitnick, 2006), reducing hydrocarbon use. When a massive system crash happens, the tools had better be there to let the forces of reaction and rebuilding be as effective as possible.

    Imagine being able to join an Open Creative Commons around issues you care about — a common organized place facilitating effective idea sharing and solutions. Why not?

    All of these open collaborative projects can originate out of local suggestions and issues that many citizens experience in their daily lives — and can be fun to be part of while providing value to participants. Imagine being able to join an Open Creative Commons around issues you care about — a common organized place facilitating effective idea sharing and solutions. Why not?

    The problem–solving pipeline

    Suppose you want to solve a local problem or take action on a global problem, but don’t have inspiring examples to follow and don’t have a roadmap of how to get there. How do you collaboratively produce that road map? There’s a big difference between thinking that a task should be done, and knowing how to accomplish it. In some cases, no one knows exactly how to get there, so building a solution means being inventive in filling in the blanks.

    Often a vague idea of what the goal is (reduce carbon emissions, end hunger) needs to be defined, decomposed, refined, and translated into actionable items. Until the problem has been clearly identified, it’s hard to break it up into sub–problems that could be tackled on their own. Until those sub–problems have been identified, it’s hard to get enough focus to think of solutions. Until the solutions exist, it is impossible to develop concrete actions. Until the details on carrying out a particular solution exist, it is difficult to mobilize action around that solution. This dictates a problem solving pipeline.

    The first step is carefully defining the problem — this would typically be the role of an individual or small group who initiates the project. They must have a vision. It must be inspiring enough that others will want to jump on board, and concrete and specific enough that it seems possible to make measurable progress. People need to know what the vision is before aligning themselves with it. The vision can be modified later once more people get on board, but there has to be a seed — it has to start somewhere.

    Once a large–scale problem has been defined and understood, it is necessary to decompose it. This subproblem generation process can efficiently happen in parallel, with many people suggesting possible decompositions which can then be molded into a common framework. The advantage of having large numbers of people contribute to decomposition is not only speed, but the conferring of buy–in and legitimacy to the process.

    This molding can be done ad hoc, or by simply taking on the most popular subproblems. Or it can be systematized through an affinity diagram: put everyone’s ideas on sticky notes, and group stickies that seem to go together, that have some affinity. For each of those clusters, write a sticky that summarizes what that cluster seems to be about. Iterate, until you have the number of categories you want.

    In the case of the Peak Oil Forum, through the use of ten groups working in tandem, we were able to decompose the possible impacts of peak oil on Ottawa–Gatineau in the course of a morning. That decomposition process happened face–to–face, but it could just as easily have been automated using a parallist. Listible, for instance, could allow for very quick brainstorming of a set of possible decompositions. Since Listible also allows people to rank the items, it would be an easy matter to simply take the top ten items. Rough but ready, and fast, with preference given to subproblems whose solutions are, themselves, easily parallelizable.

    Once subproblems are identified, the solution generation process can also happen in parallel, with reputation systems and human filtering being used to focus on particularly good ones. Many subproblems can’t be solved quickly (e.g. design a battery with 5x the energy storage capacity at a reasonable cost). In those cases, rough ideas can often be generated, or workarounds may be possible (focus on conservation, use battery arrays, augment batteries with small generators).

    When rough ideas for solutions have been generated, then the various collaboration modes really start to shine. Interest groups can be formed. Small groups of people can coordinate for meetings, either in person or through the many modes we discussed earlier. Solutions can be refined or extended, first with the aid of open source idea generation software, later with shared workspaces or wikis. Detailed plans can be drawn up to attract comment, modification, and attention.

    Once a detailed solution has been arrived at, it’s time for resource identification. Who are the people who would need to be approached? Who has the skills and the time to tackle each piece? Is this a job for a government, people lobbying government, an NGO, a few concerned individuals or a research lab? Is one of those groups already involved? Who are the people who could actually get the job done? Who will make the approach?

    The next stage is doing: you have to not only write the program, but run the program. You need debugging and interpreter facilities as well. For example, an “action blog” can be a simple but effective structure to share experiences and concrete examples of implementation for people who are taking action. People who are implementing a diet or a new personal organization system often blog their actions: to help themselves stick to their resolve (by making themselves publicly accountable), to get helpful feedback, and to inform others of the roadblocks they encountered. Some startups and collaborative ventures do the same thing. Such blogs can inspire others, and remove a lot of frustration for those following in the footsteps of the original venturers.

    Action blogs (and more sophisticated case study tools) allow for feedback, for show–how, for a place to store results, and for a place to get suggestions for more efficient methods. They also, by their very existence, show that concrete action is being taken. When you’d like to know how to do something, it’s often far more effective to learn from someone’s experience of actually doing it than knowing how it is supposed to work in theory. This differentiates action blogs and experiential case studies from how–to manuals in which much of the messiness is abstracted away. It is in the messiness that people have many problems.

    Imagine a search engine for solutions, which you could browse through to find answers that work.

    As solutions, case studies, tools, and modes themselves become recognized as key information objects to share, we need better ways to search, browse, filter, judge, and combine them — just as we do with code modules and programming functions [4]. Imagine a search engine for solutions, which you could browse through to find answers that work. With a networked representation of problems and solutions, one could search for solutions that are related, more general, or more specific: for example, from “How do I grow a garden in my suburban back yard?” to “How do I buy green products?”, “Who in my city is thinking about community agriculture?”, or “What are the pros and cons of pesticide–free gardening?”

    The tools to enable each one of these steps already exist, or can be adapted. All that remains is to get serious about implementation.

    Massive collaboration: The Meta–Manhattan Project

    The gap between significant problems in the world and our ability and commitment to solve them is significant. On the other hand, human beings relish challenges, and given the commitment, the opportunity, and the resources, have shown themselves very capable of innovating. At the time of writing in 2006, U.S. Congressman Roscoe Bartlett [5], California Institute of Technology professor of physics and vice–provost David Goodstein [6], John Amidon [7], and others have been calling for a “Manhattan–style project” to deal with the very significant problems presented by the peaking of oil extraction rates (and subsequent expected drastic oil price rises). Considering that the Manhattan project itself employed a peak of not much more than 100,000 workers [8] and far fewer researchers, this is probably an underestimate — a 4 vs. a 6 or 7 on the Wales–Behlendorf Scale.

    We found ourselves speculating on what would be required. Suppose a lot of scientists became concerned about a particular problem [9], and wanted to work together at a rate faster than peer–reviewed journals allow — to create a hothouse atmosphere where not just scientists but a variety of disciplines could interact in an accelerated way without having to gather in person. What could be accomplished simply by buying a high–end polycom unit and interactive whiteboard for every department in every research university worldwide? There would also be a role for non–specialists, not least in the ethical and practical side of ideas. The Wikipedia is an existing example of a high–quality source of knowledge that can be contributed to by scientists and citizens alike. What would be required for citizens and scientists to collaborate on tougher challenges?

    The problem with a Manhattan–style project is that you need an Oppenheimer to administrate it, and there simply aren’t that many Oppenheimers kicking around. A project to deal seriously with peak oil or climate change, as a many–Manhattan problem, would require so many more people to engage that it would have to be largely self–organizing. The multi–modal package we’ve discussed earlier could play a key part in enabling this kind of initiative.

    Many think tanks (in the best, non–partisan sense of the term) exist worldwide, as case studies. But their best aspects have to be married to the many open collaboration ventures that have become widespread over the last decade — the cost alone of traditional think tanks is not scalable without a multibillion dollar investment. If you had a billion dollars to put toward problem X, where would it do the most good? How about a thousand dollars — and a thousand part–time collaborators? How do you build a massive effort from the ground up, and execute on the problem at hand without dissipating resources?

    How could a “Massive Collaboration Meta–Institute” work? It could start by focusing on making collaboration rewarding in small groups, with minimal resources and organized support. In analogy to Google’s strategy of building massive clusters out of cheap components, it could then link “cheap and fast” small group efforts into larger projects (and so on up through several levels). At the largest scales, it would build practical experience in cooperating when our interests and values may appear to differ.

    It would relentlessly improve its own management by focusing on results and not sinecures: how to invest resources, manage processes, and choose people to get useful and productive output. Given the plethora of tools and collaborative opportunities that already exist, it might have a relatively short–term focus for projects (going from idea to deployable tools in at most three years) while maintaining long–term goals.

    It would collaborate as widely as possible, and creatively fund part–timers, developing world contributions, and non–profits. It might provide low–cost access, tools, and advice for others engaging in massive collaboration, as an “action research consultancy”. In short, it would be a place where the many great open source tools and open access platforms we already have would feel right at home.

    We’re humble about the limits of our knowledge, and put these ideas forth as starting points to be refined. But think about how many tasks the globe desperately needs Manhattan projects for at the moment. The original Manhattan Project was, of course, ultimately about building a destructive device of awesome power. It’s up to us to create larger–scale efforts for more humane purposes. End of article


    About the authors

    After his Ph.D. at Carleton University and postdoctoral research at the University of Fribourg and the National Research Council of Canada, Hassan Masum is now participating in numerous projects with government, private sector, and non –profit partners.

    Mark Tovey is completing his Ph.D. in Cognitive Science at Carleton University. He is interested in the ways in which we can tame cognitively challenging problems with appropriate technological aids.



    We’d like to acknowledge ideas from Martin Brooks, Ranpal Dosanjh, Craig Eby, Derek Lomas, Dave Morgan, John Spence, and the team at WorldChanging. We’ve also been both inspired and educated by the thousands of people we’ve met and read about who are doing their bit to change the world for the better — may this paper contribute in a small way to understanding how to amplify their efforts.



    1. Koster, 2005, p. 40.

    2. David Delaney, 2004. “An entirely passive 100% solar-heated bungalow,” at, accessed 14 July 2006.

    3., accessed 14 July 2006.

    4. See Krugle at; Koders at; and, CPAN at, accessed 14 July 2006.

    5. See, accessed 14 July 2006.

    6. See, accessed 14 July 2006.

    7. See, accessed 14 July 2006.

    8. For example, see, accessed 14 July 2006.

    9. See the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change for examples of large–scale scientific collaborations tackling key challenges.



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    Editorial history

    Paper received 28 May 2006; accepted 18 June 2006.

    Contents Index

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    This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 License.

    Given enough minds...: Bridging the ingenuity gap by Hassan Masum and Mark Tovey
    First Monday, volume 11, number 7 (July 2006),

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